Beto O’Rourke has an hour to kill, so he’s decided to go block-walking. He stops at the Waller County elections office, gets deputized as a volunteer voter registrar, and picks a neighborhood with short driveways. His goal is to find at least one voting-eligible adult in that hour to add to the rolls. If the house has a “no trespassing” or “beware of dog” sign, as is common in this part of Hempstead, an hour west of Houston, or if it’s boarded up and has an overgrown lawn, he skips it.
O’Rourke, the 2018 Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate and—for a brief time—presidential hopeful, isn’t running for anything. Not yet, anyway. But he drove into Hempstead on this June afternoon ahead of a town hall rally at Prairie View A&M University. In the evening, he’ll be talking about voting rights and Texas Senate Bill 7, legislation that would have implemented restrictions on voting. Democrats in the state House blocked the bill a few days earlier by walking out of the chamber on the last day of the regular legislative session, denying Republicans the quorum of one hundred members they needed to have present before they could vote on it. The Democrats will soon flee to Washington, D.C., to try to block a similar bill’s passage during a special legislative session called by Governor Greg Abbott.
“There are more efficient ways to do this,” O’Rourke admits as he walks the neighborhood, looking to expand the pool of Texas voters. His organization, Powered by People, has recruited dozens of volunteers in each of Texas’s 36 congressional districts who lead targeted voter campaigns, registering seniors at high schools as they drop off their laptops at the end of the year, or the staff at Whataburger. But he seems to enjoy the door-to-door interactions. At one house, the woman he meets isn’t a citizen, so she isn’t eligible to register. He hangs out for more than five minutes anyway, chatting in Spanish and meeting her kids and her puppy. He asks for her name to possibly include in a story he’ll tell from whatever makeshift stage he stands on later in the evening.
After the encounter, he’s late for a Zoom meeting with organizers and hustles back to his truck. On the way, he flags down one more man in his yard to ask if he’s registered to vote. He is, which means Beto struck out. But he’s in a good mood anyway, chipper over the connection he made with the woman here on a visa. “We have to tell these stories,” he says.
Much has been made of Beto, the hipster candidate on the skateboard who earnestly wanted to make a difference as a U.S. senator, and Beto, the born-to-be-in-it national celebrity who convinced himself he should be president. But exactly what’s driving O’Rourke now isn’t clear. The political path forward for a two-time loser without a cabinet position is a narrow one. O’Rourke maintains a side gig as an adjunct professor, teaching a class at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. And when he’s not doing that, he’s knocking on doors in rural Texas because he’s compelled to do something. “It’s the most I can do,” O’Rourke tells me. “I have no pull in West Virginia. There’s nothing I can be effective at in Arizona,” he says, referring to the home states of two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, whose refusal to break the filibuster is preventing a federal voter-rights bill from passing.
As a losing Texas Democrat now focused on getting out the vote, O’Rourke isn’t alone. Last election, Democrats in Texas raised more than $42 million in the top twelve most competitive House districts through the end of the third quarter, a vast sum compared with the paltry $1.9 million the party raised there through all of 2016. The party’s goal was to flip ten seats in the U.S House and one in the Senate. But it came up empty, leaving a handful of fund-raising juggernauts with extensive Rolodexes and no jobs. A few of the failed candidates have come to a realization: in a state where fundamentals are bad for Democrats, they might be able to make a bigger difference if they’re not on the ballot.
None of them talk much about whether the parts of the platform that appeal to the party’s left flank will need to change to appeal to a majority of Texans. Instead, they’re focused on turning out more voters, in the hope that volume will translate to victory.
The model of candidates who lost pivoting to “get out the vote” organizing is one that’s worked elsewhere to flip states. Georgia’s Stacey Abrams ran a losing race for governor in 2018—the same year Ted Cruz beat O’Rourke—and then launched a voter rights organization. She joined a wave of organizing that led to Democrats flipping Georgia’s electoral college votes for the first time since 1992 and picking up two Senate seats. With a story like that, it’s no wonder that Democrats around the country have been trying to conjure someone who might star in a Texas-shaped sequel. But is there really a Stacey Abrams model for Texas Democrats to follow?
Julie Oliver spent the weeks after the 2020 election in a funk. She was pleased that Joe Biden had won the presidency, but frustrated and disappointed with the results around Texas, including in her own race. The former health-care administrator had lost by fourteen points in her bid to represent a Central Texas district stretching from Austin to Fort Worth. That was closer than races in the district had been pre-Trump, but below the mark she set in 2018, when she lost by nine. “I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” she says. “‘I think maybe Texas is a lost cause.’” One of her former campaign workers convinced Oliver that she might feel better if she got active, so they climbed into a car, along with Oliver’s 22-year-old daughter, and headed to Georgia to knock on doors for the two Senate runoff elections in January. Oliver says the experience was “cathartic” and reminded her that, while the virtual-style campaign she relied upon during the pandemic ended in disappointment, she was still excited about on-the-ground politics.
By March, she joined the national voter registration organization Register2Vote, as its executive director. Mike Siegel, a labor lawyer who had lost U.S. House races in 2018 by four points and in 2020 by seven points in an adjacent district to Oliver’s, joined as political director. They run their organization out of a small office park in North Austin. Both have looked closely at where their campaigns went wrong. Siegel points to an obvious opportunity cost: the two candidates combined to raise $5 million in 2020, $3 million of which went toward TV advertising. “What legacy is there to that three million dollars on TV?” he asks. “It’s just down the drain.”
In their new roles, Oliver and Siegel hope to have a longer-term impact. Register2Vote’s primary mission in the state is helping unregistered Texans fill out their voter form online. The Texas Secretary of State’s office estimates that 22 percent of voting-eligible Texans—roughly four million adults—remain unregistered. Many of those likely lean Republican: record turnout increases in 2020 didn’t deliver Democrats any statewide offices. But tapping a net 10 percent of those potential voters for Democrats would have given O’Rourke the additional 2.6 percent of the vote that he needed to defeat Cruz in 2018.
Both Oliver and Siegel think it’s important to look beyond merely adding voters to the rolls, however. “That’s half of the equation,” Oliver says. “The life cycle of the voter starts with registration, but it ends with them actually going out to vote.” Working from a postmortem report by the data analytics company Civis, they arrived at two insights. First, the twelve lowest-turnout U.S. House districts in Texas are safe Democratic seats where, once candidates win their primaries, they are essentially guaranteed reelection. That means many do not spend time and energy to win races against Republicans, which leaves voters who are potentially sympathetic to Democratic causes and candidates without regular outreach from the party—potentially depressing turnout that is crucial to win up-ballot, statewide races. Some of those incumbents also might not want higher turnout, since new voters might introduce uncertainty to their elections.
Second, ballot initiatives across the country concerning minimum wage increases, Medicaid expansion, legalizing marijuana, and capping interest rates from payday lenders outperformed the candidates, including Oliver and Siegel, who supported those causes. While none of those issues were on the ballot in Texas, medical or recreational use of marijuana is favored by 88 percent of Texans according to a March University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, while a joint poll from April found that 61 percent of Texans favored raising the federal minimum wage.
Might putting popular measures on the ballot—especially in safe Democratic districts where voters might not have much outreach bringing them to the polls—encourage more to cast ballots for statewide Dems? Oliver and Siegel have launched an initiative called Ground Game Texas, part of Register2Vote, to test that theory.
The idea of using ballot initiatives to influence other elections isn’t new—George W. Bush famously benefited from same-sex marriage bans in multiple states in his 2004 reelection campaign. But Democrats have rarely utilized them to drive turnout. “Clearly, Republicans have been using wedge issues,” Siegel says. “It’s time for us to use wedge issues, and these are our issues.” Will occasional voters, who might turn out to vote for legalization of marijuana, say, also disproportionately support Democrats up and down the ballot? That’s the organization’s bet—and a significant part of its pitch to donors.
Register2Vote and O’Rourke’s Powered by People are just two organizations in a landscape of progressive Texas organizations that, until recently, was fairly uncrowded. In 2014, Battleground Texas, a PAC formed in 2013 by former Obama administration officials with the goal of turning Texas into a swing state, was the only well-funded, fully staffed game in the state—so much so that Wendy Davis’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign that year was effectively swallowed by the organization. Now there are more than a dozen groups working on voting rights and registration alone, all trying to define their role in a crowded field.
Neisha Blandin, head of political strategy for the national group Swing Left, thinks the multitude of organizations is a good thing. “We need as many boots on the ground as possible,” she says, “Texas is a huge state.” But not everyone feels that way. Aimee Cunningham, the chair of the board of directors for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, contributed more than a quarter million dollars with her husband to various Democratic and progressive causes and candidates in Texas in 2018. But she has vowed she won’t open her checkbook for Ground Game Texas or Powered by People. She’s concerned that a trio of failed candidates who are white aren’t the right folks to effectively organize the Black and Latino voters who will need to turn out in large numbers for Democrats to win statewide races in Texas. When the Democrats have had successes, it’s “because Black and brown people have organized and turned out,” she says. “There’s a real problem among donors in our party with coming to terms with that, embracing it, and investing in it.” She’d rather see these former candidates use their connections and fund-raising prowess to support existing organizations.
There’s some angst among activists and organizers about whether Texas is at a place where multiple organizations can coexist in both election years and off years. Territoriality and competition for the same donors isn’t new in Texas. For the better part of two decades, money and talent left the state, creating a scarcity mindset among progressive groups. “We didn’t really have an organization culture [in the past], and so consultants ran their own turf in their cities and counties, and they fought with each other more than they did with Republicans,” said Ed Espinoza of Progress Texas, an organization that launched in 2010 to provide rapid-response media for Democrats and progressives. “It was like Mogadishu out here, just a full-on warlord mentality.” Espinoza is hopeful that the current landscape is more collaborative than previous eras of progressive organizing in the state, but many others aren’t.
It’s still early in the 2022 election cycle, but so far not one of the Democrats who ran a close, losing race in 2020 has announced plans to run again. Many, presumably, are waiting for the Legislature to draw the new congressional maps, which should happen sometime in the fall. But there are good reasons why any candidate might choose not to run again. Campaigns are exhausting, and any Democrat running statewide in Texas is a long shot. O’Rourke, in particular, knows this. He remains popular with Democrats, 77 percent of whom would like to see him run for governor, but his overall favorability is in the red: 34 percent of Texans view him favorably, against 42 percent who do not. (A sizable chunk of Texans don’t have an opinion either way.) And Republicans in the state deeply dislike him.
In Brenham, at a voting rights rally he led a few hours before canvassing in Hempstead, O’Rourke attracted around a hundred supporters—and a few dozen protesters. Some carried “Go Home Socialist” and “Veto Beto” posters, waved “Come and Take It” flags with rifle imagery, and slung AR-15s over their shoulders. One brought an air horn. When O’Rourke opened the floor to questions, that segment of the crowd was less interested in his thoughts on voting rights than in challenging him on his 2019 comments that “we’re coming for your AR-15s,” or heckling him when he mentioned the riots at the Capitol on January 6.
O’Rourke, who rose to national fame in 2018 when a clip of him calmly responding to a dissenter went viral, lost some of the unflappable air that had made him a celebrity. “Sorry, do you want answers to this question, or do you want to keep yelling?” he called to the protesters whose boos threatened to drown him out. “I let you speak, you let me speak, buddy. Can you be quiet for five minutes to let me answer the question?” Eventually, the crowd quieted down and O’Rourke stood by his previous support of government buybacks for assault rifles. Not long after, the rally wound down.
Walking back to his truck in Hempstead later that afternoon, O’Rourke reflected on the crowds. He told me that protesters were a common enough sight at his events, though Brenham was one of the rougher audiences. (In Denton, a few weeks earlier, a “Trump Train” caravan of cars drove by, honking their horns to drown out the speakers.) “I gotta tell you, I’m glad they’re there, because it makes the point that there are some who are fighting for democracy, and others who are trying to intimidate them, and folks gotta see that,” he said. But being around armed Texans who hate him seems to wear on him a bit. “It’s an implied threat that if you don’t do what I want you to do politically, then I might harm you.”
Assuming O’Rourke doesn’t announce a late-breaking campaign for governor, it’ll be up to the candidate who does run to persuade Republican voters like the protesters in Brenham. Few who follow politics in either Texas or Georgia seem to believe that flipping the state requires the sort of singular, semi-mythic figure that Stacey Abrams has become in Democrats’ popular imagination, though. In fact, most think banking on a once-in-a-generation candidate is a poor bet. “Those folks [in Georgia] started fifteen years ago,” Siegel says. “We know and love and respect Beto O’Rourke, but hoping for a transformational candidate is like a sugar-high approach to doing this. This kind of work—city by city, block by block—is how we really enable change.”
Texas Democrats learned painfully in 2020 that there are no shortcuts to turning one of the reddest states in the nation a little more purple. “I don’t hear the phrase ‘Demographics are destiny’ anymore,’” Espinoza says. “Organizing is destiny.” Acknowledging the failures of previous strategies—and drawing the right lessons from them—is the only real hope Democrats have of succeeding in Texas. And that, perhaps, is a spot where failed candidates can help out. They might not know what wins elections, but they know what loses them.