How Beto O’Rourke might win in red-state Texas

by Jennifer Rubin

Beto O’Rourke declared his candidacy for Texas governor on Monday with a message aiming at a wide segment of voters. “I’m running to serve the people of Texas, and I want to make sure that we have a governor that serves everyone, helps to bring this state together to do the really big things before us and get past the small, divisive politics and policies of Greg Abbott,” the former Democratic congressman said, referring to the current governor.

O’Rourke framed potentially divisive issues as a failure of government to trust voters, a rather conservative viewpoint. Regarding Abbott, the Republican incumbent, he declared: “He doesn’t trust women to make their health-care decisions; doesn’t trust police chiefs when they tell him not to sign the permit-less carry bill into law; he doesn’t trust voters so he changes the rules of our elections; and he doesn’t trust local communities.”

He spent the most time focusing on Abbott’s failure to keep the power grid running, praising the heroic and neighborly actions of ordinary Texans. “When the electricity grid failed and those in power failed all of us, it was the people of Texas who were willing to put their differences behind them and get to work doing the job at hand, which meant helping our fellow Texans get through that crisis,” O’Rourke said. “We did this out of a sense of duty and responsibility to one another. Now imagine if the governor of Texas felt that same way.”

While Abbott’s favorability ratings have plunged during the covid-19 pandemic and in the wake of his antiabortion bill, Texas remains a tough nut for Democrats to crack, particularly during midterm elections, when Democratic turnout historically slumps. O’Rourke may also have to contend with a celebrity candidate — actor Matthew McConaughey.

O’Rourke’s presidential campaign in 2020 was textbook example of how not to run, even in a Democratic primary. He veered far left, calling for the confiscating of guns (a position he would be wise to renounce). But judging from his announcement video, he may recognize the need to reset his political identity.

He could be an example for other Democrats eager to regain footing nationally. If the election is about his position on guns, he will lose. But if it is about Texas’s self-image as a big-hearted, can-do and self-reliant state, he might have a shot.

In other words, O’Rourke can elevate the values Republicans used to claim as their own. Is it pro-family to refuse to keep unvaccinated kids safe by barring schools from requiring masks? Is it pro-“small government” to set bounties for women who seek an abortion after the legislature’s arbitrary timeline? Is it patriotic to make it hard to vote, especially for elderly and rural Texans? Is it pro-education to prevent schools from teaching about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. or to burn books?

O’Rourke can also claim the “law and order” vote. The Texas Department of Public Safety reported last month: “The violent crime rate increased by 6.6% from 2019 while violent crime volume increased by 7.9%.” Meanwhile, polling suggests Abbott has badly misjudged his electorate. The Texas Tribune reports on a survey it conducted with the University of Texas: “Requiring police officers to intervene when another officer is violating the law or department policy in their use of force against a civilian was the most popular policing proposal in the poll — with the support of 86% of voters. . . . A solid majority of Texas voters don’t think adults should be allowed to carry handguns in public places without permits or licenses, though the idea is popular with a 56% majority of Republicans.”

By stressing unity, shared purpose and pride in Texas’s past, O’Rourke can reassure voters that the future he envisions is not alien or scary, but rather a rejection of extremism, hate, contrived memes and Republicans’ Big Brother intrusion into their lives and local communities. O’Rourke, like Democrats nationally, must present himself as the best chance for stability and unity. It might not work, but such themes at least give O’Rourke a fighting chance against an unpopular governor vulnerable to charges of overreach and gross incompetency.


Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post. She is the author of “Resistance: How Women Saved Democracy from Donald Trump.”  Twitter

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