Musings: Matthew McConaughey, Democrat? Julian Castro, Governor?

by | May 18, 2021 | Musings, Opinion

With the news over the weekend that Matthew McConaughey had begun making calls to some politically connected folks in Texas to test the temperature of a potential campaign for Governor of Texas in 2022 came a jarring realization.

None of them were Democrats.

McConaughey, the actor and activist who has become an almost unofficial mascot for his hometown of Austin, is said to have reached out to a moderate Republican and an energy industry contact to feel them out about a potential campaign, in what could be seen as McConaughey continuing to position himself as something of a political independent.

With due respect to the man, that might be a grave mistake. Any path to viability in a 2022 campaign will, of course, require peeling off support from disenchanted Republicans and shoring up support among independent voters. 

But if we’ve learned anything in statewide campaigns around the country, those two things alone do not approximate a political base, something McConaughey doesn’t naturally possess as of this writing.

It also stands to create an awkward incongruity for McConaughey, who has built and expanded his public profile by issuing appeals for compassion, empathy and understanding of our fellow Texans, all qualities sorely lacking in the modern Texas GOP.

Think about it for a second. McConaughey helped organize and lead a star-studded telethon to raise money for Texans impacted by the winter storms. It was hugely successful, raising millions of dollars, and highlighting just how badly state leadership has failed us. With just a few hours of his time, McConaughey was able to do what Governor Greg Abbott could not. That’s an impressive feat.

Couple that with Abbott’s announcement yesterday that the state will stop offering the $300 expansion to unemployment benefits, a potentially crippling economic setback for the most vulnerable Texans at a time when the employment market in the state isn’t exactly at full strength.

Aligning with Texas Democrats makes a world of sense for McConaughey, who can still position himself as aggressively moderate (something many Texas Democrats outside the major cities might say about themselves), but he could also potentially gain a pre-built organization that has gotten closer to toppling Texas Republicans in the last two cycles than it had in generations.

The team that McConaughey could build if he became a Democrat doesn’t stop at the grassroots level. Any independent candidate would face significant challenges building a credible, bipartisan statewide ticket to advance their ideas. A Democratic ticket headed by McConaughey that could potentially include heavyweights like the Castro brothers or El Paso congresswoman Veronica Escobar would be an immediate force in a general election, with a number of other talented Texas Democrats able to fill out key positions like Agriculture Commissioner or Comptroller.

The challenge for McConaughey will be creating a theory of the race for governor that would be stronger than someone like former HUD Secretary, San Antonio mayor, and presidential contender Julian Castro could make. Castro’s name popped up in the context of the governor’s race this week, with a spokesperson for Castro saying he’s keeping an eye on the governor’s race, but hasn’t ruled anything out.

That’s similar to the stance Beto O’Rourke has taken, publicly conceding he has no plans to run right now, but refusing to rule it out.

The presence of one or more strong Democratic candidates in the primary would almost surely scuttle a McConaughey bid for the nomination, but the greater question that needs to be resolved is whether either or any, Democratic candidate could beat Abbott with McConaughey in the race as an independent.

The most likely answer to that question is no, with McConaughey’s combination of celebrity and charisma likely to peel off a large number of independent and lean Democratic votes. The problem that presents for McConaughey is that he probably can’t win enough of those votes to beat Abbott either, if there’s a good Democratic candidate in the race.

I’ve worked on Democratic campaigns for over a decade in nearly a dozen states, and have spent most of that time right here in Texas. If I’ve learned anything in that time, it’s that voters crave two things with intensity: something new, and something better. Given his universal name ID and the broadly positive feelings Texans have about him, McConaughey could be entering the 2022 race with a solid head start.

And that head start could pay dividends for the actor and ambassador to Austin. Texas voters did give 12% of the vote to Kinky Friedman’s 2006 campaign for governor, while Carole Keeton Strayhorn took an eye-popping 18 percent herself. That 30 percent of the vote accounted for more votes than the Democratic nominee, Chris Bell, was able to muster in his second-place finish with just under 30% of the vote. 

That scenario should give Texas Democrats serious pause about a three-way race with McConaughey and Abbott. For all the progress Democrats in the state have been able to muster these past few cycles, any possibility of a third-place finish in the 2022 governor’s race would be a terrible setback.

But what if O’Rourke or Castro make the race? Either would be a strong candidate in a Democratic primary, and O’Rourke is still the Democrat who got closest to flipping a seat statewide with his 2 point loss to Ted Cruz in 2018. While some voters are feeling fatigued waiting on O’Rourke to make a decision, many Texas Democrats have felt that frustration with Castro for years, and many prominent Democrats placed an unfair share of the blame for O’Rourke’s loss in 2018 on Castro’s decision to stay out of that year’s governor’s race. 

At any rate, McConaughey would be well served by sitting down with O’Rourke and Castro and learning about Texas from their perspective as he considers the next steps in his race. He should also break bread with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who knows a thing or two about winning close races, and County Commissioner Rodney Ellis. Few people who have ever lived possess Ellis’s understanding of the Texas Senate, and his leadership on criminal justice reform issues nationally could be invaluable to McConaughey as he grapples with shaping a policy platform. More crucially, Ellis has deep ties to local leaders across Texas, and he could help introduce McConaughey to some of the most challenging policy questions Texas faces, along with some of our most innovative leaders.

Winning a Democratic primary is always easier said than done, but if McConaughey is serious about his putative deliberations for our state’s highest office, he needs to get serious about building a winning coalition that can appeal to the kinds of moderate voters McConaughey sees in himself. After a session spent suppressing the vote, banning abortion and bullying transgender students as the chairman of their own state party strayed further into the Qanon movement, the Texas GOP doesn’t have much to offer any serious person, McConaughey included, who wants to roll up their sleeves and find real solutions for the Texans that need them most.

Bottom line: Democrats shouldn’t discount McConaughey, and he shouldn’t discount them. If you’re ready to meet some folks, Matt, give me a call. I’m happy to introduce you to the future of Texas.

Photo: All-Pro Reels / Wikimedia Commons

Senior Advisor | + posts

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.

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