Texas Republicans who watched Beto O’Rourke’s turnout operation in the 2018 Senate race fear the El Paso Democrat’s presidential bid could help turbocharge the state’s political trajectory — potentially imperiling some otherwise safe GOP incumbents.
O’Rourke hired hundreds of campaign field staffers for his 2018 Senate bid, helping his party pick up two congressional seats and a numbers of other offices across the state, even as he fell just short of defeating Sen. Ted Cruz.
“He’s very popular, particularly with young people and he’s good with messaging, he’s very likable,” said Rep. Ron Wright, a Republican who represents Ellis, Navarro and parts of Tarrant Counties. “I think you’ll see Republicans working a lot harder. They were taken by surprise in ‘18.”
Republicans lost a state Senate seat in Tarrant County in 2018, and despite spending many years on the ballot, Wright lost that portion of his district to Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez. Wright made up the votes with higher-than-expected turnout in rural parts of his district.
“We know we’re the last urban county… we know they’re coming for us,” said Wright.
“What we saw in the suburbs happened all over the country. I think we’ll be ready for that this time,” added Wright, who said he thinks O’Rourke and other Democratic presidential candidates are politically too far left to be successful against President Donald Trump in Texas. “We’re going to be much better prepared on the money side and the messaging, as a party.”
Democrats are targeting six congressional seats in Texas in 2020, primarily in suburban areas where O’Rourke did well.
They’re also looking at a handful of state House seats in Tarrant County, one of the last urban parts of Texas that is still represented by a large number of Republicans. Democrats need nine seats to flip the state legislature in 2020, and consider five Tarrant County seats among their potential pickups.
O’Rourke launched his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday with a video announcement from his couch. He joins San Antonio Democrat Julian Castro in a crowded Democratic presidential field that become increasingly focused on Texas’ March primary.
“I think his chances are good because he has a certain appeal that causes people to pause and listen,” Houston Rep. Al Green, a Democrat, said of O’Rourke.
“He made Texas a bluer state than it was,” said Green. “The turnout is going to be greater in the Democratic primary... when the Democratic primary has a greater turnout, there’s a greater likelihood that Texas will turn blue.”
O’Rourke and his campaign helped Democrats nearly sweep races in Houston in 2018. Remaining Republicans in the area are still grappling with changes needed to be competitive in the future.
“I’m not so sure Texas is in play for Beto... we saw a really good dichotomy in El Paso, with the president’s ability to draw a crowd and Beto’s ability to draw a crowd in his hometown, and it didn’t go very well,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a 35-year-old Republican freshman from Houston, referring to O’Rourke and Trump’s dueling rallies at the border earlier this year.
But, Crenshaw said, “We need to speak to the younger generation.”
“It’s not rocket science, you go out and you connect with people and you put in the work and you show them what you really stand for,” he said of his party’s efforts to win back seats in Houston in 2020.
Crenshaw’s district gave 52 percent of its vote to Trump in 2018, after giving 63 percent of its vote to Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.
The Texas Republican said it was too soon to tell how O’Rourke might impact his own re-election.
Still missing from Democrats’ path to success in Texas in 2020, lawmakers say, is a credible candidate to take on Republican Sen. John Cornyn. The Senate contest is the only statewide race on the ballot.
Democratic Senate leaders courted O’Rourke aggressively for that race. They’ve also met with San Antonio Rep. Joaquin Castro, who has not yet said whether he’ll run.
“It’s great, in Texas, that we have two really dynamic candidates between Julian and Beto,” said Rep. Filemon Vela, who represents part of the U.S. border with Mexico. “There’s still an open question as to what Democrats are going to do in the U.S. Senate race and I think having a viable candidate in that race will also help other candidates down ballot.”