It may be hard to believe, but there was a time that Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke was quite popular in the Lone Star State where I live. During his run for U.S. Senate in 2018, O’Rourke came out of relative obscurity to capture the hearts and minds of millions of Texans. Major media outlets ran puff pieces about him, comparing him to John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. None of us could escape the ubiquitous black and white “Beto” signs festooning every yard and public space—the Onion’s piece on this phenomenon is still a classic. He seemed destined to win against a rather complacent Senator Ted Cruz, outspending him by the millions. And while O’Rourke came uncomfortably close, he just didn’t make it. Texas wasn’t ready.
After his run for Senate, he ran for president in a crowded field of Democratic contenders, and flamed out early. The most notable moments of his campaign were when he tried out his Spanglish at one of the primary debates and his declarations that he’d like to confiscate Americans’ guns and strip tax-exempt status from churches for refusing to endorse the LGBT agenda.
Now, O’Rourke is making a run for the governorship. In light of Texas’ continued prosperity and growth under Governor Greg Abbott, and O’Rourke’s successive failures in previous campaigns, this move makes little sense, at least to conservatives. In O’Rourke’s defense, however, he had a few good reasons to run: (1) people are still happy to shovel millions of dollars to his campaign; (2) demographically, Texas is becoming more Hispanic, which normally favors Democrats; and (3) Texas has taken in many new residents from blue states (mainly California), who would also favor a Democrat. Texas, in other words, finally seemed ready to go blue.
Sadly for O’Rourke, these advantages haven’t panned out as expected. Even if he could raise tons of money, so could his opponent. As for Hispanics and Californian transplants coming to his rescue, the former are increasingly voting Republican and most of the latter were already Republican (as this is why, in many cases, they left California). As I’ve argued in the past, it’s mostly native Texans who support Democrats like O’Rourke, not those who are new to the state, and this year, the novelty of “Beto” has long since worn off (Harry Styles’ recent endorsement notwithstanding).
In this final month before the election, these setbacks put even more pressure on O’Rourke to make his big move against Abbott. Last week’s debate seemed to offer a great opportunity to do this. Although Abbott’s one of the most popular governors in the country, he had some weak points that O’Rourke could exploit, like the power failure during the 2021 ice storm, the lackluster COVID response, and the low performance of Texas public schools. Even those of us who support Abbott would have appreciated some acknowledgment of these shortcomings.
Unfortunately, O’Rourke focused his efforts on things almost completely outside of Abbott’s control: the school shooting in Uvalde, the crisis at the Southern border, and rising local property taxes. O’Rourke kept repeating that “he had eight years to do something about this,” but it isn’t Abbott’s fault that local law enforcement completely broke down that day, or that Joe Biden has effectively opened the border by reversing Trump’s immigration policies, or that the massive wave of incoming residents has jacked up property values and consequently raised property taxes.
Moreover, O’Rourke’s own solutions to all these issues were laughably implausible. It’s well known that he thinks banning lawful gun ownership is not only possible but that it would end all shootings, and he essentially repeated this stance in different words. Concerning the border, he acted as though he would have the power to streamline citizenship and dictate immigration policy—and even if that fantasy were true, O’Rourke’s proposals would do nothing to stem the tide of illegal immigration. And on rising taxes, he would simply make this worse by introducing an additional state tax and adding a slew of more social services.
True to form, O’Rourke also came out against standardized testing and defunding the police (Abbott noted the big flip-flop on the latter point) while expressing support for legalizing marijuana, abortion up to birth, and expanding medicare. Whatever his intentions, these additions seemed more like party lines than genuine concerns.
For Abbott’s part, he stayed on message and didn’t really commit any gaffes. He tends to struggle with giving clear concise responses—though the debate’s idiotic “lightning round” format that gives 30 seconds to answer complex questions certainly didn’t help. He was annoyingly polite to O’Rourke, never bringing up O’Rourke’s criminal record, repeated failures in running for office, or radically leftist positions. At best, one could say he was informative, but hardly inspirational.
For all that though, I ended up liking both candidates more. Even if Abbott lacks the same charisma and confidence of his two predecessors, Rick Perry and George W. Bush, he makes up for this in intelligence and humility. He’s not a typical “good ol’ boy,” but a man who takes his responsibilities seriously. And perhaps it’s just the fact that I’ve become used to seeing O’Rourke run for office, but he seemed less shrill and annoying than before.
Even if they won’t change the outcome of the election, the debate and the campaigns of both men signaled something important: this will perhaps be the last political race of its kind. It’s unlikely that Democrats will support a privileged straight white guy like O’Rourke for any office in the future; they are much too invested in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Similarly, it’s just as unlikely that Republicans will support an old white gentleman like Abbott for office again; he is much too nice and deferential to deal with an increasingly militant and fascistic Democratic Party—his colleagues Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton are much better fits.
For those who like political polarization and enjoy some of the mudslinging that comes with closer races, they can gladly close the book on this election and look forward to an entertaining future. For those of us who regret these coming changes, we should savor what will probably be Beto’s last run for office and Abbott’s last term for governor.