Beto O’Rourke, a third-term congressman from El Paso, is trying to accomplish something Democrats haven’t done since 1994: win statewide office in Texas.
O’Rourke officially announced his bid to take on Sen. Ted Cruz on Friday, a lofty goal considering Cruz has a national fundraising network and gobs of name recognition from his 2016 presidential run. The 44-year-old O’Rourke insists that crisscrossing the state and relying on small donations is the way to unseat Cruz, who won in 2012 after besting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a primary upset.
But first O’Rourke will need to win the Democratic nomination, and another Democratic rising star may upset his plans: Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio. Castro will make a decision about joining the race in the next month.
A primary showdown between two well-liked and well-funded Democrats would add an extra layer of time and money for O’Rourke and potentially Castro – and could make it easier for Cruz to brand the winner as an out-of-touch liberal if O’Rourke and Castro need to spend time winning over the state’s liberal base.
“A competitive primary will split the party, leave hard feelings and limit the ability to raise the money needed to compete in the general” election, said University of Houston professor Brandon Rottinghaus, author of a recent book on Texas politics. “Two competitive Democrats in the primary who have run in the past has fractured the party and created new fault lines that Dem voters weren’t able to cross.”
Rottinghaus brought up the 2002 election, in which former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk won a four-way Democratic primary to challenge Sen. John Cornyn for an open seat at the time. While Republicans were united behind Cornyn’s ultimately successful bid, Democrats were divided by geographical and ideological interests that made it harder to win the general election.
In recent years, big-name Democrats have largely stayed out of one another’s way in statewide races. State Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth faced nominal opposition in her 2014 gubernatorial bid against Greg Abbott, which she lost. Democrats did not contest primaries in races for lieutenant governor or attorney general.
Democratic strategists say it would take at least $40 million to mount a credible challenge against Cruz, who likely would draw millions in outside money at the first hint of trouble. There’s also the chance that major national Democratic organizations might shift their time and attention to defending a slew of vulnerable incumbents in states President Donald Trump won, as Texas would be an expensive and potentially daunting target.
“Texas Democrats have to save themselves,” said Matt Angle of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic political research group. “If you’re counting on winning by outside progressive dollars, it’s almost always cheaper to invest in a smaller state than in a giant state like Texas.”
Angle emphasized that O’Rourke or anyone else who jumps into the race must run a “Texas-focused” campaign that aggressively targets Cruz as an out-of-touch hard-liner who cares more about being president than representing Texas.
While O’Rourke’s timing pre-emptively puts the onus on Castro to make a decision that could make it harder for either to unseat Cruz, Rottinghaus argues it was smart for O’Rourke to enter when he did.
“O’Rourke has had a couple of weeks of really good national press,” Rottinghaus said, referring to the lawmaker’s recent bipartisan road trip from El Paso to Washington with Republican Rep. Will Hurd, which was streamed over Facebook.
“In terms of monetary payoff it may not be very much, but the imagery and messaging it provided was worth its weight,” Rottinghaus said. “The biggest problem for O’Rourke is that he’s always going to be a liberal Democrat from liberal El Paso. Wendy Davis was labeled as a liberal, and O’Rourke has the same problem. The road trip gave him a way to introduce himself as a moderate.”
Rottinghaus and Angle argued that a lack of attention and cash from national Democrats could play to O’Rourke’s advantage in the messaging war. Republicans successfully tied Davis to her stance on abortion rights and painted her as an unabashed liberal even though her legislative voting record in Austin was relatively moderate. If O’Rourke is able to define himself before Cruz and other Republicans do it for him, he may have a better shot at winning over independents and some moderate Republicans.
Cruz enters the race with $4.2 million in the bank, according to Federal Election Commission records. O’Rourke has raised $217,000 online since he announced his bid Friday, according to the Texas Tribune.