The O’Rourke Strategy For Political Realignment in the South

Just a few weeks before the 2012 presidential election in which Mitt Romney lost to then-sitting President Barack Obama, Jeb Bush had a dire warning about what was happening in Texas.

Sitting down across from me, [Bush] assumes his role as party Cassandra, warning of the day when the Republicans’ failure to tap an exploding Hispanic population will cripple its chances at reclaiming power—starting in Texas, the family seat of the House of Bush.

“It’s a math question,” he tells me. “Four years from now, Texas is going to be a so-called blue state. Imagine Texas as a blue state, how hard it would be to carry the presidency or gain control of the Senate.”

Imagine. Four years from now.

That sentiment was echoed on a national level when the Republican National Committee released its autopsy after the election, which focused on the need for the party to reach out to Hispanic voters. Six years later we know that those forecasts were a bit premature. Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 with what might be described as an anti-Hispanic agenda, while Republicans won statewide races in Texas, including the one between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz.

But when it came to that race, here’s the kicker:

In 2012, Obama lost Texas by 1.2 million votes.

In 2016, Hillary lost Texas by 600,000 votes.

In 2018, Beto lost Texas by 220,000 votes.

Comparing a senate race to presidential races might be an apples to oranges error. But as I noted previously, in 2012, Cruz won his senate race by over 1.2 million votes, demonstrating that his re-election this year by a mere 220,000 was razor thin by Texas standards. Did Hispanic voters make the difference? Not entirely, but according to the Dallas Morning News, they played a pretty big role.

Bernard Fraga, an assistant political science professor at Indiana University, said the Texas population is already that of a purple state and the only reason it isn’t a swing state is that many  residents don’t vote. But he said that may have changed this year thanks to Latinos…

Figures for the 2018 midterm are not yet available, but an early analysis from Latino Decisions, a national polling group, found that overall turnout surged in Texas from 2014 to 2018 in heavily Latino counties, especially those along the border:

* Dallas County — 86 percent increase
* Hidalgo — 105 percent increase
* Cameron County — 115 percent increase
* El Paso County, O’Rourke’s home county — 168 percent increase

Many voted Democrat, although there’s plenty of evidence the Latino vote should not be taken for granted. Though younger Latinos tend to favor progressive candidates, many older Latinos tend to vote in line with traditional, sometimes Catholic values.

Election polling by Latino Decisions in Texas found that about 70 percent of Latinos supported Democratic candidates.

Candidates and political scientists will be studying the O’Rourke-Cruz race for months to come and there is no doubt that personalities played a role. Donald Trump has offended all but his party’s most dedicated base of voters, while Ted Cruz did the same in Texas. Beto O’Rourke’s enthusiasm and intelligence were also obvious factors. Not every race will include those dynamics. But O’Rourke also ran a rather unconventional campaign, which could be replicated.

Organizationally, O’Rourke was on his own. Win or lose, he seemed determined to look at how Democrats had run statewide campaigns in the past and, as often as possible, do the opposite of that…

Early on, O’Rourke defied the conventional wisdom in Washington and Austin over how to run a modern Senate campaign. He vowed to not hire a pollster or rely on consultants.

“Since 1988, when Lloyd Bentsen won re-election to the Senate, Democrats have spent close to a billion dollars on consultants and pollsters and experts and campaign wizards and have performed terribly,” O’Rourke told the Tribune on the eve of his campaign kick-off in March 2017…

Heading into the final month, it became clear the campaigns were on different tracks when it came to a critical task: getting out the vote. O’Rourke was building a massive in-house operation, complete with hundreds of paid staff, tens of thousands of volunteers and over 700 “pop-up offices” across the state from which those volunteers could phone bank and organize block walks…

O’Rourke broadly appealed to Republicans through his 254-county blitz of the state, visiting GOP strongholds long neglected by Democrats and talking about issues he believed united both parties.

“He consciously went for everybody,” Wysong said. “It was a substantial part of his stump speech, but he also said what he believed. I think he was being honest to who he is. I think the way this was done was more of him just being honest and transparent about what he believes than, ‘Oh wait, here was this little group I need to talk to in this way to get them excited.'”

Rather than spend money on high-powered consultants and pollsters, O’Rourke ran on being authentically himself and articulated the issues he cares about, with sky-high doses of optimism. If, as liberals often point out, the majority of Americans agree with the Democratic position on issues, that—combined with heavy investments in GOTV—sounds like a winning formula.

You might point out that, even with all of that, O’Rourke lost. That is where an article by Christopher Hooks comes in. He points out that the “Republicanization of Texas took nearly a half century to enact,” and didn’t reach it’s peak until after the redistricting that occurred in 2000. In the meantime, all of that took a toll on Democrats in the state.

The effect of all that losing was to kick the structural supports out from under the Democratic Party one by one. The business lobby stopped donating to Democrats except to buy small favors in the legislature. Democratic donors in the state started writing checks for national causes instead of local ones. The party’s brand as a perpetual loser became a drag among swing voters and a disincentive for base voters to turn out. Why bother? Talented Democrats in the legislature quit, because there was no future for them, and the slates of Democratic candidates running statewide grew weaker and weaker.

Most damaging of all, the young people who make the party work behind the scenes went into exile…Working for the party here became a kind of social work, a charitable endeavor performed at personal cost by people with a high tolerance for pain. All these things became their own drain on party performance, in a vicious cycle.

That is what O’Rourke’s candidacy changed: it ended the downward spiral that had engulfed Democrats in the state. Hooks ends by saying that the party now has what it needs: “A reason to start building in earnest. That’s not much, doubtless. But it just might be enough.”

That is a great example of how realignments happen. We are seeing the same thing in Arizona, where Democrats are further along the trajectory than they are in Texas—and Georgia is obviously not very far behind. Over the last few years Virginia has made the transition from purple to blue, while North Carolina might be on its way as well.

Jeb Bush made the same error some liberals have articulated in assuming that political realignment in a state happens virtually over night. The Republicanization of the south started after the passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-60’s, was fueled by the Southern Strategy, and wasn’t completed until well into the 21st century.

It will be up to future historians to decide whether we are in the beginning stages of a realignment of the south heading back in the opposite direction. But the signs are beginning to emerge and the road is likely to get much more challenging if/when the transition begins to materialize.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .