By Mary Angela Ricotta
Beto O’Rourke has style. He skateboards, jams with Willie Nelson, drops the f-bomb, and chats with Ellen and Stephen Colbert. One viral video shows O’Rourke waiting in the drive-thru line of Whataburger, a Texas staple, while playing the air drums to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” His near-chaotic and intoxicating energy rang in one of the most engaging and competitive senatorial races in recent history. Regardless of politics, there is no denying that Beto O’Rourke’s campaign was an incredible feat of determination and grit. O’Rourke visited every county in the state of Texas to hold town halls. Many, including the former president himself, have said that O’Rourke reminds them of a young President Obama. His campaign followed the motto that “everything is bigger in Texas” perfectly, from the size of his crowds to the scale of his fundraising. Approximately 55,000 people came to his rally in Austin where he performed side by side with Texas legend, Willie Nelson. He ran the most successful financial campaign in senatorial history, raising $70 million without accepting any PAC (political action committee) money.
However, all the energy and enthusiasm surrounding O’Rourke did not ultimately culminate in the votes necessary to unseat the incumbent, Senator Ted Cruz. O’Rourke’s loss is all the more startling due to the fact that Ted Cruz may well be the most loathed senator in the United States, even within his own party. Former President and Texas native George W. Bush said “I just don’t like the guy,” and John McCain once referred to him as a “wacko bird.” This begs the question; how could O’Rourke have possibly lost? Although it would be easy to simply blame Texas’s stereotype as a deeply red state for his defeat, I believe that doing so would ignore the flaws of O’Rourke’s campaign and the intricacies of Texas politics. Ultimately, O’Rourke proves that one of the major critiques against the Democratic Party could actually prevent them from gaining further ground: style points and value debates can only take a candidate so far.
Texas was firmly blue until 1961, when Republican John Tower stepped into then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson’s vacated seat. According to The Guardian, the Republicans solidified their control in Texas by appealing to dissatisfied Democrats with conservative leanings. Many Texas Democrats like to say that Texas is not a red state, just a “non-voting state.” This is in many ways true; how can anyone define a state’s identity based on votes when it has the lowest voter turnout of any state? According to statistics from the Texas Secretary of State, in 2014, only 28.9% of the voting population participated in the midterm elections. Democrats in Texas, including O’Rourke, latched onto this as one of their main points of strategy. If they could increase voter turnout, then surely they could win their elections. Early on, the results were promising. There were more people who early voted in Texas than who voted in the entire 2014 election. This is no doubt an impressive feat, and it helped fuel the belief that O’Rourke and other democrats could be successful. In the end, a total of 8.3 million people voted in Texas; however, O’Rourke fell short of Cruz by around 220,000 votes. The Texas Secretary of State also released figures that illustrate perfectly why O’Rourke was unable to defeat Senator Cruz. Although O’Rourke won the five largest counties by a margin of nearly 790,000 votes, Cruz dominated the other 249 by a margin of over a million votes. This shows that in order to flip Texas back to blue, the Democrats will have to appeal to some Republicans as well as Democrats, and this cannot be done with liberal values alone.
In a piece for the Guardian, Professor Samuel Moyn of Yale states that the successive elections of President Obama taught the Democratic party to rely on charisma to win elections. Messages of hope and the deep connections between all humans were enough to attract a voter population that felt ready for change. However, this strategy is not working anymore, and this is due in part to a shift in the electoral narrative that has resulted in the Democrats becoming closely intertwined with socialism. Although this shift has worked in other states, as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez illustrate, it will find little success in the southern states, especially Texas. A recent Gallup poll suggests that less than 50% of Democrats view capitalism positively, and another states that 62% of Democrats favor harsher restrictions on fracking, while 71% of Democrats favor a carbon tax. This is a problematic reputation to have attached to you as a candidate running in Texas. According to Forbes, the $1.6 trillion Texas economy is the second largest in the United States and is home to 100 of the 1,000 largest companies in the country. According the Bureau of Economic Analysis, in chained 2009 U.S. dollars, oil and gas helped to add 167.95 billion dollars to the Texas GDP in 2017. In other words, big business and the oil and gas industry are huge aspects of the Texas economy.
Senator Cruz was quick to point out his connections to these industries, and the failings of O’Rourke. In one debate, Cruz stated that O’Rourke voted for a $10 tax on barrels of oil, and this soundbite attached itself to O’Rourke and his campaign in countless political ads. On the other hand, O’Rourke stressed on his own website that he supported the Texas oil industry and would like to see the U.S. rely on Texas oil and not foreign oil. However, it was hard for O’Rourke to combat the reputation of his party’s increasingly anti-capitalist platform in a state whose bones are big businesses and blood is oil. If O’Rourke wanted to appeal to liberally leaning conservatives, he should have done more to separate himself from the Democratic Party and stress his allegiance to the economic welfare of Texas. Instead, his viral videos and talk show clips painted the picture of a man concerned primarily with immigration, universal healthcare, and other social issues. While this was morally admirable, it proved strategically unwise, as it associated Beto with the new wave of Democrats whose socialist leanings would act as a perceived threat to Texas’s interests. O’Rourke’s campaign had the feel of recent presidential races more than a senatorial one; it focused on touting its moral superiority rather than attempting to appeal to a wider base. Democrats need to exit the liberal echo chamber and speak to those conservatives that could vote for them on a level that they understand. Luckily, there are two newly elected congressional representatives that offer fairly sound playbooks for how Democrats can win big in Texas.
In Houston’s 7th district, Kenyon alumna and prominent lawyer, Lizzie Fletcher, unseated nine-term Republican John Culberson. According to the Washington Post, Congresswoman-elect Fletcher leaned heavily on persuading moderate Republicans and independents to vote for her, and the Houston Chronicle labeled her a “pragmatic centrist.” On her campaign website, Fletcher boasts that Houstonians “need common-sense solutions—not platitudes, theories, or empty promises.” This rhetoric clashes harshly with other Democratic candidates who built their campaigns on utopian rhetoric. Although her liberal values, including her close connection to Planned Parenthood, were well spoken for, her campaign promised to fight partisanship to get Houston the infrastructure funding and other services it needed that Culberson had failed to provide. In short, her campaign focused on the failures of the incumbent more than the failures of America.
In Dallas’s 32nd district, former NFL player and civil rights attorney Colin Allred unseated Republican Pete Sessions. Sessions was the chair of the House Rules Committee, and had been in Congress since 1997. However, Allred managed to unite his district not only under the broad dislike for Trump and his policies, but under meaningful and realistic policy goals that would directly benefit Dallas County. Allred pushed his connection to the district, and to the major policy issues that affected it. He related his desire to improve education to his experience growing up in the Dallas public school system, and his push for protecting and improving health care with his own mother’s health struggles. Although his stances on the hot-button issues such as immigration were in line with the rhetoric of O’Rourke, the focus of his campaign was on the people of TX-32. Conversely, many of his critiques on Sessions focused on his lack of connection to the people of Dallas. Popular debate points were how Sessions spent more time in Florida than in Dallas, and how he voted in line with Trump the majority of the time despite the fact that his district voted for Hillary.
O’Rourke’s fame and charismatic appeal to grand liberal ideas worked against him. The two candidates above were Texans who prioritized their districts above party politics, and won in Houston, the home of oil, and Dallas, the home of big business. Although O’Rourke attempted to present himself as a candidate with Texas’s best interest at heart, his media persona and overall reputation was one that firmly aligned him with the Democratic National Committee’s goals and approaches. This isolated him from rural voters, and proved that style cannot buy the votes of Texans.