Amid Beto O'Rourke speculation, Texas Democrats impatient for a decision

Madlin Mekelburg
Austin American-Statesman
Former Texas House Rep., Beto O'Rourke speaks at a rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol building in Austin, Texas on May 8, 2021 to oppose votor suppression measures.

For many Democrats, Beto O’Rourke continues to represent the party’s future in Texas.

His 2018 campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz brought him closer to winning statewide office than any other Democrat has come in the past 27 years, and he has proved to be a prolific fundraiser with wide-reaching appeal.

After his short-lived presidential campaign in 2020, party leaders urged him to run again for statewide office. O’Rourke has demurred, focusing instead on raising money for other candidates and organizing around issues such as voting rights and the coronavirus. 

But he could be close to making a decision, according to media reports over the weekend, ending months of speculation and possibly giving Democrats the candidate they’ve been waiting for to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott next year.

“A credible, well-funded candidate at the top of the ticket kind of plows the field for everybody else,” longtime Democratic strategist Harold Cook said. “Not having one makes everybody else’s job that much more difficult. I don’t think anybody has any great cause for concern if he or any other credible candidate gets in the race — I wish they’d just hurry the hell up.”

More:Republicans counter Willie Nelson, Beto O'Rourke rally to support Texas Democrats in D.C.

Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said he has encouraged O’Rourke to challenge Abbott for nearly a year, and other party leaders have done the same. 

Until he makes a decision, other potential candidates are sitting on their hands. Many people in the party view O’Rourke as having earned the right of first refusal when it comes to challenging Abbott, so the longer he takes to make a decision, the harder it could be for another candidate to enter the race.

David Wysong, a longtime advisor to O’Rourke, said he has yet to make a decision.

“As far as I'm concerned, the earlier the better,” Cook said. “It’s not like we're not coming from behind, as Democrats. Anybody — Beto or anybody else — is going to have some catching up to do, both in terms of fundraising and in terms of support. The more time you have to do it, the better off you are.”

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But there could be benefits to waiting. Democratic strategist Colin Strother said it’s true that O’Rourke can start raising money sooner if he launches his campaign, but he'll also have to start spending sooner.

“There’s no advantage to rushing,” he said. “All you do is start burning cash, the minute you flip that switch on a serious statewide campaign.”

At the same time, Strother said it is clear that Democrats are “anxious to take the fight" to Abbott.

Abbott's approval slides

The Republican governor, a prolific fundraiser in his own right, has seen his approval ratings slide with poor marks for the state’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the sweeping failure of the electric grid during deadly winter storms earlier this year.

More:Gov. Greg Abbott preached personal responsibility during the pandemic. Then he got COVID

A Tuesday poll from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler showed that 54% of Texans surveyed think the state is on the wrong track, and 45% said they approve of Abbott’s job performance. Before the pandemic, he was perennially among the most popular statewide elected officials.

“Texans have already rejected Beto O’Rourke once; this time will be no different,” said Macarena Martinez, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “Texans want elected officials that will work for them, not politicians like O’Rourke, who cares more about surrounding himself with celebrities and pandering to the media and coastal elites.”

Even if O’Rourke hasn’t officially announced for the seat, Travis County Democratic Party Chairwoman Katie Naranjo said he is already campaigning against Abbott on a statewide stage.

“He’s already working all of the angles to run, so it doesn’t matter if he’s announced officially, because he’s still running,” she said. “He’s running. He’s doing speeches and rallies across the state. So whether he has announced or not, he’s the story. The timing doesn’t really matter.”

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Consummate Abbott critic

O’Rourke has been a consummate critic of Abbott, who is seeking a third term, and other Republican leaders over the past year, zeroing in on their response to the coronavirus pandemic and the conservative measures they’ve worked to pass at the statehouse, including a proposal to limit participation of transgender student-athletes and the state’s new abortion ban.

O'Rourke also has worked against the GOP elections bill that became law this month, speaking and raising money on behalf of the House Democrats who busted quorum and flew to Washington during the first special legislative session in an attempt to kill the measure.

Hinojosa said he has not heard a definitive answer from O’Rourke on whether he plans to enter the race but agreed with Naranjo’s characterization of his actions.

“I've been in politics for 40 years,” he said. “That sure sounded like a person running for office to me."

Corpus Christi Caller-Times staff writer John Moritz contributed to this report.