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Beto’s Big Bet: Deep-Red Texas Is Actually Blue


Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz is based on a theory about Texas, which is this: Texas is actually blue, and if enough people come out to vote then Democrats can win statewide elections.

The theory, like the O’Rourke campaign itself, is audacious. Texas is, strictly speaking, deep red. Texas voters have not sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1988, and no Democrat has won statewide office since 1994. Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature, the governor’s mansion, and every other statewide office. The last high-profile Democrat to run a serious campaign in Texas was Wendy Davis, who lost the 2014 governor’s race to Greg Abbott by 20 points.

On the other hand, Democrats have made significant gains in all of Texas’s major cities. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, and Austin are all Democratic strongholds. In 2016, Harris County (which encompasses Houston) saw Democrats sweep every countywide elected office and shift decisively blue. In Dallas, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump 60 to 34. In San Antonio, the second-fastest growing city in the country, Clinton beat Trump 54 to 41.

Democrats point to these growing urban centers on the one hand, and on the other hand to persistent low voter turnout in Texas, which is dead last in the nation. They claim that the secret to turning Texas blue is just to increase voter turnout: if more people voted, the statewide electorate would better reflect political reality, which is that Texas is a left-of-center state, not the bastion of conservatism for which it’s known.

Beto Is The Perfect Candidate To Test The Theory

This theory can’t be summarily dismissed, but neither can it be proven—unless, that is, some charismatic young Democrat wins a statewide election by boosting voter turnout. Enter O’Rourke, a photogenic Democrat from El Paso who in recent months has become such a media darling that the sheer number of fawning profiles of him has inspired at least one withering parody.

Reporters seem never to tire of describing “Beto,” as they call him, on the campaign trail: running, sweating, drinking beer, dropping f-bombs as he visits every one of Texas’s 254 counties. He’s been compared to Bobby Kennedy so often it’s become as obligatory when writing about him as mentioning that he was once in a punk-rock band.

After the Cruz-O’Rourke debate on Friday night, mainstream media nearly lost its collective mind when a video of O’Rourke air-drumming (poorly) to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” in a Whataburger drive-thru was posted on Twitter. It was the perfect meme for the cool candidate, confidently rocking out after his showdown with the dorky, un-cool Cruz.

If ever there were a Democratic candidate who could prove the blue-state theory of Texas, it’s O’Rourke.

Plenty Of Reasons To Doubt The Theory

But there’s an obvious risk that comes with running on this theory: what if it’s not true? What if an enlarged Texas electorate still leans right-of-center? After all, one of the reasons Texas has become such a fast-growing state has been the strength of its economy, which kept humming through the Great Recession thanks in part to low taxes and light regulation. With a low cost-of-living and plenty of jobs, Texas has become a proof-of-concept for conservative governance—and residents of other states have noticed. It’s not a coincidence that the number-one source of in-migration to Texas is the high-tax, high-regulation state of California.

This is a point Cruz is fond of making. He hammered away at it during his 2016 presidential bid and he hammered away at it Friday night. Cruz firmly believes that the majority of Texans favor his conservative vision for the state, and he was at pains during the debate to keep the focus on the substantive policy differences between him and O’Rourke, whose policies more or less align with the national Democratic Party: Medicare for all, gun control, expansion of the welfare state, and so on.

O’Rourke did not seem eager to get into all this. During Friday’s debate, he instead focused on Cruz—how he’s an absentee senator, doesn’t know what Texans want, tried to use his Senate career to launch himself into the White House.

This of course plays into O’Rourke’s general theory of the election. As he pointed out Friday, Cruz has visited every county in Iowa but not in Texas, the implication being: how could Cruz know what O’Rourke knows, which is that most Texans aren’t all that conservative and would actually support progressive policies?

But that’s argument by implication. Sniping over who has gone to more counties in the state is not the same as arguing over what Texans want or the relative merits of competing policies. If O’Rourke is reluctant to dive into those kind of debates with Cruz, it’s probably because it’s not at all clear that most Texans want to make their state more like California.

Polls, for their part, can only tell us so much, and what they reveal is inconclusive. For example, a June poll of registered voters by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas found that 51 percent of Texans think gun laws should be more strict, which would seem to bolster O’Rourke’s position. But the same poll also found that 49 percent of respondents have a somewhat or very unfavorable view of the Democratic Party (compared to 37 percent with a very or somewhat favorable view), which is likely why O’Rourke has tried to distance himself from national Democratic leadership even as he espouses Democratic talking points on issues like gun control and taxpayer-funded health care.

Although it’s true that on a host of issues Texas is not as conservative as its reputation suggests, it’s also true that Republicans enjoy broad popularity among the electorate. A Texas Lyceum poll from August found that Abbott had a 19-point lead over Democratic challenger and former Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had a 9-point lead over Democratic opponent Mike Collier.

In the Cruz-O’Rourke race, the polls have been mixed but Cruz is clearly the frontrunner. The latest Quinnipiac poll has Cruz up by 9 points, although an Emerson poll from late August had the race essential tied, with Cruz up by only one with a 4.4 percent margin of error.

For now, past elections reveal much more than polls do, and what they show does not support O’Rourke’s theory of blue Texas. No wonder he and his handlers want to make the contest more about personality than policy. That way, O’Rourke can test the Democratic theory of Texas without having to commit to it fully—without having to argue that most Texans support abortion, gun control, universal health care, and all the other Democratic policies that seem so woefully out-of-step with actual Texas voters.