Musings: Beto O’Rourke for Governor?

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I had forgotten how this feels.

It’s so hard not to feel disillusioned with the sordid state of our politics right now. The horrific images from January 6 have left a deep and lasting psychic scar on our entire country, and I, for one, have been feeling it pretty hard lately.

Conservatives may not think liberals think this way, but my entire life, I have sincerely believed in and loved the promise and purpose of the United States of America. I remember, both fondly and with great pride, being selected to raise and lower the flag at my elementary school as a child, the care I took to keep it from touching the ground, making sure the folds were crisp and neat.

It’s why I chose politics as my profession. I was blessed to travel the country and meet people from every corner of the American experience. To sit on stoops and stand in backyards and make my case for a better tomorrow. I’ve been thinking about what a gift that is these last few days; for so many people to have shared their concerns and their cares with me, their worries for the future and dreams for their children.

I’ve also come to realize that those door knocks and phone calls and conversations also provided a window into something we all share without knowing it as Americans. At times it went unspoken; at times, it was on full display. But it is glaringly apparent to me now the myriad ways we didn’t just commune together about our politics. A lot of the time, we grieved together, those strangers and I. 

Some of them grieved over ideals of which we had somehow lost track of. Some of them lamented for the factory that closed ten years ago; the jobs and friendships and lifetime swept away with them. And in far too many corners of our country, many of them grieved over a country they never felt they could belong to.

And now, collectively, we grieve again in a way that feels universal. It can be hard to pause for a moment and think of all we’ve lost in the pandemic. People have lost their jobs, businesses, and homes. Over 400,000 of our fellow Americans did not make it to today, more than 37,000 of them right here in Texas, laying bare for the entire country to see what happens when leaders put their hubris ahead of everything else.

We grieve today as Texans because we know that it didn’t have to be this way. We watched with horror as Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and a slew of GOP Congress members denied science, flouted mask mandates, and doggedly rushed the reopening of our economy. We watched Ken Paxton and Ted Cruz pour rhetorical gasoline onto an insurrection. The cosmic bummer of 2020 seemed to persist.

But yesterday, in my grief and anger, I was reminded how it feels to be led with conviction, that in the new reality of Texas being the biggest swing state, no one will get a free pass or an easy test in 2022. And I was reminded that when Beto O’Rourke is on his game, Democrats may be hard-pressed to find anyone better to take the fight to Greg Abbott next year.

There are a lot of reasons I think a revitalized O’Rourke leading the Democratic ticket could flip the state, but the one I keep coming back to is this: In an era of empty rhetoric, Beto has always been willing to grieve with us.

We saw it in the way he dropped everything to go home to El Paso after one of the worst domestic terror attacks in history took the lives of 23 people and wounded 23 more in 2019. When he saw the horrific news of what was happening in his hometown, a place he played as a child and raised his own family, he didn’t think twice. He went home. He visited victims as they recovered in the hospital, sat with families who had suffered an immeasurable loss, and stood shoulder to shoulder with his community and prayed and grieved and began the difficult task of healing with them.

And he knew it never had to be that way. And he also knew people like Greg Abbott, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and their hateful rhetoric sowed the seeds of the evil rampage. Greg Abbott had even sent a fundraising letter out the day before the shooting, imploring his supporters to take matters into their own hands to stop a supposed invasion of illegal immigrants that was a collective figment of the conservative imagination.

And O’Rourke has watched again as a global pandemic roiled his home state, hitting his native El Paso particularly hard. He watched as refrigerated trucks rolled into town to relieve an overcrowded morgue, and as El Paso’s former mayor parroted the worst of conservative orthodoxy about COVID-19, knowing full well Abbott would never do anything about it.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and in one poignant Twitter thread, Beto cut straight to the point.

An energized and angry O’Rourke could be the perfect antidote to Abbott and his dishonest parlor games, glaringly evident to Abbott. There is no other reason Abbott would respond to a question about a potential O’Rourke candidacy by saying his policies wouldn’t “sell well.” Abbott knows O’Rourke is a potent and powerful opponent, and he was taking the first crack at defining who Beto is before his potential foe had even entered the race.

Let’s be clear, Greg Abbott is sitting on nearly $40 million in cold hard cash for his re-election campaign, but he went out of his way to take a shot at O’Rourke. There’s a saying in life and politics that applies here: wolves don’t lose sleep over sheep. The very thought of having to tangle with O’Rourke in 2022 has Abbott shook.

And it should. If you were on the trail during O’Rourke’s madcap 2018 Senate race, you remember the sheer energy he generated at every stop, the outpouring of support coming from every corner of the state, bringing new people into our political system in the process. He also developed a playbook that, if adequately resourced and deployed, worked in 2018 and can be even more effective in 2022.

Beto’s continued commitment to distributed organizing in his 2020 Presidential race and at Powered by People may ultimately be the best mechanism for organizing a state as massive as Texas and its 254 counties. Whether Beto ultimately enters the race or not, Abbott will have to contend with a statewide network of well-trained and empowered activists who are highly motivated to have a new governor. 

There’s also the genuine and tangible benefit of having a candidate like O’Rourke who understands the value of digital engagement and community building, allowing him to reach vast swaths of the electorate that don’t traditionally receive communication from political campaigns. O’Rourke created a template that other campaigns and candidates have attempted to refine and replicate, some with success, but nothing that approached the magic of Beto’s 2018 race.

If Texas Democrats can leverage those activists and tactics in 2022, with O’Rourke’s take-no-shit, punk rock ethos at the top of the ticket, it could be just the combination they need to paint the state blue.

Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

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