Beto O'Rourke stands at a rally, holding a microphone, with a distant expression. Around him, supporters hold BETO signs aloft. O'Rourke met defeat in the 2022 election despite spending 10s of millions.
Gus Bova

Beto’s Lost Year

“I don't know what my role or yours will be going forward,” said the Texas Dems’ political star, after $70 million bought a bracing defeat.

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On Tuesday night, once it was clear his bid for Texas governor had been soundly defeated, Democrat Beto O’Rourke bounded up to address what one reporter called a “small, energetic crowd” in his hometown of El Paso. He flashed his toothy grin; he sported his trademark light-blue button-up. Yet his buoyant demeanor contrasted with seemingly spontaneous lines that came off profoundly sad.

“This may be one of the last times I get to talk in front of you all,” he said, prompting a chorus of dismay from the crowd. He spoke of shifting his focus to helping his mom fight through cancer. He jested that his wife, Amy, might be the next O’Rourke to run for office—to which she indicated “No.” Finally, he detailed the vision that propelled his year-long crusade to be Texas’ top executive: A state “where every woman makes her own decisions about her own body,” where “children don’t have to fear going to school and being gunned down in their classroom,” and where people are “free enough and healthy enough” to fulfill their potential.

“Well, that still is the Texas that I want to live in, that is the dream that I … will continue to pursue,” he said. “I don’t know what form that will take—I don’t know what my role or yours will be going forward—but I’m in this fight for life.” 

The crowd began chanting “Beto.” 

It was an apt microcosm. O’Rourke’s personal charm, which helped propel him to premature political stardom, was evident even in defeat. The crowd evinced its passion for him as an individual. Yet the showing was a shadow of 2018, when his concession speech was at a packed minor league baseball stadium. Back then—after falling just 2.6 points shy of unseating U.S. Senator Ted Cruz—O’Rourke said: “I’m as hopeful as I’ve ever been in my life,” and it was believable. We all knew then he would run again for something; it was just the beginning. But now, he says he doesn’t know what’s next, he implies he’s done running, and it’s believable. 

Beto O’Rourke addresses the crowd at a town hall in Austin on June 3, 2022. Gus Bova/Texas Observer

Here are the numbers, in all their bleak implacability. On Tuesday night, O’Rourke lost to incumbent GOP Governor Greg Abbott by 11 points. That’s 5 points worse than President Biden’s showing in 2020 and 8 points worse than O’Rourke’s tally against Cruz. It is, barely, an improvement over hopelessly outmatched Lupe Valdez’s 2018 gubernatorial result. In bellwether Tarrant County, which Biden and O’Rourke narrowly won in the past two cycles, Abbott prevailed by 4. Turnout for the marquee race was 46 percent, down 7 points from 2018. And all this comes after O’Rourke raised and spent more than $70 million.

Dave Carney, Abbott’s longtime campaign guru, now says he hopes O’Rourke will run for office again. “We need Beto,” Carney cheekily told the Dallas Morning News in a Wednesday article. “He helps us energize our base. He helps us raise money. He’s a good asset to our side.”

So, how did we get here? Just four years past, O’Rourke was pure political dynamism—really, the only thing going for statewide Dems in the long shadow of Wendy Davis’ 2014 gubernatorial flameout. He was the unheralded El Pasoan, who burst forth on a Facebook Live stream and took the state by storm, stirring something even in cynical observers and coming within a hair of ousting the eminently disagreeable Cruz. Not long after, following some combination of bad instinct and bad advice, he launched a quixotic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, during which he staked out hard-left positions on unpopular issues. He painted himself into a corner; he outlined himself sharply in the eyes of a Texas electorate that previously saw him in something of a soft, forgiving glow.

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By the time O’Rourke declared for governor last November, nothing looked good. Polling was already suggesting a comfortable lead for Abbott and, most tellingly, that O’Rourke was almost universally known and more disliked than liked. Nationally, O’Rourke was stepping into a midterm with an unpopular Democrat in the White House, against an incumbent known for fundraising and campaigning prowess. It was an inauspicious time. 

Texas Dems, however, had no one else to run; O’Rourke, two losing campaigns under his belt, was far and away the strongest candidate they could muster. It was practically his duty to run, and lose, like the Lone Star State’s fleeting liberal stars before him. 

In response, O’Rourke did what O’Rourke does. He hopped in a pickup truck, drove like mad around the whole state, raised a ton of money, and mobilized a bunch of ardent volunteers. He worked hard to massage his past unpopular positions, and he seized on each opportunity fate provided. Often, these took the form of disasters: the lethal electric grid failure of 2021, the suicides of National Guard members deployed to the border, the worst school shooting in Texas history in Uvalde, and the termination of the constitutional right to abortion. It’s hard to imagine the gods providing any clearer examples of the violence and power-lust woven through Abbott’s politics and practices.

Beto painted himself into a corner; he outlined himself sharply in the eyes of a Texas electorate that previously saw him in something of a soft, forgiving glow.

For a time, these nation-shaking events did seem to inflect the governor’s race. Over the summer, the polls tightened a tad, and there was all that money coming in. But maybe that was all wishful thinking. What’s striking now, looking back, is the static nature of the race. Abbott was up by 12 in an early speculative poll last June; the RealClearPolitics average of all the polling over time is plus-10.4 for Abbott; Abbott won by 11.

If there are silver linings, they’re slim. Unlike in 2018, when O’Rourke propelled a suite of down-ballot Democratic wins, this year’s race was run on an overwhelmingly non-competitive, freshly gerrymandered map. It’s possible that O’Rourke’s spending and campaigning helped Houston-area Dems narrowly avoid a county-level wipeout Tuesday. It’s also feasible that O’Rourke’s statewide campaign infrastructure will one day be inherited by a promising new avatar of Texas progressivism. But, for now, this isn’t much to hang one’s hat on.

“I’d honestly like to see [O’Rourke] take a break,” Carolina Machado, a school counselor, told the Texas Tribune after Tuesday’s concession speech in El Paso. “I think he needs some time to kind of chill and be a family man for a little bit … but I’d love to see him get back out there and really fight for us as Texans.”

Machado has the right of it, of course; O’Rourke and his family have more than earned a reprieve. And should he decide to run for office again, the El Paso mayor’s seat is up in just a couple short years.