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Democrats hope Beto O’Rourke helps down-ballot hopefuls, but analysts skeptical he’ll have an impact

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.

In 2018, O’Rourke helped Democrats win two seats in Congress and 12 spots in the Texas House, but the national climate and lack of party line voting makes a similar effort unlikely.
Beto O'Rourke supporters
Beto O’Rourke supporters cheer as he speaks at a rally in Dallas on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021. The campaign in Dallas began at 2pm (Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News)(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

By Gromer Jeffers Jr.

Texas Democrats are hoping to win with Beto O’Rourke as their candidate for governor — even if he loses.

With his ability to raise large amounts of campaign cash, mobilize volunteers and target voters, Democrats are banking that O’Rourke will have long coattails that will help their down-ballot candidates.

That’s what happened in 2018, when O’Rourke’s close contest against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz helped make winners out of other Democrats on the ticket. That included victories by U.S. Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas and Lizzie Fletcher of Houston. Democrats also had a net gain of 12 seats in the Texas House, and they took control of the Fifth District Court of Appeals.

But analysts warn that Beto 2.0 won’t be the down-ballot influencer he was in 2018. It’s unclear whether he can generate that same excitement with voters, particularly after his failed 2020 presidential campaign. The thrill may be gone, critics say.

Beto O'Rourke
Beto O’Rourke, Democratic candidate for Texas governor, spoke at a rally in Dallas on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

Then there are structural changes in the electoral process that make it more difficult for a top-of-the ballot candidate to have coattails. Unlike the 2018 elections, there is no straight-ticket voting. That means any new or infrequent voters produced by O’Rourke, or his likely rival, Republican incumbent Greg Abbott, must manually vote on the entire ticket to help down-ballot candidates, instead of picking the entire party slate in one motion.

Scott Griggs, a Dallas Democrat and member of the party’s State Executive Committee, said O’Rourke’s candidacy for governor will pay dividends across the ballot.

“He has rock star status. He has a huge following,” Griggs said after attending O’Rourke’s rally Sunday in Dallas. “It’s easy for him to draw a crowd and create excitement, and that helps the whole ticket all the way down.”

But state Rep. Jasmine Crockett, who met with O’Rourke before the rally, said the absence of straight-ticket voting makes it harder for any candidate at the top of the ticket to have long coattails.

“It doesn’t help the rest of the ticket like it used to,” said Crockett, who unsuccessfully pushed a bill in the Legislature to restore party line voting. “Obviously the Republicans were nervous, so they got rid of straight party ticket voting. So it’s going to be important that those down-ballot candidates do as much as they can with the little resources that they have to make sure that the people know exactly who they are.”

Crockett said O’Rourke is still a net positive for Democrats.

“He’s going to bring a lot of people out, but it’s not going to be as many people being swept in,” she said.

The filing period for the March primary election ends Dec. 13, and Democrats don’t have proven vote-getters up and down their statewide and local tickets.

Their last big-name candidate for governor was former state Sen. Wendy Davis, whose star-making filibuster that stalled an anti-abortion bill made her a national celebrity. But Abbott beat her by 20 percentage points, winning his first term as governor.

While O’Rourke came out of relative obscurity to challenge Cruz in 2018, the rest of the ticket featured little-known and sparsely funded former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez for governor.

Part of the calculus for Democratic operatives for the 2022 midterm elections was to have a candidate for governor who could raise money and inspire enough voters to give Abbott a credible challenge, while helping the rest of the ticket.

A tele-meeting in January with Democratic leaders across the state was essentially a “Draft Beto” call, according to several people who participated. O’Rourke took nearly the rest of the year to make up his mind, but he agreed.

O’Rourke says he can beat Abbott.

“I’m confident that we can win. And it is not about the candidate, and not about my political party,” O’Rourke told The Dallas Morning News. “It is about Texas and the big things that we want to do, better jobs, world-class public schools, expanding Medicaid … we’re going to win because those are the things that Texans are focused on.”

O’Rourke’s campaign raised $2 million in 24 hours, which it says is a record. That should make down-ballot Democrats happy.

Gov. Greg Abbott
Gov. Greg Abbott spoke on a variety of issues including a border wall, razor wire, critical race theory, election laws, mail-in ballots, voter fraud and more at the Midland Chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly’s Reagan Lunch at the Bush Convention Center on Nov. 5, 2021, in Midland.(Jacob Ford / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

But Republicans are expected to have considerable advantages, which could negate O’Rourke’s appeal.

In 2020, the GOP proved that a record number of voters didn’t mean Democrats would turn the state blue. They won every statewide race and maintained control of the Legislature.

With Democrats and President Joe Biden in control of the White House, O’Rourke and Texas Democrats could face headwinds next year, which is typical for the party with the presidency.

“It’s hard for me to imagine the coattail effect for Beto in the political environment that we anticipate in 2022,” said University of Texas at Tyler political scientist Kenneth Bryant. “It’s going to be a little different than the midterm in 2018.”

Bryant said Democrats also have to contend with the redistricting process, which resulted in a lack of swing districts across the state.

The party, which hasn’t won a statewide race since 1994, will be trying to hold its own turf.

“The defensive posture of Democratic candidates in 2022 is going to make it hard, but it’s not impossible,” Bryant said.

In areas like Dallas County, however, O’Rourke’s presence on the ballot could be a major factor.

Democrats are trying to unseat Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch, and they are redrawing the boundaries to make it more favorable for their nominee. Party leaders are also trying to oust Morgan Meyer of University Park and Angie Chen Button of Garland — the last two Dallas County Republicans in the Texas House.

Griggs said after the 2020 elections, O’Rourke focused on grass-roots activity, including the formation of his political action committee called Powered by People, which seeks to register and mobilize voters.

“Beto has spent a tremendous amount of time to bring new people to the table who’ve not voted before,” Griggs said. “All those new voters will be mobilized and the base will be mobilized, and that should help overcome some of the disadvantages from redistricting.”

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