There are two ways to guarantee you’ll lose a statewide election in Texas: campaign for abortion or campaign against guns. Texas Democrats accomplished the first in 2014, when Wendy Davis lost the governor’s race to Greg Abbott by 20 points. Now they’re determined to do the second.
Beto O’Rourke, the photogenic Democratic congressman from El Paso hoping to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in November, declared at a SXSW event Monday that there’s no reason an AR-15 should be sold to a civilian. According to Politico’s Michael Calderone, O’Rourke, who’s not shy about swearing on the campaign trail, added, “I have no idea how that polls and I should give a shit what the NRA thinks about it.”
He might as well have said he doesn’t give a shit what Texans think about it.
Keep in mind this is Texas, where firearm purchases increased 137 percent between 2000 and 2016 and where people are generally passionate about their AR-15s. Slamming the National Rifle Association and denouncing AR-15s might get you peals of applause at a CNN town hall (or a SXSW panel) but it doesn’t play as well in the Lone Star State.
At SXSW, Beto O'Rourke says there's no reason an AR-15 should be sold to civilians. “I have no idea how that polls and I should give a shit what the NRA” thinks about it.
— Michael Calderone (@mlcalderone) March 10, 2018
Set aside the fact that no Texas Democrat has won a statewide election in 24 years. On the question of gun control and the NRA, O’Rourke’s views are far outside the mainstream in Texas. Statewide polls have found that far more Texans oppose an assault weapons ban than favor it, including an overwhelming majority (78 percent) of Republicans, and that nearly one in four Texans say they or a member of their family is a member of the NRA.
Beto’s Big Problem
Guns aren’t O’Rourke’s only problem. In last week’s primary elections, O’Rourke badly underperformed, scoring only 61 percent against two relatively unknown opponents. Sema Hernandez, who challenged O’Rourke from the left, came away with 24 percent, and retired Postal Service employee Edward Kimbrough got 15 percent. Together they carried 103 of Texas’s 254 counties. O’Rourke, whose fundraising ahead of the primary outpaced Cruz’s and made headlines, spent a whopping $4.2 million on the primary. Kimbrough spent $785, and Hernandez spent nothing.
The primary results cast serious doubt on the idea that O’Rourke can beat Cruz in November’s general election. Going by sheer numbers, Cruz got twice as many votes in the primary as O’Rourke. To be sure, Cruz’s popularity has taken a hit since his failed 2016 presidential bid, but that’s mostly from Trump supporters who were upset that he didn’t endorse Trump sooner than he did. Those voters aren’t going to cast a ballot for O’Rourke, or any other Democrat, merely out of spite for Cruz.
To be fair, it’s not all O’Rourke’s fault. In fact, for a Texas Democrat, he’s downright impressive. Texas Democrats are notorious for not being able to tie their shoes, so O’Rourke’s relatively aggressive and disciplined grassroots campaign are unusual in the state. As close observers of state politics have noted, O’Rourke’s lackluster showing in the primary says more about Texas Democrats than it does about O’Rourke.
But his popularity with the mainstream media should be understood as a troubling sign for the Democratic Party nationally. Like Wendy Davis in 2014, O’Rourke has enjoyed largely flattering coverage from the national press. Rolling Stone ran a fawning profile headlined “Beto O’Rourke: Ted Cruz’s Punk-Rock Problem,” and Vanity Fair gushed, “Meet the Kennedyesque Democrat Trying to Beat Ted Cruz.” VICE News even spent a little time on the road with O’Rourke.
Also like Davis, O’Rourke is largely a projection of what national Democrats wish were true. They wish that banning semi-automatic rifles had widespread support in Texas. They wish that voters were credulous enough to blame gun violence on the NRA. They wish that their agenda of maximum identity politics and massive government intervention were broadly popular with the American electorate.
That is, they wish much that isn’t so. As they say in Texas, if you’re riding ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there.