For those who may have sensed a whoosh of air blowing out of Texas earlier this week, it was probably the simultaneous sigh of relief from many Democrats in the state following Beto O’Rourke’s announcement that he is, in fact, running for governor.
For those who are relatively new or unfamiliar with this game, I offer a brief and necessarily incomplete history of modern Texas politics in general, and Democratic politics specifically. The “Claytie vs. the Lady” battle back in 1990 was a pitched fight between two contrasting Texans, both of whom had personalities as big as the state they were seeking to govern. The lady, of course, was Ann Richards, well on her way to becoming iconic, and Claytie was Clayton Williams, an oilman from Midland who portrayed himself as sort of a cowboy type from modest beginnings (which wasn’t exactly the case) to become a successful tycoon in the most Texan of all businesses—oil.
With his “aw shucks” attitude and his Jett Rink demeanor, Williams started the race leading Richards by 20 points in the polls. But allegations that the good old boy had been known to go the best little whorehouse in Texas, his refusing to shake hands with Richards at a public debate, and making a joke about rape (“If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it”) killed that lead and led to Ann Richards winning by almost three points. She wouldn’t prove so lucky the next time around.
George W. Bush, the eldest child of the former president, was a political neophyte who had lost his only previous attempt at running for office back in 1978. But Bush’s famous gaffes later in his political career failed to surface during the campaign, leading him to a win over Richards by almost eight points in that year when Republicans routed Democrats across the country. From that point to this day, Democrats calculate success based on how big the losing margin turns out to be.
That also began the parade of gubernatorial candidates, whose names are only recalled by the yellowiest of yellow dog Democrats. Garry Mauro, Tony Sanchez, Chris Bell, Bill White—it was a good year for the party if its candidate for governor broke 40% of the vote.
As a state senator, Wendy Davis generated a national profile for herself through a much reported filibuster against yet another bill restricting women’s access to legal abortion in Texas. Her 2014 run for governor generated a great deal of excitement for a great many Democrats, in large part because many voters actually knew who she was. She lost to Greg Abbott by over 20 points.
And that brings us to 2018 and Beto O’Rourke. Of course, he ran for the U. S. Senate, not governor, but he was the candidate for whom Democrats had long been waiting. With a national profile and an astonishing $80 million in campaign contributions, his closely watched campaign to unseat Ted Cruz raised voter turnout to 53%, which is very healthy for a non-presidential election in Texas. O’Rourke reduced the margin of victory for the Republicans to less than 3%.
Immediately following that “waiting to exhale” moment I mentioned at the beginning of this column was a reverse intake of communal breath by the faithful of both parties. Democrats, fearful of yet another in a now decades long string of defeats, are asking each other, “Can Beto really win this time?” Republicans, eyeing Abbott’s rising disapproval ratings and the influx of freshly minted Texans who have arrived since 2018 are asking each other the exact same thing.
And to all those scared people, the answer is yes. It’s important to note that Hillary Clinton got fewer votes in Texas in 2016 than O’Rourke did in 2018. Joe Biden did even better, getting well over 5 million votes. Clearly, both Abbott and O’Rourke have their work cut out for them.
The other questions that will drive this race aren’t so easily answered. Will Matthew McConaughey enter the race, and as what? Will another polar vortex hit Texas and bring the electric grid down again? (Freeze warning tonight, by he way.) Will the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade? Will either Abbott or O’Rourke gaffe themselves into losing as poor old Claytie did so many years ago? Who knows?
What I do know are these two things. O’Rourke at 6’ 4” is a long drink of water, and he’s still lanky at 49. Lanky is code for sexy as hell, and the power of sex appeal in electoral politics should never be underestimated.
The other thing is there are whole lot of people in Texas who will never vote for O’Rourke. And that’s all right. You just need to bait your hook for the fish you can fry.