WASHINGTON — Although his presidential bid failed to gain traction, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke came within a hair of becoming a senator from Texas in 2018 and performed better than any Democrat in a statewide race in nearly 30 years.
Forgoing a more traditional post-run path of cable punditry, O’Rourke has remained quieter than some of his counterparts since he ended his campaign. In an effort to boost former Vice President Joe Biden in Texas, he’s helping spearhead get-out-the-vote volunteer efforts through his PAC, Powered by People, and says he’s also mulling a teaching career.
And while Democrats have said in previous cycles that reliably red Texas might turn blue, O’Rourke believes that the current confluence of social upheaval, racial reckoning and climbing coronavirus cases will push voters the party has long coveted — particularly suburban moderates — in Biden’s direction.
“I think Texas is Biden’s to lose,” said O’Rourke, sitting on the stoop of his El Paso home, to Yahoo News during a wide-ranging telephone interview on Wednesday.
“Now, we’re in a presidential cycle, which tends to boost Democratic turnout. We already got so close in 2018. You have just a historic mismanagement of the pandemic and the economic contraction and the record number of jobless claims on top of all of the racism, the hatred and the vitriol from the president, and then in Texas we have some of the most uncontrolled spread of COVID-19,” he said.
“Given the trends that we are already seeing in terms of Democrats outperforming expectations, this is already moving in the right direction.”
O’Rourke pointed to Hillary Clinton’s relatively strong Texas showing in 2016, as well as his own two-and-a-half-point loss against Sen. Ted Cruz — the closest Texas Senate race in 40 years — as proof that the state is in play like never before.
Powered by People boasts a 20,000-person volunteer network, many of whom have been supporting O’Rourke since the midterm elections. He says they’ve made over 355,000 calls to new Texas residents who are Democrats but not registered to vote in the state. Democrats hope these new Texans, many of whom came from blue bastions like California, will help them finally flip the state.
In recent weeks Texas has also become a hot spot for coronavirus outbreaks, as cases in Houston continue to hit all-time daily highs; the city is on track to become the most ravaged in the U.S., rivaling similarly dire situations in Brazil. The spike in cases led Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, to announce on Wednesday that he was pausing the state’s reopening plan.
O’Rourke says the voters he speaks to are cognizant of what he believes to be failures by GOP leadership at the state and federal levels to contain the virus.
“You have just a historic mismanagement of the pandemic. Whether it’s from the White House or the governor’s mansion here in Texas or the lieutenant governor, who on Fox News, in an effort to try to get the state to reopen, said there are ‘more important things than living.’ You have a Republican government that has completely abdicated any leadership whatsoever,” said O’Rourke.
Yet he says conversations about race drive a majority of his calls. Minority members outnumber whites in Texas, and the last month has seen the emergence of a nationwide conversation around police brutality and police killings of Black Americans.
“We’re making these calls at a scale of hundreds of thousands. It gave us a pretty clear window into what Texans are thinking about right now,” O’Rourke said.
“This issue of justice and the injustice that has defined life for Black Americans ever since there was an America is at the forefront of almost every conversation that we’re having right now.”
He recalled a recent conversation he had with a woman voter who told him she was a registered Republican. According to O’Rourke, the woman said she was having some doubts about voting for President Trump a second time after his election campaign announced he would hold a rally in neighboring Oklahoma on Juneteenth, a longtime Texas holiday commemorating the liberation of slaves that was celebrated nationwide this year.
“I frankly would have assumed that that wasn’t important to your average Republican voter, and that would not have moved them,” said O’Rourke.
Trump eventually rescheduled his rally for the day after Juneteenth. But his speech avoided mentioning George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks or any other Black person killed by police in recent months. In a departure from the rallies he had in 2016, Trump was also unable to fill the arena, leading to talk of a campaign shake-up.
Polls show Trump is vulnerable on racial issues. A recent Yahoo News/YouGov survey found that only 15 percent of Americans say his handling of the protests surrounding Floyd’s killing has been helpful. Numerous polls have also indicated that Trump and Biden are running neck-and-neck in Texas. A Fox News poll released Thursday showed Biden leading Trump by 1 point in the state.
“There’s a really unique, singular opportunity taking place here, and that’s really encouraging to me. If they had been with Trump through everything that has preceded this moment, right? The kids in cages, the overt racism, the response to Charlottesville, all of that. For this to finally move her really impressed me.”
O’Rourke also told Yahoo News that he now regrets voting in favor of the Thin Blue Line Act, a bill that would have enhanced punishments for killing a police officer through its expansion of the death penalty.
“That was a mistake on my part,” said O’Rourke. “I didn’t give the legislation the critical thought that it deserved. That is something that I regret.”
Trump hit O’Rourke over the weekend at his Tulsa, Okla., rally — nearly eight months after O’Rourke rescinded his bid for the presidency and nine months after his controversial remarks about seizing assault rifles.
“You can even put the big gun grabber, Beto O’Rourke, who made a fool of himself when he ran for president,” said Trump. “They put him in charge of guns. Hopefully it won’t matter.”
O’Rourke, who has not been deputized as a gun policy czar in the Biden campaign, says he does not pay attention to or put much stock in Trump’s criticisms.
“I have to think that this isn’t by chance, and it’s not necessarily personal on his part. I think he and his advisers understand how vulnerable they are in Texas, and I think they get that if they leave the 38 Electoral College votes that have been reliably in the Republican column ever since 1980, that it’s game over,” said O’Rourke.
“Not only is it game over for Donald Trump, it’s really game over for any Republican nominee in the foreseeable future.”
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