Elections 2022Beto O’Rourke’s Tour of Rural Texas Takes Progressive Message to GOP Strongholds

O'Rourke's tour of the state will last 49 days, during which he'll traverse 5,600 miles across Texas.
August 8, 2022
To a crowd of a couple hundred in Bastrop’s The East 40 venue, Beto O’Rourke gave the stump speech he’s delivered to many such small and rural towns on his 49-day, 5,600-mile tour across Texas.

O’Rourke played his favorite hits: knocking his opponent Gov. Greg Abbott over the power grid, rising utility bills, the state’s restrictions on abortion, pushback on racial and sexual discussions in schools, teacher pay, that AR-15s and AK-47s are still legal to purchase in Texas, and the investigations of child abuse of parents of transgender children.

The crowd reacted as they often have during O’Rourke’s run for governor, with roaring applause and jeers for Abbott — whom they see as the cause of all that is wrong in Texas, a posture O’Rourke is more than happy to goad.

Since his rise to notoriety in his 2018 midterm challenge against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), O’Rourke has drawn large crowds and raised a lot of money. In fact, those are two of the three constants during his life on the highest rung of politics.

The third is that he loses.

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O’Rourke is hoping that the third time’s the charm after narrowly falling to Cruz in 2018 and struggling to tread water during the 2020 presidential primary. Many of his committed supporters backing his candidacy to the hilt are holdovers from four years ago. Numerous cars in the parking lot had “Beto for Senate” bumper stickers.

He’s got the anti-Cruz and Abbott demographic on lock, but in a state that is rated R-54% by The Texan’s Texas Partisan Index, the Democrat has an uphill battle — a fact of which he is aware.

That’s one reason why he’s embarked on this tour, where most destinations are far from the state’s largest population centers.

Republicans have consistently cleaned up in rural Texas.

In his 5.5-point victory in Texas two years ago, former President Donald Trump won counties with fewer than 100,000 registered voters by 50 points. His margin of victory in those counties, 1.2 million, was double his statewide margin of victory over Democrat Joe Biden.

Put simply, without running up the score so much in rural Texas, Trump would’ve lost the Lone Star State.

The story was similar the last time O’Rourke ran for a statewide position in Texas. Cruz won that segment of counties by almost 50 points; his margin of victory there, 931,000 votes, was four times his statewide margin of victory.

In order to knock off Abbott, O’Rourke will have to pare back some of that margin.

The Democrat’s messaging in Bastrop was not much different from his talking points at an Austin town hall in March. 

He backed a transition away from fossil fuel use, although not to the degree some national progressives might prefer; called for a repeal of every restriction on abortion in Texas, personally taking the position that there should be no legal limit on abortion at any point; emphasized his desire to remove all AR-15s, AK-47s, and anything else deemed a “weapon of war” from private possession; and impugned what progressives have called the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” a Florida law that prohibits the classroom discussion of sexual topics from kindergarten through third grade.

One topic that did not come up in Bastrop, but has been a consistent theme of late, is O’Rourke’s opposition to school choice legislation, which is most often discussed in the form of vouchers.

O’Rourke is vehemently against them, while Abbott has recently backed school choice more than he has at any time before. It is a potential wedge issue for O’Rourke to win over some rural voters who are more in favor of preserving public education’s dominance.

Polling shows mixed results on the question, and as with many such issues, it depends largely on how the question is framed.

A poll from Raise Your Hand Texas, an anti-school choice organization, shows opposition to vouchers at 55 percent — but the question was framed as “Would you support or oppose establishing or adding charter schools in your community if that meant reducing the amount of funds distributed to your local school?”

An April survey by the Texas Politics Project asked, “Please tell us whether you would support or oppose the following proposal: Redirecting state tax revenue to help parents pay for some of the cost of sending their children to private or parochial schools.”

Likely voters polled were 45 percent in support and 40 percent opposed.

And on the 2022 GOP primary ballot, 88 percent of voters approved of a proposition that read: “Texas parents and guardians should have the right to select schools, whether public or private, for their children, and the funding should follow the student.”

While O’Rourke has waffled or outright shifted on some positions from campaign to campaign, he’s largely made his political bed for round three.

The Democrat at the top of the ticket is raising the money, drawing the crowds, and sticking to his progressive message. But whether it can make a dent in Republicans’ rural strongholds remains to be seen, yet not for a lack of trying.


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Brad Johnson

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.