For years, Texas Democrats have believed their state is on the precipice—perhaps just one more election cycle away—of turning from red to blue. But in 2022, for the second straight election, Texas got redder.
When Beto O’Rourke ran for Senate in 2018, he came within 3 points of unseating Sen. Ted Cruz (R). It was an encouraging sign for Democrats, and proof of what they’d long been claiming. But in 2020, Joe Biden lost the state to Donald Trump by about 6 points. And then this year, O’Rourke’s lost his gubernatorial bid to Gov. Greg Abbott by double digits.
It was an exhausting yet not unexpected loss for Democrats. Since O’Rourke first sparked national hype for Texas in 2018, left-leaning Texans have branded their home as a pickup opportunity for Democrats, with 38 electoral college votes no less. Candidates and activists point to Georgia as an example of what can happen with adequate investment.
“No one believes in Texas, everyone looks at Texas and everyone just gives up on us,” Rep.-elect Jasmine Crockett (D-TX) said at a press conference last week.
Crockett, who is coming to Congress in January after longtime North Dallas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) didn’t run for re-election, noted there was a time when everyone gave up on Georgia.
“And right now, no one is saying that we’re not going to get that seat,” Crockett said, referring to the Georgia Senate seat that is in a runoff. ”Because guess what? Georgia showed this country what they could do when the investment was put there.”
But walloping after walloping, that pitch is getting harder to sell, particularly after O’Rourke lost by exactly 11 points.
Democrats in the state swear they can do better. And it starts with the end of the O’Rourke era.
When O’Rourke mounted his 2022 bid, there was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Not only did he run in 2018, but he also unsuccessfully ran for president in 2020. Many cast doubt on whether he’d fare any better this go around. Abbott is ostensibly more popular than Cruz. National political forecasts showed Democrats getting trounced in 2022. And Texas wasn’t high up on the list for national spending this cycle.
There were some assumed perks to O’Rourke, a former congressman from El Paso who’s repeatedly garnered national attention. He had widespread name ID and an already built-out database of supporters. He knew how to run a campaign—and he dominated the primary.
But even as Democrats nationally overperformed, and Democratic candidates in South Texas quelled the anticipated red wave in the House, O’Rourke did not.
“He’s developed a reputation on the GOP side, and I guess it spilled over into the independents because they didn’t buy his story this past election,” said Joel Montfort, a Texas Democratic consultant, who was clear that he thinks O’Rourke has done a lot of good for the party.
Still, Montfort was clear-eyed about Beto’s performance in 2022. “We were hoping Beto would bring big coattails this go around. None of that happened,” he said.
Texas Democratic strategists that spoke with The Daily Beast all agreed new leadership is in order. But they see an obvious issue on the horizon: recruitment.
In Texas, there’s no natural successor to O’Rourke. Some of Texas’ recent statewide candidates have never held office. And those in the state who have—namely Democrats in the Texas congressional delegation—might not be so eager to give up their comfy seats in blue districts for the slog of a statewide bid.
Case in point, when The Daily Beast reached out to each of the 13 Democrats in Texas’ 118th congressional delegation to ask if they’d be interested in running for Senate in 2024 against Cruz, only two replied.
Rep.-elect Greg Casar said he looks forward to seeking re-election in the House and “will strongly support our Democratic nominee” for Senate. A spokesperson for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said it would be “an honor to serve but it’s not something she’s focused on at this moment.”
“To use a baseball phrase, we don’t have a very deep bench. We don’t have a lot of players sitting on the bench, just ready, willing and able to jump in,” said Jon Mark Hogg, founder of the 134 PAC, which works to turn out Democrats in rural Texas.
Charlie Bonner, communications director for MOVE Texas, told The Daily Beast that the issue reaches the bottom of the ballot; smaller seats, like city council or school board, are often the first step up the political ladder.
“If you asked most folks today who could run for governor next, could they name anyone? Of anyone that they could name, would they actually do it?” Bonner asked.
“We need people running at the school board now,” he continued, ”one, because the school boards are a critical place where these fights are happening, but also because in 10 years, we need those people to be running for Congress and for the statehouse.”
Governors in Texas are not term limited. Abbott’s newly won term will end in 2028, meaning Democrats have some time to figure out a nominee for that office.
The issues for Democrats are only compounded by Republican gains with Latino voters, particularly in south Texas. Although Democrats managed to win two of the three most competitive House races along the border this cycle, national GOP campaign arms have built out their Latino-voter operations in recent cycles. While much of that is focused on GOP pickup opportunities for the House, changing voter sentiment in former Democratic strongholds only exacerbates the left’s problems in the state.
Still, Texas Democrats say it’s not all doom and gloom. Organizers claim things like year-round investment in voter registration and persuasion could help. Texas has seen massive population growth in recent years: 2020 census data shows 95 percent of new population growth is from people of color.
Hogg, the founder 134 PAC, argued the rural outskirts of Texas are filled with opportunities for the party. Similar to the model employed by candidates like Sen.-elect John Fetterman (D) in Pennsylvania, Hogg said Democrats don’t have to win rural counties outright; just improving their margins could pay dividends.
But Hogg added a dose of reality to the Democrats’ timeline for flipping a state like this. It takes sustained investment, he said, and patience.
“This is a long-term struggle. This is not something that you’re going to get done in 2024, 2026,” he said, pouring cold water over the eternal talking point that Texas is just one cycle away.
“We need a long-term plan,” he said.