TEXAS, USA — Four years ago, Beto O’Rourke became the next great hope for the Texas Democratic Party.
Starting his senatorial campaign as a little-known congressman from El Paso, he captured lightning in a bottle by barnstorming across the state’s 254 counties on his way to a narrow loss to Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
Though he came up short, O’Rourke helped sweep in down-ballot victories across the state, helping Democrats pick up 12 seats in the Texas House, two seats in the Texas Senate and boosting newcomer Lina Hidalgo over longtime Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican.
His meteoric rise brought back hope to a struggling minority party that has not won statewide office since 1994, and it attracted a frenzy of national attention that set up his run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.
But after a dismal run at the presidency and now a third consecutive electoral loss on Tuesday, O’Rourke is in danger of being lumped in with Democratic symbols of political failure like Wendy Davis, the former state senator who ran for governor in 2014 and the U.S. House in 2020, and the 2002 “Dream Team” of Tony Sanchez, Ron Kirk and John Sharp, which spent millions of dollars on flashy campaigns for governor, senator and lieutenant governor, respectively. All of these candidates once promised to help flip the state blue, but that ultimately ended in embarrassment.
“With each new race he loses it becomes more difficult to convince voters and persuade them that he can still win the next race,” said Sharon Navarro, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “That’s a very difficult barrier to overcome for a third-time loser.”
Abbott will no doubt frame Tuesday’s election results as a sign that Texans have soured on O’Rourke and that he has exhausted his political future in the state. And his GOP allies will revel in hammering the point home.
“This is three statewide failed races,” said Corbin Casteel, a Republican consultant. “He’s a perennial candidate. He hasn’t shown any ability to win outside his hometown and his ideas are just way too radical for Texas and he keeps getting rejected left and right.”
But political experts say they do not expect O’Rourke to disappear from the scene — though his role in future elections could change, going from candidate to organizer or fundraiser before, possibly, running again.
“For Democrats, you want to ride your fast horse until you get a faster one,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “Until you find someone better than Beto, what would be the point of exiling him into the wilderness for someone that has the skills and fundraising ability?”
At this point, O’Rourke is better known for the races he’s lost than the ones that he won — including serving as an El Paso councilman from 2005 to 2011 and a congressman from 2013 to 2019. After three high-profile losses in a four-year span, O’Rourke will have an uphill battle to convince skeptical voters that he should launch another bid for a major office.
But such a move would not be unprecedented in Texas history. In the 1950s, liberal Democrat Ralph Yarborough ran three unsuccessful campaigns for governor between 1952 and 1956 (the term of office was two years back then) before ultimately winning election to the U.S. Senate in a special 1957 election to replace Price Daniel, who had beaten out Yarborough for the governorship in 1956.
“It does show that while it seems embarrassing and you’ve gotta explain why you can’t win a big race, that you are building name recognition and there may be an election cycle that there’s an opening for you,” Jillson said.
Texas Republicans have also come back from bruising political losses to rise to the highest positions in government. In 1964, George H.W. Bush lost his U.S. Senate challenge to Yarborough by 12 percentage points. But despite the loss, Bush was considered a top prospect for the Texas GOP, which was then the minority party. Bush won election to Texas’ 7th Congressional District two years later.
In 1980, Bush lost another major election when he was beat out by Ronald Reagan in the Republican presidential primary. But after joining Reagan on the Republican ticket that year, Bush served two terms as vice president and eventually won the presidency in 1988.
“Different people take different paths to office,” Jillson said. “Grover Cleveland went from mayor of Buffalo to the White House in a little over three years. Things just laid out for him: mayor, governor of New York and first Democrat elected after the Civil War to the presidency.”
“It’s not that a good candidate wins every race and moves up the ladder because the environment within which you’re running even if you are a good candidate can be very difficult and in that race you might lose even if you’ve got all the skills,” he added. “Things have to line up, especially at top levels — senate, governor and presidency. It’s gotta be your party’s year and then you have to have the campaign skills and finances to give yourself a chance to win.”
But Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant, said O’Rourke has not made the adjustments he needed to mount a winning campaign since first running for statewide office in 2018.
“It’s not clear that Beto has learned anything from his three losses. He’s learned how to organize, how to raise money and fire up the progressives, but none of those things have delivered victory,” he said.
While O’Rourke certainly had the finances — he broke fundraising records in his senatorial campaign in 2018 and again during the governor’s race this year — political experts say he will have to work hard to overcome the tricky policy positions he put himself in during the 2020 presidential primary if he wants to win statewide office in conservative Texas.
High on that list is O’Rourke’s promise to confiscate assault-style rifles when he famously proclaimed during a presidential debate, “Hell yeah, we’re going to take your AR-15.” The stance has hampered him in gun-friendly Texas, and Abbott has used it effectively to drag down O’Rourke’s favorability.
Abbott also attacked O’Rourke for previous statements he had made in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which the Republican used to paint him as an opponent of police funding, and for his statements that churches should lose their tax-exempt status if they opposed same-sex marriage.
“He was definitely not as strategic as he possibly could have been every time he went in front of a mic,” Navarro said. “It’s also about the ability to be more strategic in front of a microphone and be careful on issues you speak of [that] can be used in a way that can harm any future campaign.”
O’Rourke was more disciplined during this year’s gubernatorial run, saying he still believed that people should not own assault-style rifles, but that he was focused on policies that were politically realistic, like universal background checks, red-flag laws and raising the age to purchase assault rifles from 18 to 21 — all of which have the support of a majority of Texans. He also walked a difficult line on immigration, criticizing Abbott’s border policies as “political stunts” but also stressing the need to secure the border and advance immigration reform.
But to Mackowiak, O’Rourke continued to misunderstand the Texas electorate, discussing issues in a way that motivated the progressive Democratic base but alienated middle-of-the-road voters.
“He ran a standard progressive campaign in a red state that might be becoming more purple. His whole strategy was hoping there would be more school shootings and the grid would fail,” Mackowiak said. “He had no message on the economy, and his position on the border is laughable. He didn’t give himself a chance in this race because he never moved to the middle.”
Matt Rinaldi, chair of the Republican Party of Texas, said O’Rourke benefited from how little people knew about him during his senatorial run. But by the time he ran for governor, his policy positions, including those that are controversial among the state’s conservative electorate, were well known.
“He was a blank slate and people put whatever their hopes were on to him,” he said. “But as he spent the tens of millions of dollars in these races running for Senate, president and governor, people realized that he had a very scary message that would lead to increased inflation, greater crime and an open border and they rejected that. They just don’t want it here.”
“He spent a lot of money on messaging but maybe he should move to California or New York,” Rinaldi added. “His message resonates a little better there.”
While Jillson said it would be difficult for O’Rourke to get beyond his past policy positions, it is not impossible. Barack Obama, for example, was able to “evolve” his clear opposition to same-sex marriage in 2008 to support for the issue just four years later — notably during the first year that support for same-sex marriage surpassed opposition.
“His strategy on (guns) should probably best have been, ‘Look, I’m from El Paso, the shooting was very raw and fresh, that’s what I was talking about and it was an emotional response. Here’s what I’m actually going to do,’” said Jillson, referring to the 2019 shooting at a Walmart in El Paso that left 23 people dead. “You have a one- or two-sentence quick response. You have to explain what you said but you don’t have to hold to every syllable of that sentence. You can reframe it now that the moment has passed.”
But Republicans said O’Rourke’s challenges this cycle spread beyond his campaign to an overall issue with a struggling Democratic Party that cannot connect with Texas voters.
“We’re coming up on three decades and you have to ask, what do all these people have in common?” Casteel said, referring to the period of GOP domination in Texas politics. “Promising candidates like Wendy Davis and Beto O’Rourke, what do they all have in common? [Policies like] higher taxes, anti-oil and gas, anti-gun, pro-abortion. It’s just not the values of Texas.”
Experts said O’Rourke could benefit from taking time away from running for office. Instead, he may be of more use to Democrats as a fundraiser or organizer, two areas in which the state party is desperately lacking. Navarro said O’Rourke could help build out that infrastructure to compete with the partisan and fundraising advantage that Republicans have held in the state for nearly three decades.
“He could begin to build a strong Democratic Party structure with what he’s done up to this point,” she said. “Definitely a fundraiser. He has the energy to bring that in and it could be to the success of other future candidates.”
Before running for governor, O’Rourke had started building out his political infrastructure to benefit other Democrats through his political action committee, Powered by the People. After dropping out of the presidential race, he spent much of 2020 trying to help Texas Democrats win a majority in the Texas House — they didn’t — and his group sent $600,000 to the Democrats who decamped to Washington, D.C., in 2021 to try to stop a Republican priority bill that further limited voting rights in the state.
Mackowiak said it’s unclear if O’Rourke will get another shot at a statewide bid and his legacy may be that he served as a catalyst for other candidates during the 2018 cycle, when Texas Democrats desperately needed a boost.
“It’s not 100% negative,” he said. “[But] at some point the Democrats will want to try to run something different.”
But others think O’Rourke could still have another statewide race left in him. With enough time, the political dynamics in the state may shift to be more in O’Rourke’s favor, said Renee Cross, executive director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. She noted that President Joe Biden ran two unsuccessful campaigns for the presidency 20 years apart before finally winning the White House in 2020, 12 years after his second attempt.
“There is certainly a place for luck in these victories,” Cross said. “Coupled along with various changes that may be occurring or are occurring with our population, I could see a political path but probably not real soon.”
But if O’Rourke wants to have a realistic shot at statewide office in the future, Mackowiak said, he will have to make tough adjustments that he has so far been unable to make.
“The question for me is does he learn anything from this?” he said. “Politically, without something fundamentally changing, it’s hard to see how he can convince anyone he can win office in this state.”
This story comes from our KHOU 11 News partners at The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans - and engages with them - about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.