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Beto O’Rourke keeps running for office. Why?

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Karina Lujan
/
KUT
Beto O'Rourke greets a person at the Buda Amphitheater and City Park on July 4, 2022.

Over the past few years, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has become a star in progressive politics, making high-profile runs for office against Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 and for the presidency in 2020. He’s now set his sights on Gov. Greg Abbott as he attempts to become Texas’ first Democratic governor since Ann Richards left office in 1995.

O’Rourke’s combative style and flashy presentation have gained him national attention, but that attention hasn’t translated into electoral success in his recent bids for office.

Dan Solomon covers politics for Texas Monthly and recently wrote a piece breaking down O’Rourke’s current run for governor in which he looks at how his messaging has changed over the years and attempts to answer the question: What makes Beto run – again? He joined the Texas Standard to talk about what he’s seen on the campaign trail.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Texas Standard: As part of your reporting, you kept tabs on O’Rourke’s campaign summer tour across Texas. Tell us about that tour and what you saw.

Dan Solomon: Well, he’s going everywhere, which is kind of his thing. He in 2018 visited all 254 counties in Texas. I don’t know if he’s going county by county again, but he’s sure going to lots of places. I saw him in Abilene, San Angelo, Junction, Fredericksburg, Lampasas and Pflugerville.

Anything stand out to you? Or was this the Beto that you have seen on the campaign trail before? 

So I think the most interesting thing is both the size of the crowds that he’s drawing and the size of the protests that he’s drawing. In 2018, the crowds were still there, but the protesters were not. This time, the crowds are a little more fervent and a little more, I think, passionate, and the protesters are as well. He’s no longer kind of this unknown curiosity in Texas. Now he’s a polarizing figure in a polarized climate.

There was so much excitement among his supporters when he ran against Ted Cruz in 2018. And of course, those signs seemed almost ubiquitous in parts of Texas – the Beto U.S. Senate signs. He has developed a kind of a brand. Do you think that there’s the same level of excitement this go-round compared to 2018?

I think it depends on how you gauge it. The fundraising is there. You know, the crowds seem like they are really passionate about this. I think that in 2018, there was a lot of antipathy towards Ted Cruz. And then you have this, you know, kind of youngish, good-looking guy from El Paso who speaks well about all of these issues. And so I think that that was exciting to people. I think at this point things feel a little more existential among his supporters. And running for governor gives him a lot of hands-on ability to affect people’s lives here in a way that a Senate run doesn’t.

No doubt that if Beto were to win this election, that would mark a historic shift in Texas politics, to be sure. But if Republicans retain control of the Legislature, as many political experts expect, how much room would he have to achieve some of these transformational goals that he’s articulated? 

He would say that there’s going to be a lot. I think that that might be a little bit of wishful thinking on his part, but it’ll depend on what the entire election looks like. If he’s the only Democrat who wins an unexpected victory, then I think there’s going to be a strong push among Republicans to obstruct him in every way. And that’ll be kind of a litmus test for GOP primaries: How did you stand up to Beto O’Rourke?

Some would say there’s been almost an idealized image of O’Rourke in Texas, and certainly that has been marked by the way that he has run his campaign. He’s very much in your face, and that’s a big part of his appeal to a lot of Democrats. This is still a heavily Republican state, and some have said, well, is there more of a desire to believe this is happening when you compare it to O’Rourke’s past performance and what some would argue is the cold, hard reality of Texas politics? I mean, can that be squared?

Maybe? You know, that’s not a great answer, but I think that’s the only answer right now. We’re going to hold the election and we’ll find out. You know, I think that in 2018 he lost, but did very well relative to what any Democrat had done in the state, running for statewide office, you know, in a generation. So, you know, he came out of that really thinking, man, if I could do it over again, this is how I would win. That’s, I think, a big part of why he’s running in 2022.

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