Texas gubernatorial contests have been unbalanced for decades, as increasingly reactionary Republicans have elbowed their way onto center stage—drawing all the energy and attention to themselves—while Democrats have struggled to get off the sidelines. Even when they have had dynamic candidates, like Wendy Davis in 2014, Democrats have had a hard time building the coalitions that are necessary to compete with a Republican machine that has so dominated the ballot that no Democratic gubernatorial contender since 1994 has won more than 43 percent of the vote.
But this year could be different.
Beto O’Rourke—who in his 2018 bid for the US Senate won more than 48 percent of the vote and gave Republican Senator Ted Cruz a major scare—is running a no-holds-barred campaign that is taking the risks that grab attention and just might rewrite the narrative of Texas politics.
In a state where Democrats have been knocked down again and again, O’Rourke is on his feet and ready for a fight.
That was obvious Wednesday, when the Democratic nominee for governor interrupted a media event organized by Governor Greg Abbott and his cronies, where the fierce foes of gun control had hoped to fool Texans into thinking they were interested in taking action to prevent more horrors like Tuesday’s massacre of 19 school children and two teachers in the city of Uvalde.
In the midst of the carefully choreographed event, O’Rourke strode to the front of the room before Abbott, Cruz, and their Republican apologists, and calmly explained that the shooting at Robb Elementary School was “totally predictable” and “preventable.”
“You are doing nothing,” O’Rourke declared. “You are offering up nothing.”
As the governor’s henchmen shouted obscenities, and demanded that O’Rourke be removed, the former representative from El Paso spoke the truth that could not be denied. Pointing at the governor, the ardent supporter of measures to address gun violence said, “This is on you until you choose to do something different. This will continue to happen. Somebody needs to stand up for the children of this state or they will continue to be killed just like they were killed in Uvalde yesterday.”
The peddlers of political platitudes grew agitated. “Sit down and don’t play this stunt,” cried Cruz. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick shouted, “You’re out of line and an embarrassment.” The mayor of Uvalde, a right-wing Republican, lost control and started screaming that O’Rourke was “a sick son of a bitch” who wanted “to make a political issue” of the gun violence that has plagued Texas—a state that saw 27 people die in a mass shooting in 2017 at a Sutherland Springs Baptist Church and 23 die after a 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso.
At the same time, cries of “Let him speak!” erupted from the room. Amid the chaos, O’Rourke was making a point that a great many Texans know to be true. That is why parents of the murdered children invited O’Rourke into their homes on Wednesday. That is why members of the community welcomed him at a vigil for the dead.
O’Rourke explained to reporters after he left why he interrupted the governor’s media event: “After every one of these [mass shootings, Abbott] holds a press conference just like this. And I wish to hell when he came to El Paso that someone would have stood up and held him to account and confronted him and shocked the conscience of this state into doing something. Because if we do nothing, we will continue to see this. Year after year, school after school, kid after kid. This is on all of us, every single one of us to do something.”
Democrats have struggled for decades to get a strong reaction for their gubernatorial candidates. But when O’Rourke stood up Wednesday, people listened—and wanted to hear more. “Let Beto speak,” said one woman in the crowd. “He has a lot to say!”
And when O’Rourke stood up, the confrontation was televised. Clips trended immediately on social media.
He showed after the event that he’s not letting up. When O’Rourke learned that Abbott attended a campaign fundraising event hours after the massacre, he tweeted, “He was counting dollars while they were counting bodies.”
The events of this week do not guarantee that O’Rourke will win in November. After all, while he came close to beating Cruz in a midterm election year that was good for Democrats, there are a lot of indications that 2022 could be a rough one for the party. Texas Republicans have implemented draconian voter suppression strategies that are designed to make casting a ballot harder for the voters O’Rourke needs to turn out—people of color, college students, and young women who are concerned about the assault on abortion rights.
It’s clear that O’Rourke knows he is going to have to be more aggressive and confrontational if he is going to upend Abbott. So he is pushing beyond the boundaries of traditional politics—and, undoubtedly, beyond the comfort zones of traditional Democratic consultants. Polls on gun control by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Austin regularly show that a plurality of Texans favor stricter gun laws, and that at some points in recent years a majority have supported tougher standards. But the numbers are fluid, and the NRA and its allies are so well organized in the state that taking a stand for gun control is seen as risky. What O’Rourke recognizes is that avoiding the risk cedes the issue to Republicans like Abbott. By talking about the issue, in blunt and unapologetic terms, he enters the debate in a way that can mobilize his base, while perhaps changing the minds of swing voters.
An edgier politics that calls out Republican hypocrisy might be just the ticket for Texas Democrats this year. And there’s a precedent that says it might work. Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, when a Bush from Texas occupied the White House, Democrat Ann Richards took on conservative Democrats and corporate Republicans with sharp and unapologetic language. She was honest, funny, and fiercely effective when it came to mounting populist appeals. Richards never let her rivals off the hook—even mocking the accents of Bushes who “summered” on the Maine coast—and it threw the Republicans off-balance. Conservatives and corporatists said she went too far. But the people listened. And in November of 1990, they elected her as the state’s first woman governor.
Ann Richards was the last Democratic governor of Texas. Beto O’Rourke, if he keeps interrupting the Republican narrative, could be the next one.