Texas Democrats Look to a Future Beyond Beto

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DALLAS — On the first day of early voting in Texas in late October, the line to see Beto O’Rourke near a polling place in East Dallas snaked over wet grass in an occasionally torrential rain.

Mr. O’Rourke, a political celebrity vying to become the first Democratic governor of Texas in decades, was buoyant. So too were his supporters, some of whom, sopping wet or protected by ponchos, had been waiting more than 45 minutes.

“He’s a fresh alternative,” said Joan Jackson, 70, who retired from public relations and lived nearby. “I love his energy and his enthusiasm.”

But by the time the ballots were tallied on Election Day, it was clear that a Democratic wave in Texas had once again failed to materialize, and Gov. Greg Abbott, the two-term Republican incumbent, cruised to victory.

“I want to thank my fellow Texans,” Mr. Abbott said in a speech soon after the polls closed. “Together we will keep Texas the greatest state in the greatest country in the history of the world.”

Just a few months earlier, the Republican Party’s vaunted hold on Texas had appeared vulnerable, and Mr. O’Rourke seemed like the right choice to take it on. But he returned home to El Paso on Tuesday still the most famous Texas Democrat never to win a race outside of his hometown.

“I don’t know what my role or yours will be going forward, but I’m in this fight for life,” he said in his concession speech. “Who knows what’s next for any of us, right?”

In an election in which anger over abortion restrictions and gun violence appeared destined to drive Democratic turnout, Mr. O’Rourke’s loss came as a deflating blow.

For years, his better-than-expected run for the U.S. Senate in 2018 had given hope to Democrats of an impending breakthrough in Texas. He remained a force in Texas politics, and a natural candidate for governor, because he could raise money quickly, had near-universal name recognition — usually by his first name alone — and a devoted base of supporters and volunteers.

But he also arrived, this time around, with the baggage of a too-soon 2020 presidential run that, despite fizzling quickly, left behind a record of progressive statements on guns and fossil fuel and the police aimed at national Democratic primary voters, not the Texans he needed to win over in a governor’s race.

His defeat on Tuesday instead underscored just how dominant the Republican Party remains in Texas, with control of the State Legislature and every statewide office, and was likely to force a reckoning for Democrats, who do not have a clear path forward or successor to assume Mr. O’Rourke’s mantle.

Mr. O’Rourke, a former El Paso congressman, launched his campaign by attacking Mr. Abbott over the 2021 electrical grid failure that killed hundreds of Texans. Then he shifted to the issue of abortion as the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision began galvanizing Democrats, and to the issue of gun control after the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

But Mr. Abbott stuck to script, focusing on the large number of migrants at the Mexican border, his support for law enforcement and the energy industry, and particularly, the growing Texas economy. Mr. O’Rourke, his advisers conceded, never made a case for why people’s day-to-day economic life would be better with him at the helm.

In the end, the race had not been close. Even before Election Day, the governor’s advisers were boasting to reporters that the campaign had not been that hard to run. Because as much as Democrats loved to rally for Mr. O’Rourke and give him money online, he engendered considerable backlash. Texans told pollsters they viewed him more unfavorably than favorably.

Rachael Abell, a lifelong Republican and stay-at-home mother of four, said she voted for Democrats in some races for the first time ever on Tuesday — but she could not bring herself to vote for Mr. O’Rourke.

“I’m not at that point for Beto,” said Ms. Abell, 44, who lives in suburban Tarrant County, an area that Mr. O’Rourke lost this year after carrying it in 2018. “There are things that he says that are too far out there,” she said, citing his past comments, which he downplayed later, suggesting support for redirecting funding away from the police.

In a state like Texas, a Democratic run for governor was always seen as a long shot. The absence of a candidate to take on Mr. Abbott well into last year fueled hope among Democrats that the movie star Matthew McConaughey, a native Texan, might even jump into the race.

Still, when Mr. O’Rourke, 50, declared his candidacy last November, his campaign gathered swift momentum. He began to compete with and, in the weeks before the election, exceeded the amounts of cash being raised by Mr. Abbott, among the most capable political fund-raisers in Texas politics. But he still could not make up for the sizable head start Mr. Abbott had.

Mr. Abbott, 64, had a deep campaign war chest to draw on and outspent Mr. O’Rourke, locking up time on television and rolling out advertisements for weeks before Mr. O’Rourke began. By the final days of the campaign, the governor’s campaign had spent more than $130 million on the primary and general election. The O’Rourke campaign spent more than $70 million.

Mr. Abbott’s campaign recognized early that Mr. O’Rourke’s fame was also a liability.

“I’ve never run a race where your opponent has been underwater — favorable, unfavorable — from Day 1,” said David Carney, the top political strategist for Mr. Abbott. “It’s very hard to get people who don’t like you to vote for you.”

The governor’s campaign returned often to statements made by Mr. O’Rourke during his brief presidential run, presenting him as to the left of most Texans on guns and the oil and gas industry.

And as early voting began, Mr. Abbott traveled the state, drawing large crowds even in more liberal areas around Austin and San Antonio.

Maryanne Cohen, 57, said she had moved to Texas with her husband, David, to escape the left-of-center politics in California. “If he loses, I’m out of Texas,” she said before a get-out-the-vote rally for Mr. Abbott in the Austin suburb of Bee Cave. “If we lose Texas, this whole country is going down.”

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the issue of abortion appeared to lift Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign over the summer, as did anger over the massacre of 19 children and two teachers at a Uvalde elementary school in May. Mr. O’Rourke vowed to restore access to abortion and proposed raising the age to buy an AR-15-style weapon to 21 years old.

At a rally in Houston last month, some 1,800 people gathered, a far larger crowd than the governor would muster a few days later. A few people wore campaign shirts from Mr. O’Rourke’s first 2018 run, giving the gathering the feel of a concert tour.

Veronica Gonzales, 49, came with her 19-year-old daughter, Jaleesa, and said the loss of abortion rights in Texas under Mr. Abbott was a primary motivator. “I’m here for her,” she said. “We’re going backwards.”

But Mr. O’Rourke’s brief summer bump in the polls began disappearing by the fall.

A rift in Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign emerged over his frequent trips to deeply red rural areas of the state, his aides said. The candidate was adamant that he could win over small-town voters, but when the campaign tested the impact of the visits it often was negative.

His campaign strategists had pinned their hopes on mobilizing large numbers of dormant Democrats and energizing new voters in a state that registered about two million additional voters since the last governor’s race.

But the voters did not come out.

Statewide turnout lagged behind the numbers seen in 2018, when a surge of Democrats in Texas, energized by their dislike of then President Donald J. Trump, nearly propelled Mr. O’Rourke to victory over Ted Cruz.

For Democrats looking ahead, part of the effort now is aimed at persuading donors who have invested in the O’Rourke campaign, and activists who worked hard on his behalf, to not give up on Texas.

His campaign spent significant amounts of money and energy building a reliable database of Democratic voters that hardly existed before. Several million phone numbers from the Democratic voter list were incorrect, his aides said.

“The infrastructure that we’ve created through the campaign will be a critical building block for Democrats in the state for the future,” said Nick Rathod, Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign manager. “And we are committed to making sure that that infrastructure continues to be invested in for cycles to come.”

And the Democratic Party did not come out of the election empty-handed. Early on, some had seen Mr. O’Rourke’s candidacy as a kind of sacrificial effort: He might lose, but he could attract Democrats to the polls and help others win. He did not generate the expected turnout, but some Democrats with tough races — including congressional incumbents in South Texas — did come away with wins.

“He was a net positive for the Democrats,” said Garry Mauro, a former Texas land commissioner and among the last Democrats to hold statewide office in the 1990s. “But he never gave a reason for small-town Texans and independent voters to vote for him.”

Mr. Mauro observed that in Texas history some successful Democrats, like former Senator Ralph Yarborough in the 1950s, had won after losing over and over again. But, he said, now may be the time for the Democratic Party to move on from Mr. O’Rourke. “We did the Beto thing twice,” he said.

“The one positive is we can at least say we know what model doesn’t work,” Mr. Mauro added. “Having rallies for the true believers doesn’t win elections.”

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