The Washington spin is in on Beto O’Rourke’s campaign to unseat Republican incumbent Senator Ted Cruz: O’Rourke has blown the election by not having campaign consultants to tell him how to tailor his message against Cruz. The headline in Politico was “Did Beto Blow It?”
I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a political analysis that so completely misunderstood an election. O’Rourke’s successes were built on NOT running the same campaign that Democrats have lost for the past twenty years. His campaign was built on a simple idea: For a Democrat to win, he needed to fire up and get out the Democratic base, while Cruz was a Republican who did not inspire his total GOP support. O’Rourke both benefited from and was hurt by the that fact this race became a surrogate for national politics.
If O’Rourke had followed the political consultants, he’d be sitting down at the level of support Wendy Davis ended up at in the 2014 governor’s race: 39 percent of the vote. She lost the base when she waffled on firearms. Hillary Clinton in 2016 received 43 percent of the Texas vote.
If O’Rourke had followed the conventional wisdom, he would have kept his mouth shut about kneeling football players and whether he would vote to impeach President Trump—all selling out his liberal base to get a smattering of Republican-leaning votes. But no Texas Democrat since Ann Richards has generated so much excitement right before the general election.
O’Rourke probably will lose, but that will be because the Republican base vote in Texas just remains larger than the Democratic base vote. It won’t be because Beto blew it.
In a review, let’s start with O’Rourke’s rejection of political consultants. The best version I could find was from an interview he gave to Jonathan Tilove of the Austin American-Statesman:
“It doesn’t mean I don’t need to raise money, because I do and I will, and it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t listen to people who are smarter than I am, and I am definitely going to do that,” O’Rourke said.
“But by 2018, it will be 30 years since we last elected in Texas a Democrat to the Senate,” O’Rourke said.
“And we’ve spent hundreds of millions on consultants, and we’ve raised that money from Texans and from folks around the country, and it hasn’t produced a victory, and I could spend the next 18 months of my life killing myself to get the 41 percent (of the vote other Democrats have gotten) or I can trust myself and the people I want to represent to do this the right way, to be out there and listen to people,” he said.
Two great political movies are The Candidate from 1972 and The Best Man from 1964. Both are about idealistic candidates. In the 1972 movie, the character played by Robert Redford compromises and wins, and in the earlier movie the character played by Henry Fonda refuses to compromise and loses. In both instances, the opponent was a conservative who positioned himself far to the right. Either film can serve as a metaphor for the Cruz–O’Rourke race, especially when viewed with the idea that idealism made the star candidates viable contenders.
Now, let’s consider the Texas voter turnout. Prior to this election, state political reporters would talk about an off-year election as a gubernatorial election. Elections for statewide executive office are always held in non-presidential years, and even if there is a presidential midterm effect in the background—such as when a lot of down-ballot incumbents lost in the 2010 midterm—the premier race in Texas always has been the campaign for governor. The voter turnout, however, always was much higher in presidential election years. For instance, 59 percent of the state’s registered voters cast a ballot in 2016; whereas just 33 percent voted in 2014. The highest voter turnout in an off-year election since the Democrats’ statewide losing streak began in 1996 was during the contest between Republican governor Rick Perry and Democratic attorney Bill White—38 percent voter turnout.
To get an off-year election turnout to the current levels, you have to go back to Republican George W. Bush’s challenge to Democratic governor Ann Richards in 1994, when 50 percent of the registered voters cast ballots. Bush won 53 percent to Richards’s 45 percent. Their contest drove the voter turnout, but other Democrats down-ballot were able to win re-election because they ran effective campaigns against weak Republican opponents. If there is a failure in this year’s election, it is that the Democratic Party failed to mount strong campaigns against a field of weak down-ballot Republican office holders.
O’Rourke’s campaign was helped a lot by national publications portraying him as “Kennedyesque” and his appearance on Ellen. O’Rourke raised more money for his campaign than any Texas Democrat since Laredo businessman Tony Sanchez poured $60 million of his own money into his losing campaign against Rick Perry for governor. The media pieces, the national television interviews, and the money would not have occurred if O’Rourke had not been a candidate of the left.
When Cruz was first running for the U.S. Senate in Texas, he was considered a long shot, but he gained attention as the candidate of the conservative tea party in its ascendancy. That propelled him quickly to the level of favored interview for Fox News and a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Cruz’s presidential aspirations were done in, as much as anything, by Donald Trump simply being a better story. Trump and Cruz were not candidates of the Republican mainstream, and after two decades of Republican dominance in Texas, the GOP-will-win-again story line was just stale, particularly with younger journalists who longed for a contest, not a conquest.
With Trump in office, Cruz can no longer run as an outsider. He’s had to fire up the Republican base voter, and he has done it with the help of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, a personal rally with President Trump, and the idea that most Texans remain conservative.
O’Rourke’s battle was always uphill. It was always about challenging a disheartened Democratic coalition to turn out in greater numbers than Republicans who are accustomed to winning. If O’Rourke loses on Tuesday, it will be because there simply are more conservatives voting in Texas than liberals or progressives. He won’t lose because he refused to hire political consultants.