It is often said that showing up is half the battle, and that is often true in American politics but especially so in Texas, where Democrats have anxiously waited all year for word about if, and according to new reporting when, Beto O’Rourke might join the 2022 race for governor and give Greg Abbott the most serious challenger of his career.
With the recent reports that Beto has been inching closer to getting into the race, now is the time for both the candidate and the Democratic Party in Texas to get serious about how to beat Greg Abbott and give Texans a government that gives a shit again.
I hope you’ll forgive me, dear readers, for that slight four-letter flourish. I was raised by a single mother with a strong assist from my deeply Catholic grandmother, and if I learned anything from those women it is that even saints lose patience. And I, my friends, am no saint. Even by our usual standards for callous politicking, 2021 in the state of Texas has been exhausting and exasperating to an almost soul-crushing extent.
So I’m excited that someone, anyone, is finally getting the bat off their shoulder and holding Greg Abbott accountable for the decades of bad government he’s served the state of Texas. And, I’ll admit, I do think Beto O’Rourke gives Texas Democrats, and more importantly Texans, the best chance at beating a savvy career politician like Greg Abbott.
I’ve heard all of the criticisms of a potential O’Rourke bid, from Democratic and Republican operatives, voters around Texas, folks who lead progressive organizations. Some are fair, some less so. But the cold hard truth is, among Texas Democrats, no one has garnered more votes or gotten us closer to winning an actually competitive election, and the goodwill that O’Rourke has engendered from his impassioned near-miss in the 2018 race against Ted Cruz still runs deep.
O’Rourke is a unique political beast with a demonstrated talent that is so exceptionally rare in a candidate that I had a hard time putting my finger on exactly what it was he was doing in 2018. Put as simply as possible, O’Rourke connects with people on an authentic level because he is so overwhelmingly earnest it’s inspirational. He doesn’t shy away from tough fights or taking the morally just position in a heated policy debate, and that leads me to the first key to beating Abbott for O’Rourke.
Say it with your chest
In his bids for Senate and president, O’Rourke didn’t shy away from truth-telling or being bold, and those instincts could serve him well in a race against Abbott, who I earlier described succinctly as a career politician.
Abbott has been running for statewide office since the 90’s and the defining characteristic of his political career has been a willingness to go whichever direction the wind blows among base Republican voters. For most of his career, Abbott has squeaked by as the picture postcard of a mainstream conservative but has repeatedly indulged his appetites for attention and power by bending to the whims of the most vocal right-wing conservatives.
He did it as Attorney General of Texas, when instead of focusing his office’s ample resources on consumer protection after one of the worst recessions we’ve ever experienced or doing literally anything else of demonstrable value, he morphed into a living, breathing Tea Party meme, suing the Obama administration as many times as possible to shore up his conservative bonafides as he prepared to run for governor in 2014.
And we’ve seen it repeatedly in his performance as governor over the last several years. Abbott has slowly been pulled farther right than his own opponents in the Republican Party ever could have imagined, and his most strongly rightward shifts came after Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, potentially opening up an opportunity for Abbott to seek that seat in 2024.
Abbott wouldn’t even self-correct during the covid-19 pandemic or the deadly winter storms that crushed our state earlier this year. He’s remained steadfastly committed to collecting massive checks from the energy producers that reaped massive windfalls in profit from the storm and refused to put ERCOT reform on any of the three special session agendas to reward them for their largess. He watched Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a less experienced politician across the Gulf, become a national rising star by fighting against covid-19 precautions, and co-opted the strategy for himself.
The differences between Abbott and O’Rourke when it comes to authenticity are night and day, and the proof is in the pudding. While Abbott was MIA during the worst parts of the winter storm, I was receiving calls from activists and elected officials across the state telling me that O’Rourke had reached out to see what he could do to help organize grassroots relief efforts across the state. He went out and knocked on doors in neighborhoods that had been ravaged by the storms, helping connect Texans to the resources they needed.
While Abbott has fought tooth and nail against mask and vaccine mandates, O’Rourke and his organization Powered by People made calls and knocked on doors to encourage people to get vaccinated and teach them how and where they could go to do so.
At every important turn during the past year, we’ve gotten nothing but tough talk and political rhetoric from Abbott, while O’Rourke took action as a private citizen to help people, and O’Rourke should be willing to loudly call Abbott out for the ways that he’s let our state down. It’s on-brand for O’Rourke, and he’s always been at his best when fighting back against the excesses of Republican elected officials.
This brings me to my next point:
The most effective campaigns have a focused and disciplined message, and against an opponent as well-financed as Abbott, it will be especially important for O’Rourke’s message to remain steadfastly focused on the issues that are most important to Texans, and to ignore an unnecessary noise that comes his way.
Yes, Republicans are going to attack O’Rourke for some of his statements during his presidential campaign. Yes, they will do it repeatedly in an effort to distract from the fact that they haven’t actually accomplished anything in the last 30 years except for landmark voter suppression and anti-choice legislation.
And that’s the crux of how O’Rourke needs to respond. “Yes, I’ve heard that criticism from some Republican talking heads, but I talk to real Texans every day who just want to keep their kids safe and send them to good schools. I talk to Texans every day who are worried about what’s going to happen when winter comes, and I think Greg Abbott should be more worried about what real Texans have to say, too.”
Abbott and the Republicans can’t resort to positive messaging, because they haven’t accomplished anything. They can’t run feel-good campaigns but they haven’t given Texans anything to feel good about, so they’re going to sling mud and try to tear Beto down before he gets out of the gate.
Win the cities, rock the suburbs, but don’t mess with South Texas
O’Rourke almost single-handedly helped Democrats make incredible gains in the statehouse in 2018 by running up the score for the Democratic ticket in major metro areas and their surrounding suburbs, areas Republicans will continue to struggle as Texas grows, and it is critically important that the major counties get the resources they need to run aggressive turnout operations.
But those gains were offset in 2020 by Trump’s overperformance in traditionally Republican rural areas as well as gains Republicans made with Latino voters in South Texas. Any strategy for statewide victory that doesn’t include robust field and paid media plans specifically targeting South Texas and the RGV won’t give Democrats a fighting chance in 2022, and time and money spent in traditionally Republican rural areas is unlikely to yield significant results.
For O’Rourke and Democrats to win in 2022, one of the first things his campaign will need to do is put together a cogent strategy for that region, and to begin organizing immediately. The path to victory for Texas Democrats, O’Rourke included, will be built in Black and Brown communities across the state, and those programs need to be the center of the campaign’s overall strategy.
Don’t neglect the air support
O’Rourke built a massive organizing operation in 2018 and it nearly toppled Ted Cruz in the U.S. Senate race, but he still fell just over 200,000 votes short of victory. O’Rourke was also unique among almost all major campaigns in the United States that cycle, having spent only about a quarter of his budget on television advertising.
Most campaigns spend 75 to 80 percent of their budgets on paid communications, something O’Rourke bristled at in his challenge to Cruz. While organizing is a powerful tool, an extra $10 million on the airwaves may have helped make the difference for O’Rourke in 2018, especially more money spent on Spanish-language television ads.
The most effective decision we made when I managed Lina Hidalgo’s 2018 campaign for Harris County Judge was going up on Spanish language television. We hit the airwaves just ahead of a surge in Latino turnout during early voting, and the feedback we received from Latino voters was overwhelmingly positive.
Democratic campaigns have neglected investment in Spanish television and direct mail to their own detriment for years, and the Trump campaign and national Republicans exploited that in 2020 by increasing their investment in those programs significantly. If O’Rourke is able to combine his vision for distributed organizing with an effective media strategy, he may be able to help drive turnout in the region in ways we haven’t seen in a generation.
Don’t forget Abbott’s defining trait: weakness
Greg Abbott is weak, and every political move he’s made in 2021 has reeked of desperation. He’s doing everything he can to hold off the challenge on his right flank in the 2022 primary, and the end result has been a complete abdication of any type of principled conservatism.
O’Rourke can beat Abbott by hammering that point home at every opportunity. Every chance Abbott has ever been given to do the right thing has been squandered in the name of his own political ambitions.
Abbott has always been afraid of the MAGA element of the Republican Party betraying him, so he’s assertively moved as far to the right as possible to appease them. He’s afraid of getting a primary challenge from a viable opponent, so he finds new opportunities to embarrass himself and our state all in the name of shoring up his base. He’s too much of a coward to hold his corporate donors accountable for the winter storms that killed hundreds of Texans, so he cashes their checks and does what they ask.
Greg Abbott is weak, far too weak to fight for Texas families. If Greg Abbott isn’t brave enough to fight against downright lies or special interests that raked in record profits as his own people were dying, how can we ever count on him to have our backs in the future?
We can’t, and there might not be a better person on the face of the earth to make that point than the fairly fearless O’Rourke.
Of course, there is a lot more to beating Greg Abbott than what I detailed above, and we’re just getting started. Elections have consequences, and I’m fully committed to making sure we don’t have to suffer the consequences of having Greg Abbott as our governor any longer than we absolutely have to.
Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.