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An in-depth look at the Beto-Cruz race

Good long read from the Trib about the Senate race, which they published after I was well into my county vote analysis. There’s too much to summarize here, but I want to focus on a couple of points.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

Organizationally, O’Rourke was on his own. Win or lose, he seemed determined to look at how Democrats had run statewide campaigns in the past and, as often as possible, do the opposite of that.

O’Rourke’s longtime chief of staff, David Wysong, left the congressman’s House office and took the lead on campaign strategy in Austin. Back in El Paso, O’Rourke chose a longtime friend and political novice, Jody Casey, to make the trains run on time as campaign manager. Until last year, she worked in sales at General Electric.

Early on, O’Rourke defied the conventional wisdom in Washington and Austin over how to run a modern Senate campaign. He vowed to not hire a pollster or rely on consultants.

“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,” O’Rourke told the Tribune on the eve of his campaign kick-off in March 2017.

Consultant fees on U.S. Senate races – particularly ones in states the size of Texas – can translate into multi-million dollar paydays. None of O’Rourke’s closest advisers made more than $200,000, and they brushed off pitches from a number of the go-to Democratic hands.

Republicans were quick to jump on campaign finance reports that showed O’Rourke hiring some outside vendors, but the congressman and his campaign maintained that they were only relying on third parties where it was necessary. The aim, he insisted, was to avoid outsiders providing strategic advice designed to calibrate his message.

But the unorthodox approach didn’t stop there. O’Rourke pledged to visit all 254 Texas counties, even as the vast majority of voters live in less than a dozen. He tapped a staffer to livestream on Facebook hours of his time on the campaign trail – not just speeches and town halls but also O’Rourke doing his laundry and skateboarding through a Whataburger parking lot. The goal was to introduce himself to Texans in a way that no candidate had ever tried. Slowly but surely, the crowds showing up at his events in virtually every corner of the state began to grow larger. Donations, most of them small but hundreds of thousands of them, began rolling in – with some supporters motivated in part by O’Rourke’s emphatic refusal to accept money from PACs.

Along the way, O’Rourke’s campaign grew to a scale few would have imagined from the outset. Wysong initially planned for a staff of 60 people. By Election Day, he had hired about 1,000.

[…]

Heading into the final month, it became clear the campaigns were on different tracks when it came to a critical task: getting out the vote. O’Rourke was building a massive in-house operation, complete with hundreds of paid staff, tens of thousands of volunteers and over 700 “pop-up offices” across the state from which those volunteers could phone bank and organize block walks.

Much like the beginning of his campaign, O’Rourke stopped in places that a more traditional campaign might have passed on in those final days, like east Fort Worth, where the novelty of a nationally prominent candidate stopping by was not lost on African-American voters.

“He would feel or hear from people that he was visiting, ‘You haven’t been here,’ or ‘Not enough of this community is represented at your events,’ so we would try to make events more convenient to people that we were trying to attract,” Wysong said.

O’Rourke spent the final stretch of the campaign making multiple stops a day – sometimes in parking lots and parks that had little overhead cost – with a bullhorn in hand. The early voting stops were nearly always within walking distance of a voting location.

“We had to get a better bullhorn,” Wysong said.

Cruz, meanwhile, also hit the road during the period — going on a bus tour through Election Day — but had no comparable get-out-the-vote effort inside his campaign, and by all appearances, relied on the robust turnout machine created by another statewide official, Gov. Greg Abbott. Cruz even embraced the dynamic in the race’s closing days, using a Texas Tribune article about it as a rallying cry.

[…]

In the days after an election, those connected in any way to the losing side can often turn into a circular firing squad, quick to throw blame and I-told-you-so’s at others. Yet Tuesday night and throughout Wednesday, prominent Democrats around the state were unenthusiastic — even privately — to criticize the O’Rourke campaign’s execution. There were minor suggestions on how to improve on statewide campaigns in the future – that perhaps the 254-county strategy was misguided, that more needed to be done to appeal to Latino men, that O’Rourke should have hit Cruz sooner and harder.

But for the first time in a long time, Democrats in Texas were at peace about their most recent election.

“I’m not a good second-guesser because I’m a big believer that choices have consequences,” said Amber Mostyn, a prominent Houston Democratic donor. “So, if Beto had done something differently, as I would have advised, then there would be other consequences.”

There is also a sense across the state that something in the electorate may have shifted over the course of this race.

Still, there is fear among some Democrats that they may not be able to recapture the momentum and build on these gains without O’Rourke leading the charge, particularly with the added hurdle of the elimination of straight-ticket voting starting in 2020. When else could the stars align in this way — with a president who so motivated his opposition’s base, when so many talented candidates stepped forward to run down-ballot, and when someone with the star power of O’Rourke could lead the charge?

“If they can’t win yesterday, I don’t know when they win,” concurred Rob Jesmer, a longtime adviser to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and the former executive director of the Republican Senate campaign arm.

Other Republicans are not so confident. Under the hood, the damage was significant. There are no urban counties left in the state that support Republicans, thanks to O’Rourke winning there. The down-ballot situation in neighboring Dallas County was an electoral massacre, as was the situation in Harris County.

“This election was clearly about work and not the wave,” Mostyn said. “We have been doing intense work in Harris County for five cycles and you can see the results. Texas is headed in the right direction and Beto outperformed and proved that we are on the right trajectory to flip the state.”

Nervous Republicans also see the largest warning sign of all, beyond the frightening election returns in the cities: The Democrats now have a Texas farm team. But can they do anything without a charismatic standard-bearer like O’Rourke? And will he run again?

Like I said, read the whole thing. This one is going to be studied by political science types for years to come, either as a critical turning point or a massive missed opportunity. For me, I would say that the next Beto-wannabe should have access to a pollster, if only to know where they stand as the campaign goes along, and I would argue that while the idea of visiting all 254 counties is nice, some counties are more important than others. Job One for 2020 is building on what we accomplished this year, and that means enabling more growth in the places where Dems took big steps forward, and fostering it in the places where we’re still in the first stages of it. The smaller metro areas out in west Texas – Lubbock showed some real growth, for example, but places like Abilene and San Angelo still have a long way to go – and the fast-growing counties around San Antonio – we really need to step it up in Comal County – should be priorities. We also need to reckon with how we’re going to fund the next Beto, because not everyone is going to have the national spotlight like Beto. We need to develop grassroots fundraising capacity, which the Congressional candidates tapped into much more successfully than the other statewide candidates did. I think this year we finally realized that we actually do have the recipe for success, but we haven’t quite figured out how to put it all together. We’re closer than we’ve ever been, but we can’t take anything for granted. Let’s learn from this and make it better next time.

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6 Comments

  1. Manny Barrera says:

    Pete Wilson turned California Blue and he did not even run as a Democrat. He got the ball rolling and the ball is rolling down hill.

    Whether it stops is up to what the Trump Party in Texas does.

  2. Former County Judge Emmett may be right, the GOP is following California with their policies and rhetoric turning Texas Blue. Democrats are having the hard part of their rebuilding done for them.
    Half of the bottom 100 counties in Texas should be merged with neighbors.

  3. voter_worker says:

    Personally, the fact that Beto visited every county in Texas impressed me more than any other aspect of his campaign. It matters to me that he gave a damn about all the counties that “don’t count” as much as the bigger ones. If he were to ever run for President I have no doubt that he’d campaign in each of the 50 states and probably Puerto Rico too.

  4. asmith says:

    I knew Beto would do well in the suburban counties like Collin, Hays, Williamson, Fort Bend, but never would have thought he’d get 46 in Collin or 44 in Denton. I thought that would have been enough to win, plus narrowly winning Tarrant.

    GOP structural advantage still exists in the small metros and rurals. I think Bell has replaced Tarrant as the bell weather county. The improvement in Brazos, Lubbock, and Jefferson was good to see. We are still facing the effects of redistricting when it takes out strong incumbents who had organizations in east texas in particular. Those guys used to fund county parties in their districts. Gotta figure out how to do better in San Angelo, Tyler/Longview, Texarkana, Waco, etc.

    It’s tough to beat Clinton’s numbers in the valley. She’s had 45 years of relationships down there.

    After a long vacay I hope Beto decides to run against Cornyn if Castro is set on running for Prez. It will take a ton of resources and great candidates up and down the ticket in 2020 but thanks to Beto and the ticket there is a realistic roadmap. The idea that Cornyn is invincible is a media/gop pundit/professor creation.

    I’m more worried about Will Hurd or maybe Dan Crenshaw down the road.

  5. tristan says:

    The one “What if” that I have is not anything having to do with Beto’s campaign, but to the other statewide democratic candidates.

    What if instead of Lupe Valdez running against Greg Abbott, someone like Gregg Popovich had thrown his hat in the ring? Lupe was outmatched from day 1 of her campaign. She showed little mastery of using the vast number of Texas media outlet to get your message. I saw more reports of Popovich’s comments about Trump than any comments by Valdez the entire campaign.

    What if instead of Mike Collier running against Dan Patrick, Julian Castro had run against him? San Antonio having a candidate from their city in both the Gubernatorial and Lieutenant Governor’s race would have certainly boosted turnout in Bexar and the RGV well past 50-55%.

    What if instead of Kim Olson, Ron Kirk (former Dallas Mayor, former US Trade Representative under Obama) had run against Sid Miller for Ag Commissioner?

    How about John Sharp running for literally anything? Sharp has already been elected statewide and is known by anyone who ever stepped foot on a Texas A&M campus since 2011.

    The early enthusiasm for Beto showed that Texas voters desired charismatic candidates that carried a mix of political clout (something Collier, and Olson lacked) and a fresh voice on the issues. I think Justin Nelson was a good candidate for AG, but was never able to shift the focus on the criminal indictments of his opponent to his own candidacy.

    Imagine a ballot last week that showed:

    US Senate: Beto v. Cruz
    Governor: Popovich v. Abbott
    Lt Governor: Castro v. Patrick
    AG: Nelson v. Paxton
    Ag Commissioner: Kirk v. Miller

    I think Beto, Nelson, Castro and Kirk all win in this scenario, primarily due to turnout bumps across the state in key areas that each candidate would appeal to.

  6. Tom in Lazybrook says:

    Crenshaw isn’t even in office. There won’t be anywhere for him to go until at least 2022. And even then, he’d be running either for an open GOP seat or against a GOPer if he’s running for anything statewide. My guess is that his goal is to ensure that he’s not the odd man out when the GOP redistricts in 2021 (the GOP would have to be insane to try to not just concede an Anglo suburban Dem seat in Houston in 2020). My guess is that if his district gets shifted north into Montgomery, he’s going to have to lose any bloom he has now as a relative non-firethrower to win up there. He also has to worry somewhat about 2020, where he will be on the ballot with Donald Trump, whom he will be supporting, in a district that will likely be even less Republican than it is now due to new transplants moving into it.

    Hurd can’t get out of a GOP statewide primary unless things change

    —–

    I think that Beto did an awesome job. To get over the hump, we will need

    1) Higher turnout in the Valley
    2) Less bleeding in Montgomery County (which has a larger vote than any small metro, including Corpus), and in non-Collin/Denton suburban DFW and in non-Bexar County metro San Antonio. Beto got crushed there and that was decisive.

    I think fixing those two might be easier than flipping rural Texas or Midland or Abilene. None of them are going to be easy.

    But I can’t fault Beto.