Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994. The party’s presidential candidate Hillary Clinton last year performed better than any member of her party has done in years and still only received 43 percent of the vote. Texas elections are the fire that incinerates Democratic politicians, but a tall and youthful congressman from El Paso on Friday offered himself up as a cool drink of water to douse those flames in a challenge to Republican incumbent U.S. Senator Ted Cruz.
In announcing his candidacy, the 44-year-old Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke declared in his hometown that he will serve the state rather than run for president and promised to counter the “fear and paranoia” coming for President Donald Trump’s White House.
But O’Rourke is not only from a different time zone than the rest of the state, he may be from a different political reality. “I know Beto. And he’s a good guy. But I think this is a suicide mission,” Texas’ other Republican senator, John Cornyn told Politico.
O’Rourke said Friday he will run for the office by refusing to take either political action committee money or corporate money. Cruz starts the race with $4.2 million in his campaign account, while O’Rourke starts with a little less than $400,000. During his presidential campaign, Cruz’s loosely affiliated Super PACs raised more than $38 million for his campaign. Texas is a state with about 25 media markets. Running a statewide campaign usually costs $1 million to $1.5 million a week, and $30 million in spending is not unusual in a general election. O’Rourke begins by limiting his ammunition. “It’s bear your throat to the wolf,” Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson told me. “[the wolf] may have pity on you but probably not.”
O’Rourke did not specifically rule out having a Super PAC, and in fact one was associated with his 2012 upset primary defeat of incumbent El Paso congressman Sylvestre Reyes. The Super PAC was partly financed by O’Rourke’s father-in-law, El Paso developer Bill Sanders. According to the San Antonio Express-News, Reyes said at the time that Sanders “is using the super PAC to help influence the outcome of this election while circumventing loopholes in campaign finance law to buy Mr. O’Rourke a seat in Congress.” If O’Rourke has a primary opponent, that Super PAC might become an issue because it also was used in an unsuccessful effort to unseat U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas.
O’Rourke does have the skills to run a campaign through alternative media, and is known for using Facebook Live to his advantage. House Democrats staged a sit-in last year after Republicans refused to bring up gun control legislation in the wake of the Orlando night club mass murder, but Republicans adjourned the legislative day, prompting the C-Span cameras to shut off. O’Rourke brought the action to national attention by streaming it on Facebook Live. C-Span then picked up O’Rourke’s feed as well as that of another congressman.
More recently, O’Rourke and U.S. Representative Will Hurd of San Antonio charmed the nation with a live stream of their bipartisan road trip town hall from Texas to the nation’s capital after a snowstorm caused the cancellation of their flights. They got stories in The New York Times, Washington Post, and on Good Morning America. One segment of their stream had 1.5 million viewers. Not bad for a free ride.
Cruz is no stranger to social media, though. As a result of his unsuccessful presidential campaign, Cruz has 2.4 million followers on Twitter. O’Rourke has about 10,000. Cruz used his account to tweet: “A liberal Democrat is announcing a campaign today to try to turn TX blue. Stand with us to #KeepTexasRed.”
The O’Rourke path to challenging Cruz is not completely clear, either. Congressman Joaquin Castro of San Antonio also is considering a run for the Democratic nomination and put out a news release Thursday urging party members and reporters not to forget him. “He plans to make his decision in the coming weeks,” said his political director Matthew Jones.
Then there is the possibility that former George W. Bush political adviser and television commentator Matthew Dowd will run as an independent against Cruz. In an interview I had with Dowd earlier this year, he declared that the Democratic Party in Texas is damaged goods.
However it works out, O’Rourke may have little to lose in a race against Cruz. He promised only to serve four terms in the U.S. House, and next year’s election would mark the last time he could run and keep that promise. Also, as Jillson noted, O’Rourke is the son-in-law of one of El Paso’s wealthiest developers. “Beto lives life with a cushy net beneath him.”