Members Only | March 22, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Beto and the Temptation of Texas

With Texas, a Democrat could lose all states Hillary Clinton lost, and win.

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The argument I’m about to unpack has nothing to do with reality, just as any speculation about the results of next year’s presidential election is unrealistic. Still, this is a good time to focus on possible outcomes even if they aren’t plausible. Consider the following as hoping for the best but seriously expecting the worst.

The worst, of course, would be Donald Trump’s reelection. As I’ve said, that’s still possible, actually quite likely, given that incumbents almost always win a second term, that the economy is still expanding, and that this president has the advantage of an enormous media apparatus singing the same tune so often it becomes gospel truth.

Indeed, if you were to ask me which is more likely—Donald Trump winning reelection or the Democrats flipping Texas—I’d say the former by a mile. Sure, the Democratic Party has been pining for the moment when demographic change moves Texas slightly leftward. Sure, rising Hispanic power will change the state’s landscape someday. But not now. Not by 2020. Just not happening. Then again … there’s Beto O’Rourke.

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Beto O’Rourke is the former congressman from El Paso who came under three points of beating incumbent US Senator Ted Cruz in last year’s congressional elections. Like most Democratic candidates in 2018, he wore his liberalism on his sleeve, but his greatest asset was his charm, good looks, dynamism and ability to communicate across partisan divides to Texas Republicans who would otherwise stay in their lanes.

Indeed, O’Rourke built a coalition of voters that was atypical for a Democrat, according to an analysis by the Times. A third of supporters were college educated upwardly mobile white Texans. Among that demographic, O’Rourke performed 10 points better than Barack Obama did in 2012. (Obama lost Texas by 16 points.)

I’ve argued that O’Rourke would better serve the nation and the Democratic Party by staying home instead of running for president. Every major city in the Lone Star State is run by a Democrat. In theory, as the cities go, so goes the state. I still think that’s a strong argument. It’s one O’Rourke himself proffered during his senate bid. “Texas is not a red state,” he said. “It’s a non-voting state.” I can’t think of a better reason for a popular figure who nearly knocked off a sitting senator to bring Texas into the blue.

But just as compelling—perhaps “tempting” is a better word—is the prospect of a Democrat from Texas running for president and winning his home state. Consider the mouth-watering math. If a Democrat won Texas and its 38 electoral votes, she could win the White House even if she lost Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, and North Carolina. With Texas, a Democrat could lose all the states Hillary Clinton lost, and still win. With Texas, she obviates the need for swing states.

Here’s another way of putting it.

All the Democrats right now, except perhaps O’Rourke, are puzzling through which strategy is best. Do they reclaim white working class voters in the Rust Belt, or do they build minority coalitions in the Sun Belt? That debate is one about institutional racism, actually, and it’s a serious issue, but think about it. With Texas, you don’t have to make a choice between the belts, because with Texas, none of that matters.

Texas hasn’t gone to a Democrat since 1976 (Jimmy Carter). I get that. I really do, and remember I said this argument doesn’t have anything to do with reality. But consider what the TimesNate Cohn reported: “The tide lifting all Democrats in Texas [during the congressional elections] was an anti-Trump rebellion.” That’s why the base of O’Rourke’s senate coalition, the one that nearly unseated Ted Cruz, who’s quite popular back home, was college educated upwardly mobile whites. For many of these voters, the president forced them to seek options, and O’Rourke provided one.

Bear in mind that the “anti-Trump rebellion,” as Cohn put it, might soften by the time we get to 2020. A presidential election is different from a congressional one, after all, and voters tend to go home in the end. Equally possible, though, is that the anti-Trump rebellion intensifies in the wake of the Mueller inquiry and as House Democrats escalate their own. The drip of criminality and the whiff of treason are going to impact every voter, Texans included. Combine turnout among anti-Trump Republicans with normal turnout among young and Hispanic voters during presidential years, and it’s not a stretch to see Beto O’Rourke taking Texas.

Among all these reasons, here’s one I think most compelling. Again, O’Rourke spotted it from the start: Texas is a non-voting state. There are plenty of people, but most don’t have a reason to vote, because many don’t see a point given the GOP’s grip on the state. A Democratic Texan, however, might give non-voting residents something to focus on and get excited about. As I said, every major city in the state is run by a Democrat. In theory, as the cities go, so goes the state. O’Rourke could spend years flipping Texas by staying home. But he could flip it by running for president.

—John Stoehr


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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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