The Memo: Beto O’Rourke, running out of chances, needs debate game-changer

AP-LM Otero
Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke speaks at a Democracy is Indigenous DFW event in Dallas, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. Democracy is Indigenous DFW is a grass-roots non-partisan organization and hosted the event with the goal to drive up voter engagement in the American Indian and Indigenous population in Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Beto O’Rourke faces a moment of truth on Friday.

The former Democratic congressman is lagging behind Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in the polls with less than six weeks before Election Day. In the RealClearPolitics polling average, O’Rourke trails Abbott by 8 points.

Once the bright new thing of Democratic politics, O’Rourke needs to find a game-changing moment in the sole debate between the two, which is set for Friday in Edinburg, Texas, about 20 miles north of the border with Mexico.

His political career is on the line.

O’Rourke, now 50, came to national prominence when he challenged Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2018. O’Rourke sparked excitement among Democrats nationwide, raised $80 million and ultimately ran Cruz close. But he still lost, albeit by less than 3 points.

His next endeavor was far less successful. A quest to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination sputtered horribly. The campaign seemed ill-starred from the outset, when O’Rourke posed on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine alongside a quote proclaiming “I’m just born to be in it.”

He was, instead, out of it by November 2019, roughly three months before the opening caucuses in Iowa.

Another loss in this year’s gubernatorial contest would give O’Rourke an 0-3 record in campaigns since leaving the House after serving six years. Such a stark record of losses points to a bleak future, at least so far as elected office is concerned.

With his back against the wall, O’Rourke has every incentive to come out swinging at the debate.

“I do think O’Rourke needs to do something to change the dynamic of the race. I think Abbott maintains a modest but real lead,” said Keir Murray, a Texas-based Democratic strategist.

Paul Fabrizio, a professor of political science at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas, concurred that O’Rourke “clearly needs to do something to stand out. … It has to be one of those viral moments that really jumps out.” 

But a gift to O’Rourke in the shape of a gaffe by Abbott appears improbable, Fabrizio added. 

“Gov. Abbott, across his career, is a very careful politician, well-trained and well-versed on using language not to attract attention,” he said. “Beto O’Rourke has a tough road ahead.”

The Texas gubernatorial debate will be hosted by Nexstar station KXAN. Nexstar is also the parent company of The Hill.

The Democrat does have some obvious lines of attack.

O’Rourke has assailed Abbott for his response to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which left 19 students and 2 teachers dead in May. In the immediate aftermath, O’Rourke popped up at a press conference where Abbott was speaking, accusing the governor of “doing nothing” to prevent the next mass shooting.

The Democrat has also sought to keep memories of a disastrous 2021 ice storm, which almost collapsed the state’s energy grid, at the forefront of voters’ minds.

But observers of the state’s politics caution that O’Rourke faces his own challenges, some of which stem from previous races. 

Several sources of varying political affiliations told this column that O’Rourke’s presidential run had been damaging to his Texas ambitions — not only because it failed, but because the candidate had staked out positions intended to appeal to a progressive Democratic primary electorate. Those same positions have alienated some Texas voters.

Exhibit A in that regard is O’Rourke’s comment on guns at a September 2019 debate. 

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore,” he said.

Republicans are eager to remind voters in a broadly pro-gun rights state about that remark.

“Beto has had to pay a political price for reckless comments throughout his 5-year quest to be elected to something higher than Congress,” said Matt Mackowiak, the chair of the Travis County, Texas, Republican Party. “Gov. Abbott is now holding him to account.”

Alongside such criticism, though, others take a more sympathetic view of O’Rourke. 

It’s not only that they acknowledge his abilities as an orator and as a fundraiser. They also note that, running against Cruz and Abbott, he has to try to surmount tough odds that face any Democrat in Texas.

Former President Trump carried Texas by almost 6 points against President Biden in 2020. The last time Abbott was up for reelection, in 2018, he crushed his Democratic opponent Lupe Valdez by 13 points.

“Nothing will change for Beto until the demographics shift in favor of the Democrats,” said Texas GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser. “I’m not one of those who would say that he will never run again or he could never win statewide. I think it’s a long way off but I think he will remain a big figure in the Democratic Party.”

Fabrizio, the political scientist, mused that O’Rourke could have an advantage, of a kind, in that he remains by far the biggest name in Texas Democratic politics, despite his losing record.

“He seems to have reached a ceiling. If he loses this race, that would work against him in terms having a future in Democratic politics. But then there’s the other thing — who else is there on the Democratic side?”

O’Rourke, of course, is far from submitting to defeat. He is in the middle of a 15-stop college tour, timed for the run-up to an Oct. 11 voter registration deadline in the Lone Star State.

If he is to overcome his polling deficit, young voters — perhaps joined by women moved to defend abortion rights — will be vital.

Murray, the Democratic strategist, noted that polling in the gubernatorial race has been fairly stable.

That being so, he added, “O’Rourke has to do one of two things: something that changes the perceptions of the existing electorate, to move things; or something to change the complexion of the electorate — meaning he has to get people to the ballot box who might not otherwise go there.”

The smart money remains on Abbott — unless Friday’s debate creates some high drama.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Beto O'Rourke Greg Abbott Greg Abbott Gun control Ted Cruz Texas
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