When Beto O’Rourke, then a Democrat from El Paso, announced in the spring of 2017 that he would run against Senator Ted Cruz in mid-term next year, was taken care of like a solar curiosity. National Democrats, wary of being sucked into a long-term resource-intensive project, have focused elsewhere. Texas Republicans, confident of their seemingly impenetrable position in the state, viewed it as a “suicide mission.” Those low expectations were a blessing: spared from a disputed primary and free to spin the state at will, he nearly landed one of the biggest political upheavals of a generation. He raised large sums of money, shattered turnout patterns, and helped rebuild a party that had been neglected for years. And it wasn’t just O’Rourke: Other Democrats, who faced similarly dark horse challenges in contests from the county judge to Congress, broke through. For the first time in centuries, the Democrats in Texas appeared to be ascending.
The following years did not go as well for either O’Rourke or his state party. In the wake of the midterm, after serious talk of regaining control of the state House of Representatives, Texas Democrats overturned only one seat – and lost another – in 2020, as President Donald Trump easily won the state. O’Rourke, for his part, has decided to run for president rather than challenge another Texas senator, John Cornyn. He retired even before the first primary votes were cast.
But now, O’Rourke is back again and hopes 2022 will look a lot more like 2018 than last year’s election. In a video released Monday, O’Rourke launched his campaign for governor against the Republican government for two terms. Greg Abbott.
I am running for governor.
Together, we can overcome the small, divisive politics we see in Texas today and return to the big and bold vision that once defined Texas. A Texas big enough for all of us.
– Beto O’Rourke (@BetoORourke) November 15, 2021
Abbott is vulnerable to a challenge, at least in theory, over everything from her handling of the pandemic to blackouts to the law she recently signed banning abortions before many women know they are pregnant. Rather than managing the state through the crises of recent years, he preferred to invent new ones while perform a Trump role for the benefit of the conservative TV audience. A government that can’t even keep the lights on in the winter is considering spend tens of millions of dollars to build their own border wall. After a racist massacre at an El Paso Walmart, Abbott said “mistakes were made” in the language his campaign sometimes uses to talk about immigration; two years later, still use the same talking points like the gunslinger. Abbott has failed massively in ways that cost his constituents their lives. But in crude political terms, well, he also has $ 55 million in campaign funds and the national political wind behind him.
Barring a major shift in national attitudes, the 2022 elections are shaping up to be very and very bad for the Democrats. And in Texas, the usual problem of midterm elections in a Republican-leaning state with an unpopular president and an ongoing attempt to selectively restrict access to voting will be compounded by the launch of a new federal state and district map, aimed at restore recent Democratic Conquests and consolidation of Republican control for the decade to come. And O’Rourke’s political identity has also evolved, from energetic live-stream El Paso outsider to a more conventional progressive Democrat. (He even got a job in Austin.) His presidential campaign produced no delegates, but it did produce moments when O’Rourke – turned into a gun control activist in the aftermath of the El Paso attack – promised, “Heck yeah, we’re I’ll take your AR-15. “
On Monday, as O’Rourke was announcing his next move, Abbott was in Rio Grande City, where state representative Ryan Guillen, a 10-term Democrat, announced he joined the majority party. Guillen was the most conservative Democrat in the House, but that’s hardly a consolation: it’s the latest indication that South Texas may be moving away from the strongly Democratic stronghold it has been for a century.
Racing against Abbott in 2022 will make running against Cruz, a notoriously obnoxious senator coming out of his failed presidential campaign, seem easy. But O’Rourke, whatever the strategic wisdom of his recent political decisions, has shown his willingness to get to work for his party and its causes. While his name wasn’t on the ballot in 2020, he threw himself into the task of registering and declaring voters in his state. It was a real political infrastructure he was building – the Democrats had a lot of problems in Texas that year, but voter turnout wasn’t quite one of them – and he was equally comfortable using it for non-partisan uses. When the state power grid failed in February, a predictable crisis rooted in the history of state government deregulation, Cruz fled to Cancun; O’Rourke set up telephone banks for Texans to check on the elderly and make sure they were okay.
In an environment like this, Democrats can’t really afford to let Abbott, with everything he’s done and undone in office, be challenged. (What would be the purpose of a political movement to do this?) They couldn’t, in other words, afford another Lupe Valdez, the ill-fated and under-funded Dallas County Sheriff who entered the race late and was crushed by Abbott four years ago. They needed a prominent candidate at the top of the list, someone who was visible, serious and relentless and who could raise tons of money – someone everyone knows. Beto is not Matthew McConaughey, perhaps. But the one situation that could be more difficult than O’Rourke is now is the situation the Texas Democrats would have found themselves in without him.