ROUND ROCK, Texas — One humid afternoon in late July, after finishing the second day of a three-day, 27-mile march for voting rights in Texas, Beto O’Rourke drove his gray Toyota Tundra to a suburb north of Austin, put on a name tag with “Beto” printed on it and began knocking on doors, trying to register new voters, one single-level ranch house at a time.
It was not going well. He read the thermometer on a porch where no one answered — 100 degrees, smelled fresh laundry, crossed a weed-strewn driveway to another door, knocked, then drummed his fingers on a clipboard, waiting. Nobody.
Cicadas hummed overhead. Sweat held a swath of graying hair to O’Rourke’s forehead. “Where are they?” O’Rourke wondered aloud.
A woman in her driveway, already registered, told him it was “too hot to be walking around.”
O’Rourke is the closest thing to a star in Texas Democratic politics, a tall and expressive former congressman from El Paso who built his reputation on a Kennedyesque ability to excite a crowd and an almost theatrically grassroots approach to retail politics. He’s been doing some version of this voter registration work ever since he dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary in 2019. It’s an extension of O’Rourke’s turnout strategy from his 2018 Senate campaign, and it reflects Democrats’ basic theory of the case in Texas — that if the party could register and turn out even a fraction of the several million people who are eligible to vote but not registered, many of them young people of color, Democrats could swing the state their way.
During the course of about an hour walking in a heavily Democratic precinct in Round Rock, O’Rourke registered one new voter.
“Felicia,” O’Rourke said to Felicia Miyakawa, a volunteer organizer for the organization O’Rourke set up, Powered by People, “we’ve had some dry runs before. I don’t know that we’ve had anything like this.”
When he left, she said, at least “he’s doing the work.”
O’Rourke, she said, “is a big hope for us.”
It’s a testament to O’Rourke’s celebrity, and also the relative weakness of the Democratic Party in Texas, that a politician who lost a U.S. Senate race in 2018, bottomed out in the presidential primary less than two years later and now would count it a victory if you simply came to the door is the party’s best hope to take the governor’s seat next year.
For years, the Democratic mythology of Texas has been that the rapidly diversifying state is “about to turn blue” — that despite its obstinate record of Republican dominance, the state’s shifting demography is poised to flip something: the state house, a big statewide office or a presidential vote someday soon. But when it comes to actual candidates — the kind of names that could capture enough broad support to win the Democrats a Senate seat or the governor’s chair — there’s really only one person those hopes are riding on.
“Can we clone him?” asked Dora Oaxaca, chair of the Democratic Party in El Paso County, of O’Rourke. She called him “the wind beneath the Democratic Party.” Julie Oliver, the former congressional candidate who twice ran unsuccessfully to flip a Republican-held House seat around Austin, said O’Rourke “might be the only person who could unseat [Greg] Abbott, honestly.” Jeff Travillion, a county commissioner in Travis County, Texas, said “he’s probably the best-known name that people associate with taking care of the little guy.” From the chair of the state Democratic Party down, Democrats in Texas have been lobbying O’Rourke to run for governor next year against Abbott, the Republican incumbent.
For O’Rourke himself, the calculus is simple but brutal: Every loss is a dent in his reputation as the future of Texas politics. There have been two so far, and challenging Abbott could easily lead to a third. Abbott lacks O’Rourke’s charisma and star power, but he’s a canny politician who has never lost a race and has already raised $55 million. O’Rourke would likely have a better chance of beating U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz two years later — but two years, in politics, is a long time to sit on the bench.
O’Rourke is thinking seriously about running. And every Democrat in Texas is waiting for him to make up his mind.
“The pretty fair assumption that people are making” is that he will run, said Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party. Hinojosa said he has spoken with O’Rourke twice about the election, both times encouraging him to run.
“The problem for us,” he said, “is until he makes a decision, nobody else is going to do anything.”
There are few politicians who, within their own states, carry such high expectations. Stacey Abrams of Georgia, the Democrat to whom O’Rourke is most frequently compared, also lost a statewide election in 2018 and is now considering running for governor. But there are now two other prominent Democrats in her state — Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who won runoff elections in the national spotlight in January. In Texas, there are the Castro brothers, Joaquin and Julián, and Lina Hidalgo, the Harris County judge. But none of those Democrats has the profile or fundraising record O’Rourke has.
For the most part, Democrats here don’t seem to care that a loss to Abbott could hurt O’Rourke’s personal future. O’Rourke is a fundraising juggernaut, and if he entered the race he would give the state party a draw at the top of the ticket, likely sucking millions of Democratic dollars into Texas and helping to turn out voters who would support other Democrats on the ballot. There’s a chance O’Rourke wins. And there’s a chance that a loss, if it’s close enough, would keep O’Rourke’s promise alive, and not dampen enthusiasm for him two years later.
To Democrats still smarting from Republican victories in the state in 2020, if all O’Rourke’s candidacy did was help to flip a Texas legislative seat or House race, it might be worth it.
During the July march for voting rights, which wound from Georgetown, Texas, to the state capitol in Austin, about 125 clergypeople and activists walking two and three abreast hoisted banners and sang freedom songs on the scalding pavement of the frontage roads along Interstate 35. They said things about O’Rourke like, “He’s a beacon,” “He’s like a Kennedy,” “He’s got his heart in it,” and “I love him more than I hate Ted Cruz.”
“What are we waiting for?” said Amy Nathan Wright, a civil rights scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s not about him. It’s bigger than him.”
Gavin Rogers, a minister from San Antonio who was wearing a white robe and maroon Vans, said that sometimes “the best thing to do might be run and lose, if it’s best for the movement.” And when the march reached the capitol for a rally with country music icon Willie Nelson, O’Rourke looked out at a lawn specked with supporters still wearing “Be Beto” and “Beto for Texas” T-shirts from his previous campaigns. Near the front of the crowd, a woman in a sundress with a white, wide-brimmed hat, waved a homemade “Beto for Governor” sign.
He might not run. One Democrat in El Paso said O’Rourke told him several months ago that he felt some reservations. But it is getting late in the election cycle, and if he doesn’t, Democrats will be scrambling to find someone else.
I asked Steve Adler, the Democratic mayor of Austin, if it was a sustainable strategy for Texas Democrats simply to have O’Rourke run over and over again — a Senate race, followed by a presidential race, followed by a gubernatorial race and, if that falls short, another run for U.S. Senate.
“Why not?” he asked. He paused, and added, “Just for a while.”
O’Rourke, who will turn 49 this month, has been giving the same, brief response for months when asked if he will run for governor: He’s focused solely on voting rights, and will think about it later.
The simplicity of that answer would be unremarkable except that it’s coming from O’Rourke, whose management of his last post-loss, pre-potential campaign period was so much less dignified. Back in late 2018 and early 2019, when he had just lost a close Senate race to Cruz and was seen as an early top-tier presidential contender, O’Rourke shared with the universe that he’d slipped into a “funk.” He went on a road trip to shake it. He ate dirt in New Mexico. He washed his face in a lake. He wrote about all of it in an online journal, on Medium. It added up to a lot of Beto O’Rourke talking about Beto O’Rourke, and it contributed to criticism that he was thinking mostly about himself.
Robin Rather, an environmentalist in Austin who saw O’Rourke before the rally with Willie Nelson last month, said, “I thought he was unbearably punk-angst after he lost the Senate race.” Rather, the daughter of the journalist Dan Rather, said, “He lost a lot of credibility with me because he was emoting all over the place.”
Today the “Beto” brand is largely the same as it has been since 2018. But the person behind it seems to have changed, perhaps significantly, as a result of the drubbing he took in the presidential campaign.
The difference from late 2018 and early 2019 is that O’Rourke is not, as Rather put it, “emoting” nearly as much. He is still ubiquitous, but is behaving in some significant ways like a more traditional political organizer. His organization, Powered by People, said it helped register some 200,000 Texans to vote during the general election last year, and O’Rourke’s Instagram brims with photographs of him standing beside people he registers himself. In June, O’Rourke held voting rights town halls in 17 cities across the state. Most recently, his group raised about $730,000 to help Texas Democratic lawmakers physically leave the state, breaking a quorum in the legislature and at least delaying passage of a restrictive voting bill. Last week, he went to Facebook Live to launch a program in which Powered by People will drive to people’s homes to register them to vote if they call and ask.
Adler said, “His PAC is everywhere, and his messaging is everywhere, and his organizing is everywhere.”
This gets at one notable evolution: Powered by People is a PAC, after O’Rourke swore off PAC money as a congressman and during his presidential campaign. Asked about this, he said, “I could, with a wink and a nod, call myself a nonprofit, just engaged in nonpartisan voter registration, voter contact work. But I clearly want to do this in service to Democratic victories in Texas, and I want to be able to help great Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in the state. And the only legal entity that would allow me to do that is a political action committee.”
Then there is the discipline with which he is avoiding discussing his own political plans, laboring to disconnect his own ambition from his involvement in the voting rights campaign.
On the eve of the march in Texas, as activists gathered in the shade of live oak trees outside a church in Georgetown, O’Rourke stood at the side of a stage while the Rev. William J. Barber II, of the Poor People’s Campaign, addressed the crowd. During the walk, O’Rourke sang “Woke Up This Morning” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” with everyone else, but at the back of the line, his blue oxford shirt with its sleeves rolled up, a plastic bottle of water in his right back jeans pocket. He did interviews with reporters when they approached him, which was often. But an aide cautioned, “One thing he is going to be sensitive about is making this about him.”
It all seemed very different to the Texans who had witnessed O’Rourke’s stream-of-consciousness public reckoning following his Senate race. When Rather caught up to O’Rourke in Austin last month, he was standing by a green dumpster on a sidewalk between a UPS store and a union headquarters where the marchers gathered, stopped by a supporter for a photograph.
Rather told him, “You’re everything we want to be.”
“There’s a lot of pressure on him. He’s carrying the burden that he carries really well,” she said. “He’s this symbolic, ‘Texas can be something other than it is,’ for all of his flaws and all his losses.”
Underlying all those expectations is a political question with ramifications not just for O’Rourke, but for the country: Could Texas really turn blue?
Had Democrats come closer to defeating Donald Trump in Texas last year, there is a chance that O’Rourke might already be in the race. Leading into the election, Democrats buoyed by O’Rourke’s surprisingly strong Senate run and the party’s downballot gains in 2018 believed that flipping a state that had not gone Democratic in a presidential election in more than 40 years was possible. O’Rourke, who had campaigned in every county in the state in 2018, campaigned for down-ballot Democrats. He called Texas a “swing state.” Democrats thought they could, perhaps, even take the state House.
They didn’t even come close. Trump beat Biden by nearly 6 percentage points in Texas, and Republican Sen. John Cornyn won re-election by almost 10. Democrats, after picking up 12 state House seats in 2018, failed to make gains in the downballot races. Rather than celebrating progress, Democrats nationally saw in Texas a worrisome sign: Perhaps America’s changing demography wouldn’t automatically float them into power. In the heavily Latino Rio Grande Valley, for instance, Trump over-performed.
The results also darkened the outlook for O’Rourke’s political future. “He’s young, but he’s in a super tough state,” said Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way. “Where do you go if the statewide races are impossible, no matter how good you are?”
The reality today is that O’Rourke, if he runs for governor, will be starting from behind. A poll by The Dallas Morning News and University of Texas, Tyler, in June put Abbott’s approval rating at 50 percent, including 29 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of independents. O’Rourke was rated very or somewhat favorably by just 31 percent of voters, while 40 percent had an unfavorable view. O’Rourke’s favorability rating was, in fact, worse than Cruz’s. And in a head-to-head matchup against Abbott, he was losing 45 percent to 33 percent. A Quinnipiac University poll similarly had O’Rourke’s favorability rating in the 30s, while Abbott stood at 49 percent.
Many Democratic political professionals both inside and outside of Texas believe the prudent political choice for O’Rourke would be to sit the governor’s race out and wait to take on Cruz, a more polarizing figure than Abbott.
“I don’t think the demographics in the state have moved far enough in Beto’s favor for him to be able to pull it off, and he’s a smart guy, so I’m pretty sure he knows that,” said Russell Autry, a pollster who worked for O’Rourke during his time on the El Paso City Council. “If you look at the demographics and numbers that are against you in a governor’s race, why would you do it?”
Autry said, “He lost the Senate race, he lost the presidential race, and I think a third time would probably be a significant image problem. So, if he were to ask my advice, I’d say do what you’re doing now and wait it out … You lose three times and it’s tough.”
Right now, it’s impossible to count the 2018 Senate run, in which O’Rourke came far closer than expected, as a loss for him politically. He was widely credited after the election with spiking turnout, contributing to the party’s sizable gains that year in the state House. It set him up to run for president. But Republicans in 2020 found O’Rourke useful, too, yoking downballot Democrats to progressive policy positions O’Rourke took during the presidential campaign, including his support for mandatory buybacks of assault weapons. Dave Carney, the Republican strategist who advises Abbott, said he hopes O’Rourke does run, calling O’Rourke “unelectable in Texas.” If O’Rourke does run and the result is not as close as it was in 2018, Cruz may not even have to worry about him running two years later.
Eliz Markowitz, a Democrat whose effort to flip a Houston-area state House seat in 2020 drew national attention, recalled that O’Rourke and his organizers “set up shop” in her district to help her for about a month ahead of the election, drawing hundreds of volunteers from as far away as New York, Canada, Wisconsin and Spain. But it was not all positive.
“I think there were benefits and there were drawbacks,” she said. “Beto is obviously a big name out in Texas, and so his presence definitely fired up the Democrats to come out and vote. But on the flip side, when you fire up the Democrats, you’re going to fire up the Republicans.”
Markowitz called O’Rourke “the best shot we have at actually winning that gubernatorial seat, and he’s the individual who has put the most effort into actually changing the state of Texas. Even when he’s not on the ballot, he’s constantly working.”
Still, she said, “There’s a certain calculus that needs to be addressed. It would be difficult to have another loss.”
Markowitz said she wished she knew if he planned to run. “And I wish he would tell us!”
If not O’Rourke, the question for Texas Democrats is, “Who?” Neither Julián nor Joaquin Castro is likely to run for governor next year. Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and Housing and Urban Development secretary, also ran for president in 2020 and didn’t have much better luck than O’Rourke. This cycle, he said “it’s not likely that I’m going to run” for governor. “I feel like I just ran a marathon in the 2020 campaign,” he said in an interview, “and you know, just happy to support others right now and shine a light on issues that are important to the state and to the country, and then consider running in the future.” Hidalgo has said she is focused on running for re-election in her county-level seat. Rep. Joaquin Castro’s former district director, Cary Clack, wrote a column in the San Antonio Express-News last month headlined “O’Rourke needs to run for governor.” Seventy-seven percent of Texas Democrats want him to run, according Quinnipiac.
During the march into Austin, the Tejano music legend Little Joe, who performed at fundraisers for O’Rourke in 2018 — and who said that after O’Rourke lost, “sometimes I’d lay awake and ask what more I should have done” — embraced O’Rourke and addressed him as “governor.” The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who walked beside O’Rourke, said he wants O’Rourke to run, calling him “my guy … He’s a purifier. He purifies the water. He shows up and knocks the sludge out of the tank.” A Burger King employee came to the steps of her store as the crowd passed, shouting, “Hey, Beto!”
“Of the available choices they have, he seems like the Democrats’ best bet, but it’s the best bet in the context of very long odds,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “And I don’t know. I think that makes it a hard decision for him.”
He said, “It’s not as if one can’t make the case for O’Rourke given the context. But the context is that Democrats go into this severely disadvantaged.”
A victory would not be impossible, and ironically Beto’s best chance might come courtesy of the state’s GOP. Abbott is dominant at the moment, but he has three Republicans challenging him, including Allen West, the firebrand former Florida congressman and former chair of the Texas Republican Party. Julián Castro said he “wouldn’t assume that it’s going to be Abbott” emerging from the Texas primary, and that if any of his challengers prevails, “they don’t have $50 million and the power of incumbency, right?”
“The only potential problem for us is that if he were not to run, it’s putting us in a difficult position because now we have to scramble to find somebody else,” Hinojosa said. “And a lot of people who may be thinking of running for governor are holding back because everybody presumes that he will run.”
There was a time when O’Rourke maintained that he could not imagine ever running again for public office. In the fall of 2019, when O’Rourke was polling at between 2 percent and 3 percent nationally in the Democratic presidential primary, he told me over dinner in Pittsburgh’s east end that he couldn’t “fathom a scenario where I would run for public office again if I’m not the nominee.”
That has changed. Over a cherry ice inside an office at a brick and tile church in Austin where the march stopped one day, O’Rourke said he believes some Democrat — not necessarily him — can beat Abbott. He said he doesn’t know if it would be harder than beating Cruz. But he insists he isn’t making such calculations, calling a life governed by political positioning a “miserable existence.”
There are times when O’Rourke sounds very much like a politician who has already decided to run.
“You just never know until you’re in it,” he said. “Everyone said that Cruz was going to be impossible, and it wasn’t impossible, but you don’t know. If you wait until all of this pencils out or the stars align or the calculations are complete, then you’ll never do anything.”
Still, O’Rourke told me that he does not “feel pressured into doing anything next.”
“I don’t know that there’s a next,” he said.
He said, “I do feel very strong pressure from my kids, and just my conscience, that compels me to be part of this. I know that this fight is an existential one for the country, this fight for the right to vote.”
In his voting rights campaign, O’Rourke joining with other Democrats in pressing President Joe Biden and Democratic lawmakers to advance federal voting rights legislation. And he is registering voters at baseball games and food banks and in neighborhoods like the one he visited in Round Rock. For as few people as O’Rourke found home that afternoon, he cited that walk with volunteers — “being with people” in a common cause — as an example of what “makes me happy.” He also drew a contrast between that and his last political campaign, which he said too often felt distant.
“A lot of the presidential campaign circuit is unfortunately, you know, there's just a lot of staged events where you're literally on a stage, like we're going to be in Detroit and speak to this national conference or we're going to be in Pittsburgh and we're going to talk to this association or we’re going to go to D.C. and we’re going to talk to this group of people along with every other presidential candidate, you know, five minutes a pop, and then you exit the stage and the next person comes on,” O’Rourke said. “And you're not literally there with people connected to people in as direct a way as we are now.”
“The ideal way of organizing, campaigning,” he said, “is what we’re doing right now.”
It’s possible that will be enough for O’Rourke, at least in 2022. The work of registering voters, long a staple of political organizing, has taken on heightened significance amid Democrats’ effort to counteract Republican laws to restrict voting, which have swelled in red states, including Texas, in the months since Trump lost the November election. After losing twice, it has the appeal of measurable, if incremental, progress. But it can feel smaller than a campaign for office, and high-profile candidates draw the kind of attention that can help register voters, too.
On the day that O’Rourke walked in Round Rock, he played with a Shih Tzu in one yard. “Your day’s not going to get much better than that,” he said. The one voter he registered was an 87-year-old woman named Natalie Esparza who was doing a crossword puzzle in her garage when O’Rourke came by.
“Can I get you signed up?” he asked, then: “Thank you so much! My name’s Beto.”
He sat cross-legged on the garage floor beside her and helped her fill out her registration.
Esparza knew who O’Rourke was, though she didn’t say it. Nor did she tell him she’d vote for him if he runs, though she hoped he would.
“I thought maybe I was getting too personal,” she said after O’Rourke left. “I wanted to give him a hug.”
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