Beto or Not, Here Democrats Come in Texas

John Locher/AP Photo

Beto O'Rourke speaks during a vigil for victims of Saturday's mass shooting at a shopping complex in El Paso, Texas. 

Beto O’Rourke may have finally found his moment. Ever since the presidential aspirant rocketed to a national profile on the heels of his viral defense of Colin Kaepernick’s protest, the one-time foil to Ted Cruz has searched in vain for a similarly favorable media watershed. His presidential campaign has been known more for brooding blog posts and his “born to be in it” Vanity Fair cover story than its media savvy.

When asked by a reporter this weekend if he thought there was anything President Trump could do to help heal the wounds of Saturday’s shooting in El Paso, part of O’Rourke’s erstwhile House district, he responded: “He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I don’t know, like, members of the press, what the fuck?” Later, this time withholding his belligerence towards the press, he told MSNBC that the “president’s open racism is an invitation to violence.”

Compare that with the statement issued by Texas Senator John Cornyn, who responded to the white supremacist-inspired shooting by asserting that “there is no simple answer.” Cornyn, who is up for re-election in 2020, boasts of an A+ rating from the NRA on his website.

All that has revived O’Rourke’s national profile, at least temporarily. It’s also renewed calls for him to drop out of the Democratic presidential primary, where recent polls have shown him foundering to just one percent nationally, and instead use this renewed vigor to battle Cornyn for his Senate seat. Doing so would present the best opportunity for him both to make use of his public standing, his considerable war chest, and the impressive campaign infrastructure he’s spent the last two years developing. To boot, it would allow him to tender his likely-inevitable resignation from the presidential primary in the most triumphant possible manner.

While this moment seems like Beto’s individual victory—or at least his escape hatch from a presidential campaign that perhaps should never have been waged—it may actually be a sign of a more enduring opportunity for the Democratic Party in Texas. It’s long been hoped and predicted that demographic changes in Texas would result in Democrats being competitive in the country’s second most-populous state, long a Republican stronghold. This would transform the electoral map and perhaps fatally impair Republican chances at the presidency. But 2018’s midterms again proved that was too optimistic—even O’Rourke and his record fundraising was unable to dispatch the widely-reviled Cruz in the Senate race.

But looking statewide at the Texas Republican Party, there’s evidence that 2020 may finally yield some of those changes. Monday morning, while O’Rourke’s video made the rounds, Republican representative Kenny Marchant announced that he will not seek reelection in the upcoming cycle. Marchant has represented TX-24, a district in the Dallas suburbs, since 2005.

He becomes the fourth Texas Republican to step down in the past few weeks. Fellow nine-term Representative K. Michael Conaway, a former committee chairman, announced that he would not run again; so too did Representative Pete Olson, who won his rapidly changing Houston-area suburb by 19 percentage points in 2016 before narrowly retaining by 5 points last year.

The most surprising resignation came last week from Will Hurd, the House’s sole black Republican, considered by many to be a rising star in the party. Hurd’s district, TX-23, spans part of the U.S.-Mexico border, stretching east from El Paso. He held on for a third term in 2018 by just a couple hundred votes.

Three of those House seats will be heavily contested in the upcoming cycle, on the heels of two seats flipping in 2018. Three other Texas Republican incumbents are considered by nonpartisan analysts to be vulnerable in 2020 as well. All six districts feature the kinds of suburban landscapes where Democrats succeeded in 2018.

Even Cornyn, the current Senate Majority Whip, is bracing for a competitive challenge. And with a June Quinnipiac poll finding that 49 percent of Texans disapprove of Trump, there may be room for a Democratic candidate to finally compete in the presidential election as well. Ted Cruz has warned Republicans to “take Texas seriously.”

There remain sound reasons for skepticism. Democrats in Texas have not won a statewide elected office since 1994, and have not won Texas’s electoral votes since Jimmy Carter in 1976. The hope that Hillary Clinton might compete in Texas in 2016 proved to be unfounded—she went on to lose the state by 9 percentage points.

Still, those elusive demographic changes are occurring in real time. A wave of new voters has been added to the rolls, many of them 18 and 19 year-olds who may not have been eligible to vote in the previous cycle. The state is also two years more diverse. And despite that nontrivial margin of victory for Trump, Texas was actually more competitive for Democrats in 2016 than longtime battleground state Iowa, and similar in margin to Ohio.

“With Texas’s growing and diverse population, it’s clear that we are 2020’s biggest battleground state,” says Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “From 2014 to 2018, Texas added 1.8 million new people to the voting rolls. That’s essentially the entire voting-age population of New Mexico. These voters are diverse and come from communities that predominantly support the Democratic Party.”

So while it would make sense for O’Rourke personally to insert himself into a political campaign he could conceivably win, or at least compete in, it’s unlikely that the fate of the Democratic Party statewide hinges entirely on his participation. Candidates already in the race include former congressman and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Bell, and MJ Hegar, who nearly captured a conservative House seat in 2018 after a video about her military career went viral.

For progressives, the case for O’Rourke may be ideological. Though hardly a radical, O’Rourke’s recent campaigns have generally positioned him to the left of the current Senate field on policy, while Hegar has been mostly noncommittal; she answered a question about gun control during her 2018 campaign with the retort “you’ll have to take mine first.” While O’Rourke has confidently expressed a politics proven to help inspire new voters to the polls, someone like Hegar, who voted in Republican primaries as recently as 2016, may be dogged for leaning too far right on popular issues.

Whether or not O’Rourke takes advantage of the burgeoning opportunity to help loosen the dark-red vice grip on Texas politics, the ongoing political fallout from the El Paso shooting may yet be a turning point as evidence of the impact of Democratic statewide organizing more broadly. “Now, it’s on us to get folks registered to vote, engage them substantively about the future, and speak to their issues,” says Garcia. “They know it’s about a fair shot for all, and if we earn their trust, we all win together.”

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