With Beto, Texas Democrats will party like in 2018
Governor Beto O’Rourke’s race announcement video takes us back to 2018, a year filled with claims by the former congressman that his US Senate opponent Ted Cruz was ‘divisive’ , and what we needed were unifying principles that he proposed as an alternative.
Can we, please, start Beto’s year as governor by admitting that virtually all political ideas are divisive, and that is how it should be? Assuming the primary success of O’Rourke and Governor Greg Abbott, the incumbent will run on achievements that 4-5 million Texans are likely to vote for, and a similar number of millions will likely vote against.
Texas Democrats are obviously invested in getting O’Rourke’s number higher. So what is the probability?
There is every reason to believe that O’Rourke will lead a campaign similar to his Senate candidacy, where he finished 2 1/2 percentage points behind Cruz, a close and revealing race for the GOP. And why not him? This campaign energized Texas Democrats to the threshold of their closest hope to a statewide office in nearly a quarter of a century.
Cruz had won his first victory in 2012 against Paul Sadler up to 16 points. It seemed obvious that O’Rourke’s arrival would be any closer, but few expected Democratic turnout to increase by nearly a million votes.
O’Rourke will have to repeat that feat, as Abbott’s two wins were around a million votes, against Wendy Davis in 2014 and Lupe Valdez in 2018. Turnout increased in 2018, fueled by the offer from O’Rourke against Cruz, Abbott’s margin of victory was therefore reduced from 20% to 13%. But from the starting blocks it’s a tough climb for Beto, who has remained a rock star for Texas Democrats still dreaming of what could have been.
Abbott, for his part, spends his days doing things designed to strengthen his electoral base while suppressing the advance of two main opponents who pose greater obstacles than the usual token opposition. But with less than four months to go to the March 1 primary, polls still show it with a dominant lead over former State Senator Don Huffines and former Florida Rep. Allen West.
Abbott’s expected primary victory, added to the anticipation of a race against O’Rourke, has already resulted in two head-to-head polls this month, the first showing Abbott ahead of a point, the second of 9. On paper, a prediction falls somewhere in between.
But, as they say in sporting events, elections are not done on paper. They have life and breath, unfolding over months of ebb and flow, while the countryside has good days and bad days. For O’Rourke to win, he will need to do more than attract all voters to his 2018 campaign, and more; he will actually have to advocate for Abbott’s sacking.
A lesser candidate would have no chance of success. Claims that Texas is turning purple (that is, from red to blue) have been false 100% of the time for a generation. Even last year’s election of Biden, with Trump’s victory narrower than in 2016, has not resulted in an increase in Texas’ Democratic footprint.
But O’Rourke changes everything. A race that is impossible to win becomes, if not winnable, surely more competitive than it would have been otherwise. The math for Abbott is whether he improves his chances with the right pivot he deploys for the primary season, or a wider call designed for November.
Whatever strategy he chooses, the race also depends on the difference between Beto 2018 and Beto 2022. Can he excite the Democrats like he did against Cruz? There is no reason to believe that he cannot. But there is an essential difference. As he sets out to lead Texas, he inspires another group of voters: Republicans, who can be expected to show up in sizable numbers to stop him.
That biting finish against Cruz is the stuff of legend on both sides. GOP voters still can’t believe O’Rourke did right, and they will be mightily inspired to prevent a repeat of that tense night. Republicans could be helped by a midterm election which is expected to reflect significant dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden, who will be wrapped around O’Rourke’s neck in countless Abbott campaign announcements next year .
But Beto is his own phenomenon, and with a year of campaign developments on the horizon, only one prediction seems certain: a race for governor which, for the first time in nearly 30 years, is not won in advance. .
Mark Davis is a radio host and frequent contributor to the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show airs 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays on KSKY-AM (660). E-mail: [email protected]
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