For years, Texas Democrats have believed their state is on the verge of a cliff – perhaps just one more election cycle away – from red to blue. But in 2022, in its second straight election, Texas blushed.
Running for Senate in 2018, Beto O’Rourke came within 3 points of toppling Senator Ted Cruz (R). It was an encouraging sign for Democrats and proof of what they have long claimed. But in 2020, Joe Biden lost the state to Donald Trump by about 6 points. And then that year, O’Rourke lost his gubernatorial candidacy by double digits to Governor Greg Abbott.
It was a grueling but not unexpected defeat for the Democrats. Since O’Rourke first sparked national hype for Texas in 2018, left-leaning Texans have branded their home with no fewer than 38 votes in the electoral college as a catch-up for Democrats. Candidates and activists point to Georgia as an example of what can happen with proper investment.
“No one believes in Texas, everyone looks to Texas and everyone just gives up on us,” Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-TX) said at a news conference last week.
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Crockett, who joins Congress in January after longtime North Dallas Assemblyman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) did not run for re-election, noted that there was a time when everyone gave up on Georgia.
“And right now nobody’s saying we’re not going to get that seat,” Crockett said, referring to the Georgia Senate seat, which is in a runoff election. “Because guess what? Georgia showed this country what it can do when the investment was made there.”
But in quick succession it’s becoming increasingly difficult to sell that pitch, especially after O’Rourke lost by exactly 11 points.
Democrats across the state swear they can do better. And it begins with the end of the O’Rourke era.
When O’Rourke submitted his bid for 2022, he felt an overwhelming sense of deja vu. Not only did he run for president in 2018, but he also ran unsuccessfully for president in 2020. Many doubt whether he would be better off this time. Abbott is reportedly more popular than Cruz. National political projections showed Democrats were thrashed in 2022. And Texas hasn’t been high on the list of national spends this cycle.
O’Rourke, a former El Paso congressman who has repeatedly garnered national attention, had some perceived advantages. He had widespread name recognition and a database of supporters already built up. He knew how to campaign – and he dominated the primaries.
But even as Democrats were outperforming nationally and Democratic candidates in South Texas were able to dampen the expected red wave in the House of Representatives, O’Rourke did not.
“He’s built a solid reputation on the GOP side, and I guess he spilled over to the independents because they didn’t buy his story in the last election,” said Joel Montfort, a Texas Democratic adviser who clearly said was that he thinks O’Rourke has done a lot of good for the party.
Still, Montfort was clear about Beto’s performance in 2022. “We were hoping that Beto would bring big coattails this time. None of that happened,” he said.
Texas Democratic strategists who spoke to The Daily Beast all agreed new leadership is in order. But they see an obvious problem on the horizon: recruitment.
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There is no natural successor to O’Rourke in Texas. Some of Texas’ recent statewide candidates have never held office. And those in the state who have — namely, Democrats on the Texas congressional delegation — may not be so eager to give up their comfortable seats in the blue counties for a statewide bid.
Case in point: when The Daily Beast reached out to each of the 13 Democrats in Texas’ 118th congressional delegation to ask if they would be interested in running for the Senate against Cruz in 2024, only two responded.
Rep. Elect Greg Casar said he looks forward to re-election to the House of Representatives and will “strongly support” our Democratic nominee for the Senate. A spokeswoman for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said it would be “an honor to serve, but she’s not focused on it right now.”
“To use a baseball term, we don’t have a very deep bank. We don’t have a lot of players on the bench who are just ready, willing and able to step in,” said Jon Mark Hogg, founder of the 134 PAC, which serves Democrats in rural Texas.
Charlie Bonner, MOVE Texas communications director, told The Daily Beast that the issue is reaching the bottom of the ballot; smaller seats, such as city councils or school councils, are often the first rung on the political ladder.
“If you were to ask most people today who might be the next candidate for governor, could you name anyone? Of anyone they could name, would they actually do it? Bonner asked.
“We need people running for school boards now,” he continued, “one because school boards are a critical place where these fights are happening, but also because 10 years from now we need these people to run for Congress.” to run for office in the State House.”
Governors in Texas are not temporary. Abbott’s newfound term ends in 2028, which means Democrats have some time to find a candidate for the office.
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Trouble for Democrats is only compounded by Republican gains among Latino voters, particularly in South Texas. Though Democrats have managed to win two of the three most competitive house races along the border this cycle, the GOP national campaign armies have expanded their Latino voter operations in recent cycles. While much of it focuses on GOP catch-up opportunities for the House of Representatives, shifting voter sentiment in former Democratic strongholds only exacerbates problems for the left in the state.
Still, Texas Democrats say it’s not just doom and gloom. Organizers claim things like year-round investment in voter registration and advocacy could help. Texas has seen massive population growth in recent years: 2020 census data shows that 95 percent of new population growth is from people of color.
Hogg, the founder of 134 PAC, argued that the rural outskirts of Texas were teeming with opportunity for the party. Similar to the model used by candidates like Pennsylvania Senator-elect John Fetterman (D), Hogg said Democrats don’t have to win rural counties outright; Just improving their margins could pay off.
But Hogg added a dose of reality to the Democrats’ timeline to turn a state like this around. It takes sustained investment, he said, and patience.
“This is a long-term fight. That’s not something you’re going to do in 2024, 2026,” he said, throwing cold water on the perennial topic of conversation that Texas is just one cycle away.
“We need a long-term plan,” he said.
Read more at The Daily Beast.
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