FiveThirtyEight’s polling average1 shows a single-digit contest in the Texas gubernatorial race between O’Rourke and the Republican incumbent, Greg Abbott. Earlier this year, O’Rourke made headlines for his record-breaking fundraising, and the fallout from a succession of high-profile events in the state — the triggering of a preexisting state law banning abortions, continued strains on the power grid and a mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history — are giving him unexpected leverage against Abbott. As a result, this gubernatorial election could be one of Texas’s most competitive since Democrats last held the office in the 1990s.
Let’s be real about one thing, though: The overall electoral environment might be improving for Democrats, but O’Rourke is still a serious long shot. FiveThirtyEight’s 2022 midterm-election forecast2 gives Abbott a 95-in-100 chance of besting his ubiquitous Democratic challenger. But is it possible that after his closer-than-expected Senate race against Ted Cruz in 2018 and rise to national prominence after a nearly eight-month campaign in the 2020 presidential election, a narrow loss against Abbott in November could be a victory for Texas Democrats in the long run?
The idea that O’Rourke could be laying the groundwork for future Democratic victories in Texas isn’t a crazy one. After all, other Southern states like Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina have become somewhat more competitive over the past several election cycles. But another close statewide race for O’Rourke this year doesn’t necessarily mean Texas is on the verge of turning blue — or even purple. That’s because O’Rourke is, well, O’Rourke, and without a stronger campaign infrastructure throughout the state, it will be hard for most Texas Democrats running in statewide elections to replicate his level of fundraising and fanfare. And, fundamentally, Texas is still a red-leaning state.
O’Rourke’s campaign style is hard to emulate because, for one, he’s become a buzzy celebrity candidate since his 2018 race, and he has a gift for making headlines. When he’s not standing up to hecklers at campaign events or interrupting Abbott at a news conference in Uvalde, where 19 students and two teachers died in a mass shooting, O’Rourke has made a name for himself by zig-zagging his Toyota Tundra across the state, snapping selfies with voters and dropping f-bombs to fire up his base.
As the chart below shows, public curiosity about O’Rourke has waned since his 2020 run, according to Google Trends data, but he’s still able to draw national attention.
But politicians can only get so far on personality alone — and O’Rourke is no exception. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a strong candidate, though. A poll fielded in late August and early September by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin gave Abbott only a 5-percentage-point edge over O’Rourke. And another, more recent, poll from Quinnipiac University conducted in late September gave Abbott a slightly larger, 7-point edge.
Still, it’s unlikely that O’Rourke will be able to build a lasting campaign infrastructure for future Texas Democrats to replicate if they want to run statewide. That’s because of one major problem: an apparent lack of organization among the Democratic Party in Texas. To build on O’Rourke’s 2018 — and likely 2022 — margins against incumbent Republicans, the party would need to build and sustain a solid campaign infrastructure well past this year’s midterm elections.
“One of the issues for Democrats here is that there’s been a lot of turnover in their candidate pool,” said James Henson, the executive director of the Texas Politics Project. “To me, that’s a pretty big indicator that there’s not really an established, institutional foundation in the Democratic Party here in the way that you do see it on the Republican side.”
In addition to issues with recruitment and turnover facing Democrats running in marquee Texas races — save for O’Rourke and former oil executive Mike Collier, who is challenging Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick again after losing to him by 5 points in 2018 — the party has run inexperienced candidates against formidable Republicans and doesn’t have a presence in a sizable chunk of the state. Case in point: Over 50 of Texas’s 254 counties have no organized county party or leaders, according to the state Democratic Party’s website. A notable number of those counties are in rural parts of the state too, and even in 2018, O’Rourke won the support of only 24 percent of the voters living in Texas’s 186 rural3 counties, according to The Texas Tribune. Cruz, in contrast, won over 75 percent of the vote there.
Moreover, Henson told me, there’s no obvious successor who can build off — and improve upon — the infrastructure that O’Rourke’s campaign has created. “In the past, there were times when successful campaigns, at least indirectly, provided people with a model for organizing and professional skills,” Henson said. “But that’s just not happening here in Texas.” In 2018, O’Rourke’s close contest against Cruz helped Democrats Lizzie Fletcher of Houston and Colin Allred of Dallas flip two congressional districts by each unseating a long-term Republican incumbent. Democrats had a net gain of 12 seats in the Texas House as well. But then, in 2020, Texas Democrats fell short of their electoral goals.
There are other reasons, though, why a close win for O’Rourke doesn’t necessarily speak to Democrats’ political future in Texas. For one, the Republican Party’s brand is still strong in Texas. When it comes to key policy issues, polling suggests that voters still overwhelmingly trust Republicans over Democrats. The August-September Texas Politics Project survey, for example, showed that voters were more likely to trust Abbott over O’Rourke on handling issues like the U.S.-Mexico border situation and the economy. Voters trusted O’Rourke more on abortion, however.
Yet while voters were divided over who could better handle gun violence, Texans said the top issues facing the state were border security, immigration, political corruption/leadership and inflation/rising prices — abortion and gun control/gun violence were further down their list. That means that any Democrat running after O’Rourke would need to win voters’ trust on these issues — and that’s a tall order given that even O’Rourke has had only limited success.
On top of that, demographic changes in Texas that at one point may have been viewed as good news for Democrats might not end up working in their favor. The state’s Hispanic population is growing, but demographics are not destiny in American politics — and those voters might be a hard bloc for Democrats to make further gains with, especially after Texas’s border counties moved sharply to the right in 2020. Voters in other rural parts of the state have also been hard for Democrats to win, and despite O’Rourke’s campaigning in rural counties, it’s not clear whether even he is making significant inroads.
And so far, O’Rourke hasn’t necessarily provided a foolproof model for winning over Republican and independent voters, whose support he’d need to beat Abbott in what is still a red-leaning state. O’Rourke might be a major presence in Texas, but he’s not actually that popular. A September poll from the University of Texas at Tyler for The Dallas Morning News, for instance, found that almost half of the state’s registered voters — 47 percent — had a somewhat or very unfavorable opinion of O’Rourke compared with 40 percent who viewed him in a positive light. He didn’t fare well with independent voters, either: 46 percent had an unfavorable view of O’Rourke versus 34 percent who had a favorable opinion.
The survey didn’t ask respondents to assess Abbott’s favorability, but exactly half of voters said they strongly or somewhat approved of his job performance as governor; meanwhile, 47 percent said they disapproved. Those numbers have given O’Rourke’s opponents an opportunity, too. Since his presidential campaign, he has given Republicans a useful foil to inspire their own turnout.
In short, for Texas Democrats to succeed statewide, they’d need to have a healthy mixture of O’Rourke’s popularity, an appeal to a wider swath of voters and, ideally, not be a bogeyman or bogey(wo)man for Republicans. That’s a big ask in a state that hasn’t fielded especially strong Democratic candidates beyond O’Rourke in the past few statewide election cycles.
Of course, because the Democratic candidate is O’Rourke — a micro-celebrity in the state and nationwide — the race could be close. That said, his race likely won’t say much about Texas Democrats’ larger ambitions to flip the state because there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done before they get there.