Beto O’Rourke was always going to have an uphill challenge in his run against Texas incumbent Republican Governor Greg Abbott. For one, O’Rourke is still a Democrat in Texas when the state still votes Republican–though the political trends are shifting.
But perhaps his biggest liability came before he ever announced his gubernatorial run, when he said in 2019, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” O’Rourke made that remark after the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso killed 23 people. O’Rourke was understandably upset given that he hails from El Paso. But that rhetoric is political cyanide in gun-loving Texas.
Nevertheless, O’Rourke went viral in the past 24 hours after a video clip showed him chastising someone laughing about his remarks about assault rifles. O’Rourke said, “It may be funny to you motherf***er, but it’s not funny to me.”
While his words may have felt like catharsis for many people who were already in the crowd with him or for out-of-state liberals, it is unlikely to win over voters for him to beat Abbott.
Case in point, according to a poll last month from the Texas Politics Project, 61 per cent of Texans strongly support background checks for all gun purchases and 52 per cent support raising the minimum age to buy a firearm to 21. Similarly, 54 per cent either strongly or somewhat support banning the sale of semi-automatic rifles.
Single-issue voters who oppose gun restrictions, of which there are many in Texas, might see this as the galvanizing force they need to turn out. Similarly, only 44 per cent of independent voters support such a restriction. There are simply not enough Democrats to overcome GOP votes, so he can’t risk alienating those voters either.
In addition, O’Rourke has a history of making remarks that resonate with white, college-educated, city-dwelling voters who tend to be the most online group of voters and are retweeting his exchange. But, as Democratic data scientist David Shor has emphasized, that same rhetoric has a tendency to turn off working-class voters, including people of color.
In 2018, O’Rourke went viral when he defended professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem, but, as my friend Tim Alberta reported at the time, the person who asked that question worked for Jeff Roe, Cruz’s strategist. Cruz’s margins actually improved even after that moment made O’Rourke a darling of coastal liberals.
Ultimately, O’Rourke, an incredibly hard worker, deserves credit for campaigning in Mineral Wells, where the exchange happened.
For context, Mineral Wells is in Palo Pinto and Parker Counties. In both counties, 81.5 per cent of people voted for Donald Trump. The fact O’Rourke is willing to go there and engage with voters, even if it gets testy, is a testament to both his character and his work ethic.
Plenty of Democrats have written off too many working-class and rural counties as a lost cause. But even if O’Rourke loses both counties, if he makes a significant enough ding in Abbott’s margins, it might till the ground for a future Democrat.
Some might argue the fact that O’Rourke was applauded shows there are Texans who like his message. But it’s likely that most of the people in the audience – save for the one jerk who did laugh when he was describing children being murdered – were already converted.
O’Rourke, and any Democrat really, needs to convince the unconverted that their gun agenda is not too radical and along the lines of what they already believe to offer a viable alternative to the stranglehold the gun lobby has on the Texas GOP. Otherwise, Democrats might be spouting more profanities once all the ballots are counted.