Beto O’Rourke isn’t the best candidate. Here’s why we need him to stand for governor of Texas anyway

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Voting Bills Texas (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Voting Bills Texas (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Democrats should want Beto O’Rourke to run for Texas governor.

That’s not because he’s sure to win the seat against Republican incumbent Greg Abbott. No Democrat is assured of a win in a statewide race in Texas. But O’Rourke is a serious candidate with some obvious strengths. And if you’re a Democrat, you want serious candidates to run in difficult races. He may not be the best candidate, but he’s a credible candidate — and finding which credible candidate is the strongest is why parties hold primaries in the first place.

O’Rourke gained national attention when he ran a strong campaign against much-loathed Texas Senator Ted Cruz in 2018. Though O’Rourke lost in a tight race, 50.9 percent to 48.3 percent, he outperformed virtually every other statewide Democrat. He was particularly successful in boosting Latinx turnout, which helped Democrats pick up 12 state House seats.

In 2018, O’Rourke seemed like a natural and obvious candidate for governor or for another statewide Texas office. Rather than running for Senate again in 2020, though, he decided to run for president. His performance was lackluster; after an initial burst, his fundraising dried up and his poll numbers sagged. Calculating — probably correctly — that his record was too moderate to stand out in the primary field, he tacked left. In particular, he took a strong pro-gun control stance, which critics are worried will hurt him in his next Texas contest.

O’Rourke’s numbers against Texas Governor Abbott have improved recently. In July he was down 45-33 in polls, or 12 points. More recent polls show him at 42-37, or only 5 points back. That reflects Abbott’s poor handling of the Covid pandemic and the governor’s falling approval ratings. O’Rourke is hardly a shoo-in, but he at least seems within striking distance.

The possibility of an O’Rourke run may be keeping some other candidates on the sidelines, according to The Texas Tribune. O’Rourke has so much name recognition, and so much fundraising prowess, that other Democrats are nervous about challenging him. Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro has mostly squelched rumors about a governor’s run. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo hasn’t indicated that she’ll enter the race either. Actor Matthew McConaughey has good poll numbers against Abbott, and seems interested in competing. But he hasn’t run a real political campaign before, so it’s hard to assess his actual strength.

Part of the primary process is sewing up support from party actors, donors, and activists. Their backing is vital in a general contest too. If O’Rourke is so much better at Democratic politics than his next best rival that no one will challenge him — well, then it seems likely that he’s the best bet against Abbott. If, on the other hand, someone (Castro? Hidalgo? McConaughey?) fights him for the nomination and wins, we’ll have strong evidence that O’Rourke was not the better candidate.

The worry is that O’Rourke is a paper tiger, who looks strong because of name recognition and national fundraising prowess, but whose gun control stance would allow Abbott to crush him. And yes, maybe if O’Rourke didn’t enter the race, other candidates would. And maybe one of those other candidates would be stronger in a general election.

But if a candidate is afraid to challenge O’Rourke, how well are they to thump Abbott? It’s an iron rule of politics that candidates who don’t run always look more shiny and awesome than candidates who do. Many people were sure Elizabeth Warren should have run in 2016, but when she competed in 2020, the results were uninspiring (and I’m a Warren voter.) In general, politicians are optimistic; they think they’re going to win unless forced to think otherwise. If they don’t run, it’s probably not because they underestimated their chances.

Primaries aren’t infallible. You could easily win a Democratic contest with a gun control stance that might lose you votes among independents in a general election, as just one obvious example. But we also don’t have a great alternative to the primary process. We don’t know for sure how O’Rourke will do in a matchup with Abbott. But we don’t know how McConaughey would do either. So we have them run against other as a test of strength.

Part of that test of strength is getting party support. Part of it is being willing to contest a primary where you might lose — because if you’re a Democrat running in the red state of Texas, you’d better not be afraid of getting beaten. We know O’Rourke isn’t. That’s at least one point in his favor.

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