When we launched our bracket challenge last week, it set off some serious debate among our staff about who should make the round of 16 and which candidates deserved to be seeded in which positions.
While some of our staffers included some bold and intriguing choices that ran the gamut from Bun B to El Paso State Rep. Joe Moody, the most heated debate that we had was over how to seed our brackets and who might warrant one of the coveted top 4 seeds.
Compelling arguments can be made for a range of candidates, from Beyonce and her unique ability to inspire and mobilize young Black women to State Rep. Raphael Anchia, who has spent years mastering the Texas government in the legislature. Still, to produce a bracket grounded in reality, I’m trying to reserve the top four spots for candidates who either have strong resumes and track records that make them good fits for the Governor’s mansion or candidates who have publicly acknowledged their interest in the race.
#4: Matthew McConaughey.
That immediately sets off a debate about what to do with Matthew McConaughey. The talented actor has been publicly flirting with a gubernatorial run for months, and there was a range of opinions among our team about where to seed McConaughey.
Most of our team agrees that due to the strength of his high name identification and crossover appeal, coupled with the fact that he has publicly conceded giving the race serious consideration, McConaughey meets the criteria of a serious candidate giving the race serious consideration.
It remains to be seen if McConaughey would jump into a Democratic primary or launch an independent bid for the state’s top job, but his commitment to empathy and his considerable work at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic to get Texans to mask up might give him a lane to inspire the souls of Texas Democrats.
In our internal staff brackets, McConaughey gets rated as high as number 2. From my perspective, while he does slot into the top 4 spots in the bracket, his limited voting history and untested political chops warrant the 4th seed.
#3: Veronica Escobar
Moving on from McConaughey, there is a surprisingly deep bench of accomplished elected officials in the state who warrant serious consideration for the #3 seed, and I personally poured over a roster of names that included Congress members Colin Allred and Lizzie Fletcher, State Reps. like Raphael Anchia, Gina Hinojosa and Trey Martinez Fischer, former State Senators Kirk Watson and Wendy Davis, and current State Senator Royce West. While some of those folks will make an appearance later in the bracket, my third seed goes to a candidate with a unique resume that combines congressional and executive experience, and would give Democrats a unique geographical presence in the governor’s race.
That person is El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, the former County Judge of El Paso county. Escobar has proven to be a young powerhouse in the Democratic caucus since first getting elected in 2018. She has begun to stake out leadership positions on issues that are important in Texas and nationally.
Crucially, Escobar knows what it means to be an executive, having spent eight years as the chief executive of El Paso County. Abbott is all but certain to make experience a key issue in the 2022 race. Still, Escobar could easily rebut any of those arguments and create a powerful contrast between her record and Abbott’s history of failures.
Escobar would also give Democrats a strong Latina candidate at the top of the ticket, and she would be the first Democratic nominee for Governor from El Paso, a region of the state that is often underrepresented at the statewide level (with some notable exceptions) that could help give Democrats a boost in West and South Texas.
#2: Lina Hidalgo
I think executive experience is incredibly important in the context of a statewide race against a two-term governor like Abbott, and we have a slew of smart and capable County Judges like Andy Brown in Travis County, Nelson Wolff from Bexar County, and Clay Jenkins, the longtime County Judge in Dallas County, there is one County Judge who is uniquely positioned to take on Abbott with an epic argument for quality over quantity.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has repeatedly indicated that she won’t jump into the governor’s race and remains committed to seeking re-election as county judge in 2022. Even still, there are few elected officials in Texas who have strung together a more impressive series of policy wins and generated more excitement than Hidalgo, who has become a ubiquitous presence across Texas through her leadership during the coronavirus pandemic and the winter storm that rocked the state.
Hidalgo, who is wrapping up her first term as judge, has proven to be a skilled communicator who is unafraid to take Abbott on, getting the better of Abbott in a number of local and national news interviews. She’s also been center stage in leading Harris County in a more progressive direction, working with her Democratic colleagues on the commissioner’s court and in other offices to modernize county government, tackle bail reform, and expand access to voting in our state’s largest county.
While Abbott would argue that his experience would be his greatest asset against a relatively young presence like Hidalgo, that tact would set Hidalgo up for the perfect rebuttal. For the last three years, at every turn that Abbott made mistakes or was missing in action, Hidalgo was hard at work, making things happen.
That’s something Texas voters love to see.
#1: Beto O’Rourke
You probably could have guessed who locked down the top seed. After nearly toppling Ted Cruz in 2018, no one has a better test case than Beto O’Rourke for how to turn Texas blue, and the former El Paso Congressman and presidential contender has been Abbott’s leading critic throughout his repeated missteps in 2021.
O’Rourke would immediately give Democrats a rock star candidate at the top of the ticket to raise the money to compete with Abbott. Many voters still have a strong affinity for O’Rourke, whose fearless Senate campaign has become so legendary in the state it’s almost mythical.
Indeed, many Texas Democrats are rooting for O’Rourke to make the race and give the ticket a fighting chance in 2022. While Abbott and Texas Republicans would likely mine O’Rourke’s presidential bid for red meat they can serve their base, O’Rourke’s no-bullshit approach to campaigning might help inoculate him from some of those attacks.
O’Rourke is also skilled at tapping into the same anti-establishment sentiment that could propel a candidate like McConaughey to success. Beto’s 2018 Senate race brought hundreds of thousands of Texans back into the voting process, and a 2022 governor’s race could do the same thing.
Most crucially, O’Rourke can see the whole board. He knows firsthand the type of grassroots organizing machinery necessary to success and has spent years cultivating that activist base and deploying it across the state to great effect. That base of activists is a major key to any Democrat’s chance of success in 2022, and O’Rourke could quickly put it back in play.
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.