AUSTIN (Texas Tribune) — The odds were more stacked than usual against Texas Democrats this election cycle, with an unpopular president from their party going against them. Yet there was still hope and cautious optimism within the party that if anyone could pull off the upset, it would be Beto O’Rourke.
At a minimum, he could give a repeat performance of his 2018 matchup against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, where he came close enough to defeating the Republican — less than 3 percentage points — that Democrats could convincingly make the case that Texas is a battleground state worthy of national attention and investment.
Instead, O’Rourke, the most promising Texas Democrat in recent history, got walloped by Gov. Greg Abbott by 11 percentage points, and every other statewide candidate lost by double digits.
The drubbing has left Democrats in a familiar position: wounded after a disappointing election night while contemplating their strategy and their future.
“It’s been one [election] after another where we ramp everybody up and set up these expectations that we’re going to finish in first — and then we finish in second,” said Joel Montfort, a Democratic consultant in North Texas. “I don’t see any indication that we can win at statewide levels or won’t continue to bleed house seats to the other party.”
In an internal party memo obtained Thursday by The Texas Tribune, Democratic Party executive director Jamarr Brown blamed historic midterm trends, voting restrictions enacted in last year’s priority Republican legislation, redistricting that benefited the GOP, “mind-blowing” amounts of funding for Republicans, and a lack of national investment for Texas Democrats.
But perhaps the most damning mistakes Democrats identified in interviews and the memo was their inability to get voters to show up at the polls coupled with their candidates’ weak response to the GOP’s united messaging around immigration and the economy.
“We as Texas Democrats can no longer be seen as sticking our heads in the sand on issues that poll after poll tell us Texans care deeply about,” Brown said in the memo, singling out border security at length. “This election has made clearer the immense challenges we face over the next two years to continue making Texas into a state where all working families can thrive.”
O’Rourke’s campaign leaders are set to offer their own takeaways in a call with reporters on Monday.
It was not all bad for Texas Democrats. They retained two out of three South Texas battleground congressional seats in a region the GOP had aggressively targeted. They also won a hotly contested state House seat in the Dallas suburbs. And rising-star Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo eked out a reelection win, despite being massively outspent by the Republican challenger. But in a sign of the treacherous environment, both those narrow wins came in territories that President Joe Biden carried by double digits just two years ago.
Democrats have little time to sift through their losses before the next election cycle kicks off. The marquee race in 2024 in Texas will be for the U.S. Senate seat that Cruz currently holds, and Republicans are vowing to keep contesting South Texas
But the Democrats face two immediate problems looking ahead to that race. First, Tuesday’s double-digit losses will make it harder for statewide candidates to raise money necessary to run a competitive race. O’Rourke’s current 11-point deficit to Abbott, is only slightly better than Lupe Valdez’s 13-point deficit, but her campaign, which was widely seen as underwhelming, raised less than $2 million compared to the $77 million raised by O’Rourke.
And secondly, the Democratic bench for statewide office is concerningly thin. Beyond O’Rourke, the names mentioned for future statewide runs include Hidalgo, U.S. Rep. Colin Allred of Dallas and the San Antonio Democratic brothers Joaquin Castro and Julián Castro, who have been touted as rising stars for over a decade now but have repeatedly passed on statewide campaigns.
But it is unclear how much financial backing any of those potential candidates could garner from donors underwhelmed by the Democrats’ latest statewide results. This year’s gubernatorial race cost north of $140 million. And the party has for years shown an inability to groom candidates for higher office or convince potentially viable candidates to make a run.
This year, the party ran Rochelle Garza, a civil rights lawyer with little political experience, against Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was widely seen as the most vulnerable Republican incumbent. But Garza struggled to raise money or gain traction in O’Rourke’s shadow, and lost by 10 percentage points against Paxton, who has been indicted on felony security fraud charges and is being investigated by the FBI for abuse of office accusations. He’d denied wrongdoing.
“It boggles the mind that a state this big that has a large Democratic party and lots of Democrats in the big cities in the state, that they can’t find somebody and build up a series of people over time to strengthen their hand,” said Jon Taylor, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “They literally seem to be the people who can’t shoot straight.”
Turnout was at the top of the list for things that went wrong for Democrats. About 8.1 million voters cast ballots — 2 million short of what both sides had projected. It amounted to a 46% turnout rate, higher than usual for a midterm election in Texas but short of the 53% turnout rate in 2018 when Democrats had their best cycle in recent history.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party, acknowledged in an interview that Democrats struggled to turn out both the party’s most engaged voters, as well as low-propensity voters, who need the most nudging by campaigns to go to the ballot box.
It was an uncorrected mistake from 2020, when Democrats also underperformed — losing almost all the state and congressional seats they believed they could flip. The party’s post-mortem analysis of the election at the time noted they needed to focus more on low-propensity voters instead of highly-engaged voters, who are already likely to participate.
Hinojosa said this year the state party pushed campaigns and county parties to prioritize less engaged voters, but they still focused on likely voters, who they saw as “sure bets.”
“We did not spend enough time trying to get low propensity voters out,” he said. “We know that’s the solution but we have to spend the money to get it done.”
In an early sign of trouble, party leaders noticed during early voting that campaigns and county organizations were having trouble turning out Black voters – traditionally one of the Democrats’ most reliable blocs – in Harris County. Harris makes up nearly 30% of the statewide vote and Democrats often rely on it to balance out Republican votes from more conservative areas of the state.
“We had in Harris County, significant drop in our turnout, African American voters voted at much lower levels than what they voted in 2018,” Hinojosa said.
There was a late effort to mobilize Black voters, with first lady Jill Biden touring predominantly Black churches in Houston the Sunday before the election. And the next day, O’Rourke released a robocall from former President Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president.
O’Rourke’s campaign had aimed to win 90% of the Black vote; they got 84%, according to exit polling.
Hinojosa said the county party in Harris County ran strong “Get out the vote efforts” but they were not enough.
Taylor said Democrats will have to answer for why they were so unsuccessful at motivating voters across the board.
“Democrats stayed home and it begs the question: Why would Democrats stay home versus a governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general who are all politically tainted in one way or another?” he said. “They can say ‘We had get-out-the-vote efforts.’ If you did, why was the turnout less than 2018?”
From the beginning, Abbott and other Republicans were unwavering in their message warning about border security and the economy, which they said were both worsened by national Democratic control.
O’Rourke, for his part, started his campaign stoking bipartisan discontent around the 2021 power grid failure during the deadly winter storm, laying blame at Abbott’s feet. After the Uvalde school shooting and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, he focused on gun control and abortion access, as those issues animated the base of the party throughout the summer.
Abortion remained a top concern for voters, according to an exit poll that showed it nearly matched inflation as their top issue out of five choices. But Democrats acknowledged after Tuesday that they should have had a clearer point of view about immigration and the economy, which polls consistently identified as top voter concerns.
Ed Espinoza, president of the liberal communications shop Progress Texas, said in a post-election email to the group’s supporters Thursday that Democrats “seemingly had the wind at their backs over the summer” as abortion and guns were front and center.
“That all changed around Labor Day when Gov. Abbott’s migrant bussing stunt made national news, layered on top of a struggling economy,” Espinoza said, referring to Abbott’s state-funded busing program sending migrants to cities run by Democrats. “Credit to Beto O’Rourke and his team for having the discipline to stick with the ‘abortion, guns, grid’ messaging down the stretch — but it ultimately wasn’t enough to compete with the border and the price of gas and groceries.”
Jon Mark Hogg, a Democrat who founded the 134 PAC to grow the party’s strength in rural areas, said the way candidates talked about social issues like abortion and guns turned off voters in those parts of the state. He criticized the party’s outreach to rural voters.
“Instead of listening and being among the people and figuring out what’s important, we have a top down approach, which is the Democratic Party decides what progressive social issues it wants to talk about and thinks the state should be interested in those issues and they just weren’t,” he said.
Even as the overturning of Roe v. Wade upended the election, Abbott’s campaign bet that it would still be dominated by the border and economy. On a post-election call Wednesday morning, Abbott campaign strategist Dave Carney said O’Rourke’s messaging was “a kitchen sink from day one” and that Abbott “stuck to the four core issues that are on people’s minds.”
One Democratic group that conducted a statewide focus group in late summer found that participants offered a variety of issues they associated with O’Rourke. When it came to Abbott, though, there was more of a consensus: jobs.
One local case study came in Nueces County, home to Corpus Christi, where the Democratic county judge, Barbara Canales, lost Tuesday after a breakthrough victory four years ago. She ran a campaign that was highly sensitive to the local port-driven industry, including protecting oil and gas, but it was not enough to overcome the broader environment.
Canales said she thought people are “pulling Republican the way people used to pull Democrat in South Texas,” referring to an especially unflinching GOP effort in Nueces County. That culminated the weekend before early voting, when Trump visited Robstown for a rally and endorsed Canales’ opponent, Connie Scott.
“The truth is I was able to flip this seat when it was an open seat and I was able to win by pulling Republicans over to my side,” Canales said in an interview. “But that did not happen this time because there was a clear message, which was vote straight Republican.”
All the Democratic incumbents in South Texas who survived campaigned as moderates, especially when it came to border security. The state party memo specifically cited U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, won reelection by nearly double the margin that Biden would have won his district. The memo noted Cuellar “has a long record of speaking and acting firmly in favor of real action on border security and unequivocally in support of law enforcement.”
State Rep. Eddie Morales of Eagle Pass, who easily won reelection in a targeted race, ran on his support for the Abbott-championed law last year that nearly tripled state spending on border defense. Morales was the only Democrat to joint-author the bill, and only one of four to vote for it.
“It’s not politics, it’s about the safety of our communities,” he said in a mailer sent to constituents.
Morales said he hoped urban Democrats would take note from rural and border Democrats like himself. He praised O’Rourke for listening to his concerns about border messaging, and was encouraged to see O’Rourke advocate for a “safe, legal, orderly” immigration system.
“He moved, I thought, in what was the right direction,” Morales said.
Morales told Republicans in his district to pay attention to the new way O’Rourke was speaking about immigration, but they just dismissed it as flip-flopping, according to the lawmaker. O’Rourke “had just gotten off on the wrong foot with these Republicans, and to get them back is gonna be monumental,” he said.
Canales, the Nueces County judge, also suggested O’Rourke had the right message, but some just could not look past his previous comments, including his advocacy for a mandatory buyback of assault rifles. On guns, she said she thought the party “could’ve been stronger on the ‘We’re not against guns, we’re for common sense’ — which was Beto’s message, but it did not resonate because he had previous positions on it.”
On the campaign trail, O’Rourke regularly sought to rebut GOP talking points on inflation, the border and crime. For example, he argued that Abbott was the “single greatest driver of inflation” in Texas due to increased energy bills after the 2021 winter storm crisis.
But none of those arguments ever appeared in his TV ads, where they would have the widest audience. Instead, O’Rourke’s commercials focused on education, health care, guns and abortion.
O’Rourke’s campaign was well aware of the dynamic. Nick Rathod, O’Rourke’s campaign manager, said in a podcast interview days before the election that crime and immigration were “really driving the narrative” and that countering Abbott on those issues remained their “biggest challenge.”
At the end of the day, O’Rourke’s campaign figured that opinions were already baked in on issues like inflation and playing defense on them would only detract from the goal of any challenger: making it a referendum on the incumbent.
But in Thursday’s memo, Brown acknowledged that not responding to Republican messaging on the border was a mistake. Democrats had also been buried by millions of dollars in advertising on border issues in the three South Texas congressional districts Republicans were targeting, and they did not have the money to respond.
“Here’s a tough truth we as Democrats must realize on border security: it’s a hugely important issue to our state,” he wrote. “Democrats across the country have for too long wanted to sweep it under the rug and hope voters just don’t pay attention to it – but the fact of the matter is that Texas is the biggest border state in the country, and Texas Republicans will continue to use every single bad-faith political stunt in the book to keep illegal immigration top-of-mind for voters.”
Some statewide Democratic candidates did make an effort to get ahead of Republican attacks on TV. Mike Collier, who ran for lieutenant governor, released an ad in September that proactively touted his experience in the energy industry, hoping to blunt GOP criticism that he would destroy oil and gas. But Republican incumbent Dan Patrick later went up with a TV ad making the claim anyway, and the underfunded Collier could not match him in advertising dollars.
Patrick had nearly $17 million cash on hand going in to the final month of the race; Collier had less than $1 million.
“As Texas Democrats, we haven’t reckoned with the reality that no matter the kind of race you run, that without the resources to define your candidate, the Republican will define your candidate and what they believe,” said Ali Zaidi, Collier’s campaign manager. “That is a very tough problem for Democrats to solve.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.