How to Win Texas

You know who matters in the 2018 midterms? Donald Trump! But not just Donald Trump. Control of the Senate rests in part on what voters think of the president of the United States, but it will also be determined by local disputes and regional quirks—demographics and issues, but also mythmaking and self-conception. In this series—this is the eighth, and last, articlePolitico Magazine asked an expert on a state with a crucial statewide race to explain what matters there that doesn’t matter anywhere else.

There is going to be a lot of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments around the country if Beto O’Rourke loses his quixotic, Harry vs. Voldemort quest to snatch Ted Cruz’s Senate seat. Outside Texas, the defeat will most likely be interpreted as another failed attempt to turn Texas purple, with all the accompanying stereotypes hauled in as proof: All those church-going, bronco-busting, tobacco-chewing conservatives and their even more right-wing wives have done it again. And if Beto couldn’t do it, who can? As myriad stories have reported, Texas Democrats haven’t won a statewide race since George W. Bush trounced then-Governor Ann Richards in 1994. The state hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since Lloyd Bentsen in 1988.

But O’Rourke supposedly had a way around that. He would visit every one of Texas’ 254 counties and shake the hand of every potential voter, Democrat or Republican. Talk with and listen to them one on one, and put forth a message of, well, hope and change. It seemed like a great time to ride that great Latino wave to victory. What self-respecting Latino wouldn’t vote for him with all that talk out of Washington about building walls and all those reprehensible (to Democrats, at least) actions like separating undocumented parents from their children at the border? Maybe Beto wasn’t Hispanic, but he had a Latin diminutive for his nickname and he spoke beautiful Spanish. He was young, articulate and urbane even if he lived in El Paso. (“The most frequent adjective used is Kennedy-esque,” Cruz likes to say, using the near infinite number of adoring Beto profiles as yet another opportunity for passive aggression.) Beto would refuse PAC money and high-priced political consultants. He would refuse to go negative. Maybe he would be the guy to defeat one of the most divisive, least liked members of the Senate.

So, while old-line campaign operatives remained quietly pessimistic, a new, Beto-favoring concept started making the rounds: Texas isn’t a red state, it is a nonvoting state. This made a lot of sense, as turnout has declined to the point where Texas ranks dead last in the country, with only 28 percent of Texans voting in the 2014 midterms. The reasons for this are many: voter suppression; gerrymandering, which made most races noncompetitive; profound voter apathy (because the races were mostly noncompetitive); and a very young electorate. The last was perhaps the most crucial: as the Texas Tribune reported, almost a third of Texas’ Hispanics aren’t yet old enough to vote, so they can’t be blamed.

The people who do vote regularly are over 65, with the second-largest group between 45 and 64. The vast majority of them are white: Two out of three of over-65 voters are, as are about half in the 45-to-64 demographic. They are the proverbial stakeholders, with families, schools, homes and neighborhoods to maintain.

Put another way, while the media has focused intensely on the Latino vote, the truth is that a Democratic candidate in Texas still needs a whole lot of white votes to win, from Republicans or from people who have never voted in the past. As the Trib put it, white Texans outnumber voters of other races in the age groups that most consistently turn out to vote.

So, the solution for any sort of Democratic return to power in Texas involves a number of factors, the most important of which might be to take a page from Karl Rove, who basically found brand-new Republican voters to get George W. Bush into the governor’s office in 1994. This might not have been as hard then as turning up new Democrats today—Texas then had experienced a surge of (mostly white) immigrants from Rust Belt cities to the north, who were more interested in supporting a moderate, good ol‘ boy (Bush) than a sassy, white-haired liberal woman (Richards).

Beto is looking for new voters when he travels to those 254 counties, sure, but the trouble is that many Texas counties have very few people. As Bill Miller, a longtime Austin lobbyist puts it: “Beto made a big point of going to 254 counties. There is nobody in 200 of those counties and those who do mostly vote Republican.” Campaign operatives watching from the sidelines point out that the majority of voters are in the cities, which are blue, and the suburbs and exurbs, which are mostly red. Here, O’Rourke’s tactic has been to attract millennials—assume you’ve seen the video with the skateboard—who have traditionally lagged in attendance at the polls. Whether they are just showing up at rallies and preaching to each other on social media but will be MIA at the voting booth remains to be seen. They haven’t shown up in the past.

One reason for that, however, may be a lack of inspiring Democratic candidates. Wendy Davis, who ran against Governor Greg Abbott after filibustering for women’s health in the state Senate, wound up being a very glamorous flash in the pan. Lupe Valdez, who is running against Abbott today, is getting very little traction, despite or because of the fact that she is a gay Latina sheriff. The ineffectuality of the Democrats here was demonstrated most pathetically when state Senator Carlos Uresti went to jail for helping perpetrate a Ponzi scheme, and a Republican beat his replacement in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. “For fuck’s sake,” one political operative chided.

Weak candidates create a perpetual downward spiral. Good candidates don’t run, so the weaker ones who do inevitably lose, which then supports the conventional wisdom that a Democrat, especially a white male Democrat, can’t win statewide in Texas.

The case could be made that now Texas Democrats finally have a strong candidate in O’Rourke, but if he loses, it will be because he wasn’t strong enough against an incumbent who radiates smarminess. Yes, Beto has broken all fundraising records; that $38 million helps, but a lot of the donors don’t live here, and hence aren’t voters. Those who are—and those who aren’t traditional liberals or further left—may need more than the positive but somewhat vague message O’Rourke is selling. As Miller puts it, “He’s been Beto, which is his No. 1 message. He’s been on fire with certain pockets of people and he has been on fire nationally, but he’s not on fire in Texas.”

Of course, the more O’Rourke defines himself—pro-abortion rights, anti-wall, anti-gun, pro-immigrant and so on—the more Cruz can paint him as “a far-left liberal who doesn’t represent Texas values.” Which is exactly what he has done.

A group supporting O’Rourke recently countered by applying some old-line Texas jujitsu, that is, by suggesting in a commercial that Cruz isn’t, as his campaign slogan claims, as “tough as Texas.” It stars Sonny Carl Davis reprising his quintessential Texan role in Richard Linklater’s 2011 movie Bernie. He essentially calls Cruz a pussy. This quien es mas macho strategy may or may not work on November 6, but at least it’s funny.

O’Rourke himself has finally begun to attack Cruz in commercials for his shutdown of the government, his antipathy toward health care for all, and his disrespect for Texas teachers and support of Betsy DeVos. “He’s selling fear and paranoia instead of solutions,” O’Rourke says in another ad, criticizing Cruz’s intention to deport the Dreamers. Ads like these may be what is necessary to attract the new voters he needs, though pros wish he would show less Beto and more regular Texans, including endorsements from local community leaders. “A more low-key, humble thing,” said one political organizer, “not school spirit on steroids.” (Many who support Beto wish he would have gone on the attack much sooner. If he loses, get ready to hear this as a common refrain.)

Of course, it ain’t over til Election Day, and there are those who believe that despite trailing anywhere from 5 to 9 points in the polls, O’Rourke may still pull it off. My colleague at Texas Monthly, R.G. Ratcliffe, wrote a column explaining why various polls could have it wrong—that the numbers could be based on traditional turnout instead of taking into consideration the supposed blue wave and the Trump backlash.

The truth is, no one will know what kind of plan will put a Democrat into a major office in Texas until someone actually wins a race this century. The O’Rourke plan has been to use social media, newfangled metrics, positive messages and a whole lot of charisma to distance himself from the old Democratic base while simultaneously building on it. You can’t argue that he hasn’t already been successful, maybe with help from an unpopular president: Texas had 14 million registered voters in 2014, but just 4.7 million people went to the polls. As of today, the number of those registered has grown by 1.6 million, 400,000 of them just since March. Early voting started on October 22, and the turnout has already hit record numbers—some of the credit for that has to go to a Democratic candidate who has generated almost as much enthusiasm as Willie Nelson, who endorsed him.

Texas does not register party affiliation, and we still don’t know who these new voters will choose, of course. A Quinnipiac poll released on October 29 narrowed a 9-point gap in Cruz’s favor back down to around 5. It also hints how things could, maybe, break O’Rourke’s way: Men here are going for Cruz by 56 to 39 percent, but women are going for O’Rourke by 52 to 45. Cruz leads with white voters by 67 percent to 30 percent, while black voters are going for O’Rourke by 86 percent to 12 percent, and Hispanics by 60 percent to 36 percent.

O’Rourke’s canvassers have been working extra hard of late in minority communities in the cities. In Houston, there are still many unhappy folks who are still underserved after not one but two hurricanes. The 7th Congressional District, which Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, and where Lizzie Pannill Fletcher has challenged Republican stalwart John Culberson, might be an indicator. It’s a C-shaped district that encompasses some poor neighborhoods as well as prosperous white suburbs like Memorial. (At the same time, her candidacy could be helped by having O’Rourke higher up the ticket.) Exurbs like Kingwood to the north and Sugar Land to the south have voted reliably Republican in the past, but they are full of prosperous immigrants who might find O’Rourke’s positive message a lot more welcoming than that of the current administration.

If the kids vote, if the immigrants vote, if the blacks vote, along with lots and lots of angry white women and a smattering of white liberal men—well, maybe. But other seasoned observers believe all those votes still add up to a 5-point loss in a state that remains dominated by mostly white Republicans who vote. Dependably.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *