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Here comes Beto

He says he’s going to run a different kind of campaign. We’ll see what that means.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

No Texas Democrat has won a U.S. Senate seat in nearly thirty years or any statewide office since 1994. It is hard to find a political operative in Washington or back in Texas who would bet money – or professional credibility – on O’Rourke winning this race.

But the El Paso Democrat is earnestly bullish that he will go to the Senate through a strategy of bringing retail politics to a state of 27 million people.

He has no pollster and no consultants at this point, and said he has no interest in hiring operatives of that ilk.

“Since 1988, when Lloyd Bentsen won re-election to the Senate, Democrats have spent close to a billion dollars on consultants and pollsters and experts and campaign wizards and have performed terribly,” he said.

[…]

How in the world does he plan to beat Ted Cruz?

“Tactically, strategically, I don’t know,” O’Rourke said. “It’ll come from Texas, and I have faith and trust the people of this state will make the best decision in the interest of their families and their kids…I just trust that. My challenge, I guess, is to meet enough of them so that they can make an informed decision.”

His aim, he said, is to campaign beyond urban strongholds in a case-by-case basis.

In a 38-minute long interview the day before his official announcement, it was apparent that O’Rourke was not going to make his campaign all about Cruz – a temptation given the senator’s polarizing image among even some in his own party. O’Rourke never once mentioned Cruz by name or directly criticized his potential rival. Instead, he focused on topics like immigration, the border, and advocacy for his hometown.

The approach brought to mind the discipline Cruz has shown in his campaigns for U.S. Senate and president.

And then there is money. Traditionally, the best way to build name recognition has been through television advertising, and a statewide buy runs at least $1 million a week.

Cruz begins the race with $4.2 million in campaign money. And the early signs amid O’Rourke’s run is that tea party groups and establishment organizations will line up with tens of millions of dollars to back Cruz at the slightest sign of trouble.

Nationally, Democrats have no appetite at this point to spend serious money in Texas, and O’Rourke is not accepting money from political action committees. He, like all federal candidates, has no control over whether a super PAC opts to get involved.

But anyone opposing Cruz is a likely magnet for angry liberal dollars. And O’Rourke could have the makings of a Bernie Sanders-type fundraising operation. He is one of the most adept politicians when it comes to social media and was an early adapter of building a following with Facebook Live, a means of broadcasting events through that website.

The results of those efforts are often viral frenzies. Most recently, his bipartisan road trip with U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, earned both men a storm of positive publicity. So much so, that a handful of Republican operatives in Washington began to sit up and watch O’Rourke more closely.

[…]

The 2016 election gave Democrats cautious hope for Texas. Trump’s margins were narrower than other recent GOP standard-bearers and Democrats made enormous headway into urban centers.

O’Rourke, however, spent much of his time in the lead up to Friday’s announcement in mid-sized towns, including: Wichita Falls, College Station, Killeen, Lubbock, Midland, Waco, Corpus Christi and Odessa.

O’Rourke said he had expected a few dozen attendees at each of these events. Oftentimes, over a hundred people showed up, having heard of the event through word-of-mouth or Facebook.

The larger aim is to look beyond the cities and take his case to rural voters. The idea is not to win those regions, but to lose less-badly.

Here’s the Beto for Texas website, if you haven’t seen it yet. O’Rourke has some things going for him. He has already generated a fair amount of excitement on the progressive side, partly for who he is and what he’s done in Congress and partly because he’s running against Ted Cruz, and I do think that will help him raise money. In particular, it will help him raise money in a way that frees him up from the time-sucking drudgery of dialing for dollars, which in turn will mean more time for the mind of retail politics he wants to do. He’s fluent in online communication. Most of all, he’s genuine and comfortable in his own skin, which presents a good contrast to a giant phony like Cruz.

In short, I think if people get to know Beto O’Rourke, they will generally like him. The question as always is will he be able to make himself known to enough people? I don’t think he needs to run a standard high-priced media campaign, which he may or may not have the funds for anyway. He’ll get the votes of the Democrats who show up. But if that’s all he gets, he’ll receive 1.7 million votes or so and lose by 15 or 20 points. As I said before, he’s going to need a lot of votes from people who don’t normally show up in these elections. I’d say he’ll need a minimum of 2.5 million votes if it’s a down year for Republican turnout, and upwards of 3 million otherwise. It’s getting those 800,000 to 1.3 million other votes that will be the real challenge. (All of these numbers will be somewhat lower if indeed Matthew Dowd gets into the race, but until he takes a concrete step towards doing so I consider that to be primarily a theoretical concept.)

To that extent, the retail strategy and the visiting places outside the usual Democratic sweet spots makes sense. I have no doubt that there are plenty of people in those places that will show up and vote if they feel they have a reason to do so. Not enough of them to win, of course, but it’s a start. Spend some time in the suburbs – Fort Bend, Williamson, Collin, Brazoria, you know the drill – and the formerly rural places that are becoming increasingly suburban – Hays, Bastrop, Guadalupe, Comal – and I think you’ll be on to something.

As for whether O’Rourke waltzes to the nomination or has to win a contested primary, I’ll say this: Even if the primary is just O’Rourke and one or more no-names, possibly including the likes of Grady Yarbrough, I say O’Rourke should campaign hard and do everything he can to win convincingly and with as big a turnout as possible. In 2014, I basically shrugged off the lackluster Democratic primary and argued that the low turnout and 22% of the vote that Ray Madrigal got against Wendy Davis meant nothing. I still don’t think it was that big a deal, but it wasn’t nothing. Right now, O’Rourke is a positive, scrappy-underdog-with-a-history-of-beating-expectations story. A lackluster showing in the first opportunity that people will have to vote for him will not look good and will not keep that story going. And if he winds up with a more high-profile primary opponent, like Joaquin Castro, then the primary will give us all a chance to see how he does on the big stage. Until he has a March opponent, he has the limelight to himself. I hope he uses it for all he can and begins to build something that will grow and accelerate towards next November. RG Ratcliffe has more.

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One Comment

  1. General Grant says:

    More to the point, he should campaign hard because people like Grady Yarborough and Kesha Rogers have beaten reasonable candidates on numerous occasions.

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