If you were surprised by recently completed legislative session’s focus was on far-right social issues – permit less gun carry, fetal heartbeat abortion restrictions, curbs on teaching race in public schools, transgender athletes, and voting restrictions – and not on definitive solutions to the breakdown of our energy grid, be prepared for even more in July’s special session.
Elections have consequences and the only way to change this dynamic is for Democrats to not abandon the field in 2022, no matter how daunting the task. The first step is for someone to seriously challenge Gov. Greg Abbott, someone who needs no introduction to the Texas electorate. Beto O’Rourke.
You may have heard all the reasons why he shouldn’t run.
Another statewide defeat will finish his career. He ran to far to the left in the presidential election. The Democrat’s 2018 down ballot crushed expectations prove this is an overwhelmingly red state. Mexican-Americans are moving into the GOP column.
But these reasons are not insurmountable. As of late, Beto has been all over television and social media, keeping up a presence in the minds of Texans. Remember that Texas liberal icon Ralph Yarborough lost three statewide races before becoming a Senator.
O’Rourke ran to the left for President, but if you’ve seen the crowds around him on his voting rights For the People campaign, he’s still young, charismatic and perfectly capable of raising campaign funds and mobilizing turnout. Running against an ideological right-wing legislature, while memories of the February freeze are fresh, might just resonate. And unlike 2018, pair him with serious Democratic candidates who can gain attention on their own, and you just might have a ticket that can inspire turnout, particularly as Democrats return to the kind of door to door campaign they abandoned during last year’s pandemic.
What about Republican gains in south Texas? Along the Rio Grande, jobs in policing, border security, and the oil and gas industry are particularly important. In 2020, Texas Democrats were caught flat footed on accusations of defunding the police. Joe Biden’s gaffe about banning all fracking, including on private lands, was also not helpful. Better messaging and more clarity, versus defensiveness, can temper their losses here.
In the end, this is ultimately not about winning in 2022, especially with gerrymandering in redistricting making keeping previously won seats a Democratic priority. It’s about building and sustaining a viable alternative to an ultra-conservative agenda that appeases the right.
Every cycle that Democrats offer unknown candidates for statewide office kicks the prospects of any political change further down the road. Just look at the entire 2018 statewide ticket. No matter how vulnerable Dan Patrick or Ken Paxton or Sid Miller might have been, candidates like Lupe Valdez, Mike Collier, and Justine Nelson never registered in the public’s mind.
O’Rourke changed that dynamic by literally visiting nearly every county in Texas. It’s that kind of effort — and that kind of candidate — that reminds people there is an alternative and gives those voters a reason to come to the polls.
Serious debate on issues like public education, lack of medical insurance, and the importance of migrant labor to our state economy versus border security depend on a general election electorate weighing in, not just the narrow, far more conservative Republican primary voters. Even Republicans, who dream of nominating conservative moderates like former Speaker Joe Straus, will need competitive general elections to convince GOP primary voters that electability is more important than ideological purity. Competition among all voters is what a two-party democracy is built on. If Democrats abandon the field, that dream gets deferred for all Texans.
Paul Stekler is the Wofford Denius Chair in Entertainment Studies and a documentary film maker at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News and the Waco Tribune Herald.