Democrats Want Beto O'Rourke to Run for Texas Governor. But Why?

Texas Dems want Beto O'Rourke to take over the governor's mansion.
Texas Dems want Beto O'Rourke to take over the governor's mansion. Mike Brooks
For months, liberals have begged Democrat Beto O’Rourke to launch a bid for Texas governor. Now, that day seems nigh: over the weekend, Axios reported that the El Paso politician will announce his gubernatorial campaign later this year.

Democrats celebrated the news on social media, insisting that O’Rourke’s got what it takes to oust Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. But other Texans still aren’t sure what makes O’Rourke so great.

Dallas County Democratic Party Chair Kristy Noble said they're all "very hopeful and excited" for O’Rourke’s apparently imminent announcement.

“The things that Beto has done at the ground level just as a citizen of Texas far eclipse anything that Abbott has done in his role as governor,” she said.

O'Rourke has hit a couple bumps along the political trail. During the 2018 midterms, with Donald Trump as president, O'Rourke failed to beat one of the nation’s least likable political figures: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. The next year, O’Rourke boosted his name recognition while running for president but dropped out following lackluster debate performances.

Yet Noble believes the governor’s race will boil down to a referendum on Abbott, who’s gotten flak for his COVID-19 response and the state’s shoddy energy grid. O’Rourke's stances on healthcare, the power grid and gun control resonate with many voters, she said.

“Somebody who has ... fought for the things that are important within our state is the person that we need leading." – Kristy Noble, Dallas County Democratic Party chair

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On top of that, O’Rourke is a Texas native who’s driven by Texas values, Noble said. He's famously traveled to each of the state’s 254 counties, listening to Democratic and Republican voters' visions for policy and leadership, she added.

“Somebody who has been that in touch with what’s going on in our state and fought for the things that are important within our state is the person that we need leading,” Noble said.

The visit-each-county strategy may feel like politicking, but it also helped O’Rourke frame himself as a candidate “for the people,” said Emily Sydnor, an assistant professor of political science at Southwestern University. That approach works well with voters who want their voices to be heard.

Many Texas voters find O’Rourke more palatable than Democrats who lean further to the left, such as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sydnor said. A fair number of Texas voters align with more centrist views.

Plus, despite his previous losses, O’Rourke has continued pressing on, Sydnor said. In July, he joined the Poor People’s Campaign in a miles-long march for voting rights. Instead of always taking center stage, O’Rourke is also content to do the organizing work.

“One: I think that’s unusual for candidates these days,” she said. “But two: I think that makes him feel more accessible to a lot of voters who really are looking for ways to make government accessible.”

Texas voters could be ready to shake things up. According to a recent poll by the nonprofit Texas 2036, 92% of the state’s voters are concerned about the future of Texas, with nearly 60% reporting they are very or extremely concerned.

Abbott’s anemic approval rating may also be a boon for O’Rourke’s bid. A new University of Texas at Tyler/Dallas Morning News poll put actor and hypothetical gubernatorial contender Matthew McConaughey ahead of Abbott by 9 points. When matched with O’Rourke, Abbott only leads by five.

O’Rourke has at least a couple things going for him: relative youth and attractiveness, said Chris Macaulay, an assistant professor of political science at West Texas A&M University.

Liberals are energized by O’Rourke’s potential race because the state’s Democratic Party has floundered for decades, Macaulay said. O’Rourke’s social media savvy especially resonates with young adults, in part because he seems more accessible than the political old guard.

“To have someone who projects as having a competence and charisma in the black hole that has been the Texas Democratic Party for 30 years,” Macaulay said, “I think that alone just gives people a kind of hope.”

Some liberals may like O’Rourke because they think he adheres to the state's “basic boilerplate Democratic policies,” Macaulay continued. Others may simply support him because of their opposition to controversial Republican measures, such as the new anti-abortion law.

O’Rourke lost to Cruz by 3% in an environment where Democrats were riled up, so it’s uncertain that he’d do much better against the governor, Macaulay said. Still, the Democrat has a shot as long as he runs a “personality-driven campaign that’s very light on policy.”

“Abbott’s popularity is at its lowest,” Macaulay said, “so if there’s ever a time he was going to lose, it’s now.”
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter