Beto O’Rourke Is the National Democrat of Texas, But Will That Help Him Win?

Donations and the love of Hollywood suggest that O’Rourke may be more popular outside the state—and more vulnerable at home.

Beto O'Rourke waves as he takes the stage at the Texas Democratic Convention Friday, June 22, 2018, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Richard W. Rodriguez/AP Photo

Someone needs to tell Beto O’Rourke that he secured his party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate months ago. He’s still running as the National Democrat of Texas, while Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and his allies are building a campaign to crush him in November.

With his youthful drive, O’Rourke has drawn large crowds of Democrats to rallies across Texas and generated national media coverage that he converted into a record fundraising haul of $23.5 million through the end of June. But only 40 percent of O’Rourke’s total of $23.5 million raised is itemized money from Texans. While money from anywhere in the country spends the same in a state race, it does raise questions about just how well-grounded O’Rourke is among Texas voters. Admittedly, O’Rourke’s in-state donations from individuals amounted to $9.4 million, and Cruz’s Texas itemized donors tallied at just $8.5 million, or 80 percent of his total. But those out-of-state donors don’t get to vote for O’Rourke in November. (NOTE: O’Rourke’s campaign spokesman David Wysong said a total of $15.4 million in both itemized and unitemized donations are from Texans, for 65 percent of the total.)

In his continued drive to stir the Democratic base, O’Rourke appeared Wednesday on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to discuss his support for NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence. Ellen is a good venue for any Democrat trying to reach progressive female voters.

The appearance on Ellen was the payoff of a video of O’Rourke defending the NFL players at a town hall that went viral on Now This News. O’Rourke admitted to DeGeneres that his position angered some in Texas, including an El Paso friend who is a Vietnam War veteran. But he said he thought it was important to have an honest, if painful, conversation with the people of Texas on the topic of players protesting police shooting unarmed black men. “This will define us forever,” O’Rourke said.

The question becomes whether voters will listen. After O’Rourke’s initial statement, University of Texas political scientist James Henson wrote in a blog post that O’Rourke’s position was out of touch with state voters. “As in other episodes in O’Rourke’s campaign, the reception in Texas is likely to be much more ambiguous, given what we know about public attitudes in the state toward the NFL protests.” Henson noted that a June survey by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune found that 28 percent of Texans had a very unfavorable view of the NFL. Politically, Republicans and independents were the most likely to express that view.

There’s a similar dynamic in the reaction to President Trump’s announcement that he will hold a rally for Cruz in October. And as much as Democrats seem to want to turn President Trump’s plans to hold a Texas rally next month for Cruz into a poke in the eye, the evidence in polling suggests that counter-protests are likely to do O’Rourke more harm than good. Democratic enthusiasm was showcased this spring when 508,000 additional voters turned out in a primary that had more than a million ballots cast; however, Republican primary turnout also increased by 191,000 for a total turnout of 1.5 million voters. While Trump’s job approval rating among all Texans is poor, he rates highly among the white voters who typically make up the majority of voter turnout in Texas.

Network exit polls in the past two elections found 57 percent of the Texas vote in the 2016 presidential election was cast by whites, as was 66 percent of the vote in the 2014 governor’s race. Trump received 69 percent of the white vote in 2016, and Republican gubernatorial candidate and winner Greg Abbott received 72 percent of the white vote in his race against Democrat Wendy Davis. During the presidential election, Clinton carried only two congressional districts in Texas with a majority Anglo voting age population—the 7th District, held by Republican John Culberson, and the 32nd District, held by Republican Pete Sessions in Dallas. Trump carried one district with a combined majority of blacks and Hispanics: the 27th District, which was held at the time by Republican Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi.

The political website FiveThirtyEight reported that Trump’s net approval rating in Texas had declined 12 percentage points when you compare sentiment shortly after he took office to this year, using polling by Morning Consult as a guide. But a closer look at the numbers shows that Trump’s approval rating in Texas when he took office was 54 percent and now stands at 52 percent, hardly a precipitous drop. What changed is that his disapproval rating grew from 34 percent to 44 percent.

Yes, Democrats hate Trump. And he makes independents unhappy. But he remains overwhelmingly popular among Texas Republicans in recent surveys.

Looking at some other surveys of Texas voters, in August the Quinnipiac Poll found among registered Texas voters overall that Trump’s disapproval rating was 49 percent, while 46 percent approved. When you dig into the crosstabs, though, you find that is driven by a 94 percent disapproval rate by Democrats and a 52 percent disapproval rate among self-described independents. Sixty-two percent of white voters supported the president.

The more recent NBC News/Marist Poll also found that whites approved of Trump’s job performance 53 percent to 38 percent. In small towns and rural Texas, his approval rating jumped to more than 60 percent. A president with positive job approval among white voters is a huge plus for Cruz in Texas.

Of course, Trump also remains a wild card in the election—he’s shown himself to be a president who can say or do anything that changes the political landscape in a moment. The New York Times on Wednesday published an anonymous op-ed by a member of Trump’s inner White House staff that indicated officials at one point in time considered invoking the 25th Amendment, which would allow removal of a president if the vice-president and a majority of the principals of the executive branch declare him unable to carry out his duties. Trump denounced the unknown author as “gutless” and the Times as “failing,” adding, “Our poll numbers are great.” In the current atmosphere, the president’s support even among Republicans could vanish overnight if he took an action perceived as harmful to average Americans.

So as Democrats and progressives salivate at the thought of counter-protesting when Trump visits in October, the potential for a backlash by Trump supporters is real. This potential may grow as allies of Cruz begin attacking O’Rourke. While the Democratic nominee appeared on Ellen, for example, the conservative Club for Growth unleashed a television advertisement in San Antonio designed to undermine O’Rourke’s support among Hispanic voters. Titled “Bulldozer,” the commercial is critical of O’Rourke for votes he took as an El Paso city councilman for downtown redevelopment beneficial to his developer father-in-law at the expense of poor residents in a historic barrio.

Because public opinion surveys have shown that generally a third of the state’s voters don’t know enough about O’Rourke to have an opinion of him, commercials like the one by Club for Growth can redefine O’Rourke in a negative light for voters. That’s certainly their goal. Club for Growth president David McIntosh told me that San Antonio was chosen as the first place to run the commercial to show Hispanic voters that O’Rourke is “not what he says he is.” McIntosh said O’Rourke has done a good job of positioning himself as a “man of the people,” but that the time has come to stop his momentum. After a run in San Antonio, the ad buy will be expanded statewide, he said.

Like many political ads, the Club for Growth commercial overplays what happened, but it is largely accurate. O’Rourke was not even on the radar when Texas Monthly wrote about the redevelopment plan in 2013, and instead focused on the Paso Del Norte Group of developers and his father-in-law Bill Sanders.

“The proposal quickly exposed some deep divisions. For generations, Segundo Barrio has been a way station for Mexican immigrants and ground zero for political and cultural movements, and for many El Pasoans, it represents sacred ground. Yet the plan targeted many of its buildings, and without giving residents prior notice. This infuriated the city’s Chicanos, a group of politically conscious Mexican Americans who have fought since the sixties and seventies to advance their civil rights. Though Latinos now make up 82 percent of El Paso’s population, they remain disproportionately poor, and activists were bothered especially by the fact that the PDNG leaders behind the plan were mostly white and very rich.”

The Texas Observer wrote at the time that O’Rourke claimed there was no conflict of interest because Sanders’s projects were outside of the barrio: “O’Rourke, meanwhile, has participated in several key council votes, including the critical decision last fall to incorporate the redevelopment project into the city’s comprehensive plan. O’Rourke, who is running for reelection, adamantly denies any conflict of interest despite the fact that his wife, his mother, his father-in-law, and even O’Rourke himself were at one time all members of the PDNG. “My relationship with Bill does not present a conflict, as he cannot profit from this plan, nor can I, nor can any member of my family,” O’Rourke wrote in an e-mail.

I sent several emails to O’Rourke’s campaign asking for a response, and did not hear back.

Meanwhile, Cruz’s campaign on Tuesday attempted to drive a wedge between voters and O’Rourke with an online video that makes it look like O’Rourke supports the constitutional right of protesters to burn the U.S. flag. The video of O’Rourke is from a town hall in which he is specifically asked about flag burning. In a rambling response, O’Rourke talked about Americans’ right to protest, but never specifically took a position on flag burning. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times asked O’Rourke about the issue at an August 27 rally. The newspaper reported O’Rourke’s response:

“I don’t think anyone should burn an American flag,” O’Rourke said after an Aug. 27 rally in Austin. “I also don’t think this is about flags. It’s about people’s lives. It’s about civil rights. It’s about making sure that everyone has an opportunity to succeed and that there is justice and accountability for everyone in this country.”

But the Cruz campaign was insistent on portraying O’Rourke as supporting flag burning. Disregarding O’Rourke’s remarks, Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier maintained O’Rourke’s position to be “an appalling display of disregard to those who have put their lives on the line to preserve the very freedoms the American flag represents.” Just hours earlier, of course, President Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, in his opening statement during his confirmation hearings said flag burning may be unpopular but that burning a flag in protest is a fundamental constitutional right:

A good judge must be an umpire—a neutral and impartial arbiter who favors no litigant or policy. As Justice Kennedy explained in Texas versus Johnson, one of his greatest opinions, judges do not make decisions to reach a preferred result. Judges make decisions because “the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result.”

In Texas v. Johnson, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of a protester at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas to burn a national flag. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion in the case.

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