AUSTIN, Texas — Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s decision to join the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, announced Thursday, may turn out to be a dangerous development not just for President Donald Trump, but the Republican Party writ large.
O’Rourke has proved he can turn out voters along the border and compete with a prominent Republican in a red state. If Democrats have a chance of wresting Texas and its 38 electoral votes away from the GOP, it likely lies with O’Rourke.
“Beto has the potential ― alone among the Democratic nominees ― to put Texas into play,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “If Trump is forced to go on the defense in Texas, that really complicates the rest of his election strategy. There’s almost no way for him to win mathematically if he loses Texas the way things are looking today.”
Texas should already be Democratic territory. O’Rourke got it closer.
Demographics have long appeared to favor Democrats in the majority-minority state of Texas. Instead, the GOP has won every Texas statewide election since 1994, making the Lone Star State more reliably Republican than the Deep South.
The Democratic Party can mostly blame itself. The key problem it has faced in Texas is low turnout, especially among Latinos. Translating demographic advantage into electoral wins requires a major investment in year-round voter outreach and get-out-the-vote efforts that the Democrats and their philanthropist allies have historically declined to make. State party leaders have long complained that out-of-state Democrats use Texas as an ATM to fund more competitive races elsewhere. On election night 2016, Texans phone-banking for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton directed their calls to Iowa and Ohio.
O’Rourke’s long-shot bid to unseat Ted Cruz from the U.S. Senate last year changed that. The hyperactive campaigner traveled to each of the 254 counties of Texas. He routinely hit multiple cities for speeches in a single day, interspersing those efforts with neighborhood block walks.
Ignoring the conventional wisdom that Democrats should focus on expanding their reach in the state’s largest cities, O’Rourke made the border the centerpiece of his strategy, repeatedly visiting a low-turnout region that Democrats usually take for granted because the few who do vote skew blue. He took the same aggressive approach toward the rest of the state, sweeping across the reddest towns of North Texas along with liberal strongholds like the capital, Austin, and the state’s largest metropolis, Houston, insisting that Republicans and independents should feel as welcome as progressives in his campaign.
The herculean task of flipping the state requires a Democratic candidate to do two things simultaneously: Raise turnout among low-propensity voters (read: millennials and Latinos) while pulling away some historically conservative voters. Either task is a challenge. O’Rourke may have lost, but by devoting the lion’s share of his whopping $80 million small-donation haul to get-out-the-vote efforts, he appears to have done both.
It will hard to know how much millennial turnout rose until later this spring, when the U.S. Census Bureau releases its American Community Survey. But turnout skyrocketed along the border ― one major proxy for Latino voter trends, since the region is overwhelmingly Hispanic. Some border counties saw the number of ballots cast nearly triple compared with the last midterm in 2014.
With a younger, more Latino and increasingly urban electorate, Cruz eked out a 2.7 percentage point victory margin in a state where Republican U.S. senators are accustomed to winning by margins topping 20 percentage points.
“People are looking at the results and saying, ‘Holy shit, he got that many new voters in Texas?’” said one veteran campaign operative, who declined to be identified to avoid jeopardizing his job prospects ahead of a primary with more than 10 candidates already declared.
O’Rourke’s appeal wasn’t just felt in Democratic strongholds. Cruz walked away with about 396,000 fewer votes than Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R). That means nearly 5 percent of the electorate split their tickets.
Trump is weak in Texas
That 2.7 point gap leaves a narrow sliver of advantage for Trump, who carried Texas by 9 percentage points in 2016. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson winnowed away half a percentage point more than that from Trump in the last presidential election.
But Trump himself is hardly popular in Texas. The president’s approval rating in Texas sank below 50 percent in January, according to a tracking poll by Morning Consult. A Quinnipiac survey released last month showed him neck-and-neck with several potential Democratic nominees, including O’Rourke, who trailed the president by a single point in a head-on matchup. About 45 percent of 1,200 voters surveyed in an internet poll conducted by the University of Texas at Austin said they definitely would vote for someone other than Trump, versus 39 percent who planned to cast a ballot to re-elect him.
None of this means that O’Rourke will wind up winning the Democratic presidential nomination, let alone defeating Trump and carrying the state of Texas in the process.
Entering the massive 2020 field as a front-runner, O’Rourke can expect a wave of criticism from the left that he never faced when running against conservative icon Cruz, who is despised equally by liberals and progressives. The onslaught may shake him: Some of his weakest moments in the Senate race came when he shriveled under Cruz’s attacks.
It’s also not clear whether O’Rourke could win a Democratic primary outside of Texas. As a free trader from a political family with an Ivy League education, O’Rourke’s personal story, white face and moderate voting record in Congress are out of step with the economic populism and identity politics driving enthusiasm on the left. And critics from both parties have dismissed the idea that O’Rourke’s midterm loss should serve as a launchpad to an even higher office.
“You don’t usually promote a loser to the top of the party,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in November, echoing similar mockery from Trump.
Not any Democrat can flip the Lone Star State
Whether or not O’Rourke wins the nomination, the Democratic Party is already jumping at the chance to flip Texas. Noting Trump’s weakness in the state, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Texas “ground zero for us in the next election” after a visit to Austin this month.
“The new demographics are real,” Garry Mauro, one of the last Texas Democrats to win a statewide election back in 1994, told HuffPost. “Iowa is 90 percent white and Ohio is 80 percent white, so demographically those were good hunting areas for Trump. We’re only 45 percent white, therefore demographically we’re in play, and nobody’s saying that.”
Those demographic changes favoring Democrats will only continue over the 20 months, between now and the 2020 election. More Latinos will turn 18. More out-of-staters will relocate to Texas, bringing their California or East Coast liberalism with them. And the rural areas that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 will continue to lose voters as the state keeps urbanizing.
But the Texas Democratic Party’s experience over the last 20 years shows that demographic change doesn’t win elections without competitive candidates or sustained investment in get-out-the-vote efforts.
When you look at selling points for Beto, one of them is that he is by far the most likely candidate to flip Texas. Draft Beto co-founder Nate Lerner
“Beto proved he can drive turnout,” said Cristina Tzintzún, the founder of a Texas Latino youth mobilization outfit called Jolt. “I’m going to wait and see whether candidates from the rest of the party put money into communities that have historically been ignored.”
Democratic presidential nominees from California and the Northeast have little experience running campaigns based on maximizing turnout, much less in solidly red territory. Few of them speak Spanish, and none as well as O’Rourke.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who is Mexican-American, is likely to spur interest among Latino youth, according to Tzintzún. But not even Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, has built anything approximating O’Rourke’s get-out-the-vote machine.
“When you look at selling points for Beto, one of them is that he is by far the most likely candidate to flip Texas,” Nate Lerner, the co-founder of Draft Beto, told HuffPost. “His infrastructure, his name recognition, the groundwork he’s laid there ― he’s uniquely positioned.”
Danny Diaz, a longtime community organizer from the heavily Latino Rio Grande Valley, agreed. Voter registration in the Valley is slow and often frustrating work. But after years of only marginal gains, last year nearly 151,755 voters cast ballots in Hidalgo County — almost double the number of the previous midterm election.
There were lots of reasons for the change, including the efforts of local groups like Cambio that Diaz co-founded, or statewide groups like Tzintún’s Jolt. But the catalyst, he recognizes, was O’Rourke’s repeated campaign stops in an area that major candidates rarely spend much time in because the region’s few voters skew sharply blue.
Diaz backed Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary and considers himself more aligned with the Vermont senator’s progressive politics. But Diaz doubts anyone else can capitalize on O’Rourke’s gains.
“To say another candidate that’s not from Texas could win it — I don’t know,” Diaz said. “His name is so strong here. He’s the one person that could do it.”
Maxwell Strachan contributed reporting.