In Race for Governor's Mansion, Beto O'Rourke Goes on the Offense

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
In his 2018 bid for U.S. Senate, Beto O’Rourke largely avoided engaging in political mudslinging. But during the ongoing race for Texas governor, the El Paso Democrat appears to be more comfortable getting his hands dirty.

After he launched his gubernatorial campaign in November, some political observers noticed O’Rourke had started taking a different tack. Democratic strategist Colin Strother agrees that the former U.S. congressman is playing more offense this time around.

“It certainly appears at this point that he’s got much sharper elbows than he did last time,” Strother said. “And given the margin last time, had he taken a more aggressive posture with [GOP Sen. Ted] Cruz, he probably would be U.S. senator right now.”

Setting the stage for O’Rourke’s gubernatorial campaign are his previous two political races, including a failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Skeptics argue that he’ll soon add another loss to his resume, but some say O’Rourke’s negative campaigning could help him in 2022.

During the race against Cruz, O’Rourke waited until the month before the election to attack, when he was already trailing in the polls by 6 to 9 points, according to NPR. O’Rourke released an ad painting Cruz as heartless on immigration reform and called him “dishonest” during a televised debate.

Until then, O’Rourke had cultivated a gentler tone. He famously visited each of Texas’ 254 counties, peppered by Whataburger pit stops and skateboard breaks. Cruz prevailed by just 2.6 points.

"The only person they dislike more than Governor Abbott is Beto O'Rourke." – Joshua Frick, campaign consultant

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It seems O'Rourke has learned a lesson.

In recent months, the Democrat certainly hasn’t held back in his critiques of Gov. Greg Abbott. During a recent stop near Houston, O’Rourke accused the incumbent of “fail[ing]” Texas when it was devastated by February’s deadly winter storm. He's also lambasted Abbott’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, classifying the governor's attack on vaccine mandates as “anti-science” and “anti-public health.”

For a time, O’Rourke seemed to be doing well in the polls. In early November, before he’d formally announced, one showed him virtually tied with Abbott. But just a month later, a Quinnipiac poll put O’Rourke 15 points behind.

Strother, the Democratic strategist, said he respects candidates who take the high road, but that “at the end of the day, we use negative campaigning because it works.” Every election is a referendum on the incumbent, who in this case is suffering from a low approval rating.

Luckily for O’Rourke, the governor has other demerits, Strother said. Abbott "declined" to fix the grid before accepting millions in contributions from the energy industry, for instance.

Still, Strother thinks it won’t be enough for O’Rourke to simply “wag his finger” at Abbott; he’ll have to demonstrate why his vision is better for Texas, he said. He could go for ideas that are popular even in conservative Texas, such as liberalizing cannabis laws and allowing casino gambling.

The way O’Rourke is campaigning this time around has shown he’s matured as a candidate, Strother added.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said, “but as a Texas Democrat, we never count our chickens before they hatch.”

Democrats are more likely than their conservative counterparts to present a “virtuous campaign,” said Joshua Frick, a Republican campaign consultant and president of Foxhole Strategies. Republicans, meanwhile, tend to do what’s necessary to win, and their voters might even gain respect for O’Rourke over his willingness to go negative.

The Republican primary challengers have made their own cases against the governor, Frick said; adopting their messaging would likely be the best way for O’Rourke to speak to Republican voters. Going on the offense could bolster O’Rourke’s chances of winning; Frick doesn’t believe his campaign has “the luxury of playing it safe.”

O’Rourke likely won’t win over many far-right conservative voters, Frick added, but he might sour their opinion on Abbott so much that they go for a libertarian instead. “The only person they dislike more than Gov. Abbott is Beto O'Rourke,” he said.
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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