He raises loads of money. He draws large crowds.
And he loses.
The circumstances of this year’s run for Texas governor have never been favorable to the Democrat, given the way midterms typically swing against the party that occupies the White House. He also chose to throw in against an incumbent governor who had little trouble dispatching his previous two challenges, even in the O’Rourke-driven “blue wave” four years ago that featured the El Pasoan atop the ticket.
Gov. Greg Abbott has maintained broad popularity among the electorate, especially at a time when other top-level statewide Republicans have faced more difficult election campaigns.
But this year, Abbott was coming off his low watermark in approval ratings after a medley of actions taken and events transpired. According to the Texas Politics Project, Abbott’s disapproval rating reached 50 percent in August 2021 and his approval also dipped to 41 percent, tied for the lowest point during his tenure. As of this month, those fortunes have flipped, and Abbott sits at 47 percent approval and 44 percent disapproval.
Per RealClearPolitics’ polling average, O’Rourke sits about 8 points behind the incumbent with just over a week remaining in the race.
Democrats have not won a statewide race in three decades and O’Rourke was seen among their supporters to be the best shot to end that drought.
While anything is possible and upsets happen, O’Rourke’s insurgent bid for governor has lost the momentum it had in the early summer shortly after two things reinvigorated his campaign momentum: 19 children and two teachers were murdered in a Uvalde elementary school shooting, and Roe v. Wade was invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court.
For much of the campaign, even before the court’s ruling, Democrats across the state have rolled the dice on abortion, making it a feature, if not the feature, of their respective campaigns. O’Rourke is included in that, homing specifically in on the abortion restrictions Abbott signed that lack exceptions for rape.
On the trail this year, the Democrat has embraced many progressive positions, something he tried to avoid in 2018.
Four years after first traversing every corner of the state, and two years after traversing many corners of the country, O’Rourke has again toured every nook and cranny of Texas. This time, however, he’s been unable to outrun comments made and positions taken during his short-lived bid for president — often steering into the skid rather than changing course once again.
New Beto — Same as the Old Beto, But Not the Old-Old Beto
O’Rourke has now solidified his messaging and policy stances, but at the beginning of the campaign, he waffled substantially on multiple different items.
Other than running for office, O’Rourke is most known for his “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47” comment in the Democratic primary for president last cycle.
In 2018, he dug his heels in against any confiscation of semiautomatic rifles. Upon announcing for governor, he doubled down on the 2020 campaign position. A few months later in February, he backtracked on that, and then later settled on a middle ground whereby he still believes those weapons should be removed from communities but recognizes and reiterates the political realities of such a move — namely that with a GOP legislature, it hasn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell.
Another example is conservative opposition to teaching critical race theory in schools, something he’s currently framed as unethically “trying to control what history [teachers] are able to tell.” But earlier in the year, he said he opposed critical race theory-imbued themes’ addition to curriculum.
The issue that has consistently been the most pressing for Texans is the border — across which 1.5 million people illegally crossed during Fiscal Year 2022, and those are just the ones law enforcement encountered.
O’Rourke has tried to find the middle ground between criticizing the Biden administration’s response and blaming Abbott for missteps with Operation Lone Star (OLS), the state’s response to the porous border.
He backed the elimination of Title 42 — a federal provision expediting the deportation of illegal border crossers under communicable disease auspices — but then criticized the president for trying to eliminate it too quickly.
Much of O’Rourke’s border-related messaging has been to criticize Abbott and other state officials for alleged mismanagement and poor conditions that led to some suicides within the Texas National Guard ranks.
At the September 30 debate, he called OLS a “disaster,” saying that it is doing nothing to stem border crossings. As of October 21, state law enforcement with OLS has apprehended 317,000 illegal immigrants and made more than 21,000 criminal arrests.
In 2020, O’Rourke threw his support behind the efforts in Minneapolis to defund and dismantle its police department, but said in the lone debate with Abbott that he does not support other similar efforts.
One thing O’Rourke hasn’t really shifted on is what has become the feature of the Democrats’ campaign slate: abortion. O’Rourke told The Texan in May that he declined to support any legal restriction on the practice, saying it should be left entirely to the decision of women and their physicians. While his focus has shifted to the lack of a rape exception in Texas, his position of least restrictive policy has remained.
The other chief pillar of O’Rourke’s messaging has been gun restrictions, especially in the wake of the Uvalde massacre. With AR-15 confiscation out of the picture, the Democrat has focused heavily on policies such as safe storage laws, enhanced background checks, and red flag laws.
O’Rourke has a long list of issue positions listed on his website, some quite specific and others rather vague. But none of these can overpower the political current that is the economy.
Kitchen Table Economy
With the winds of national politics moving against him, the uphill battle for O’Rourke is a steep one — especially in an R-54% state per The Texan’s Texas Partisan Index.
At the pair’s one and only debate, neither candidate landed a knockout blow — which is itself a victory for the incumbent.
Where the big-hitting issues haven’t provided enough oomph, the lesser ones have not supplied much in the way of unexpected momentum. Medicaid expansion, legalizing marijuana, and legalizing gambling have remained for voters secondary at best.
Even what O’Rourke viewed as his most salient issue when he launched, the power grid, went dark after the state emerged from the abnormally hot summer with little to no issue.
In an August poll, O’Rourke was 2 points below Abbott in respondents’ trust in solidifying the power grid. In that same poll, the only “issue” O’Rourke led Abbott on was “bringing people together” — a much more nebulous topic than the power grid.
That doesn’t leave a lot to work with.
But ultimately, the sputtering out of O’Rourke’s momentum can likely be attributed to one factor above all others.
To quote Democratic strategist James Carville, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
While races at the top of the ticket control their destiny more than those below, there are prevailing forces that put much out of reach for candidates.
Inflation is at 8 percent and the economy is walking the line of a recession — though it did exhibit positive growth in the third quarter for the first time this year.
Gas prices are still higher than when the Biden administration took office. Food prices are up, as are housing costs.
No amount of celebrity endorsements by Harry Styles, Kacey Musgraves, and Willie Nelson can outpace the bull that is a bear market.
As much as he’s tried to distance himself from the president, O’Rourke cannot outrun Joe Biden on the economy; Abbott’s made sure to link the pair as frequently as possible. The same phenomenon hurt Republicans in 2018 — though not economy-focused — which nearly landed O’Rourke in the U.S. Senate.
O’Rourke has built and maintained a political machine in Texas. He’s raised roughly $60 million this year and has time to bump those numbers up, which he likely will. In January, the campaign said it had 44,000 volunteers across the state, a number that has only grown since then.
Upsets, sometimes shocking ones, happen. But to date, that machine is without an electoral victory.
Maybe the third time proves to be the charm for O’Rourke. Or maybe it doesn’t, and the third constant remains. In that case, there’s always 2024 or 2026.
In 2019, Vanity Fair ran a profile of the Democrat famous for two things: the appearance of his dog Artemis, and a quote that reads, “Man, I’m just born to be in it.”
For about six years straight now, he’s been in it with little sign of getting out.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.