Why Texas Democrats are feeling a sense of déjà vu

Democrats are feeling cautiously optimistic about flipping the Texas governor’s mansion, even as they acknowledge a strong sense of déjà vu following past elections in which the state eluded them despite seemingly favorable tailwinds.

Many observers had written off the race between Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, pointing to the incumbent governor’s generally high favorability and the Lone Star State’s deep-red hue. 

But the recent shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde sparked a renewed debate over gun control and raised pressure on state officials, including Abbott. And polls conducted in the shooting’s aftermath suggest a surprisingly close race.

Still, while Democrats say these developments make them feel hopeful, they’re also reminiscent of recent campaign cycles in which Republicans ultimately came out triumphant despite tight polling leading up to Election Day.

“I’m feeling cautiously optimistic,” said Texas Democratic state Rep. James Talarico. “This doesn’t mean that we don’t have a lot of work to do. Even if Beto wins, it doesn’t mean we stop working.” 

“This is a long-term effort that outlives any individual,” he added.

A number of polls show a tightening race in recent weeks. One, from the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs released earlier this month, showed Abbott leading O’Rourke 48 percent to 43 percent, while a Quinnipiac University poll released last month also found Abbott leading O’Rourke by the same margin. It’s an improvement from late last year when a Quinnipiac poll showed Abbott leading O’Rourke by 17 points.

These numbers may look familiar to O’Rourke and Democrats. A Quinnipiac University poll released in August 2018 showed O’Rourke trailing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) by 6 points. And during that same period, the RealClearPolitics polling average had Cruz leading O’Rourke by 6.5 points, according to Vox.

Democrats will also remember that the year’s Senate race was the closest in Texas since 1978 — but O’Rourke ended up losing by just over 2 points. The final RealClearPolitics polling average before the election showed Cruz leading by an average of 2.6 points. 

“He closed the gap near the end,” said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. “We’re 100 days out, and he’s closed the gap rapidly.” 

Democrats also had high hopes for Texas in 2020 only to see Republicans gain ground, particularly in the southern portion of the state with Hispanic voters. Republicans up and down the ballot this year say they are working to build on that momentum.

However, Democrats argue that their voter turnout will be higher than it was in 2020, given the lack of in-person campaigning that took place after the height of the coronavirus pandemic on the Democratic side.

“We don’t have that limitation anymore,” Hinojosa said. “What we do is just work harder than we’ve ever worked before. There’s too much at stake now.”

Still, Texans say the state’s political landscape is changing. Experts also point out the different dynamics in play in a gubernatorial election versus a statewide Senate race. 

Abbott has faced a number of crises and controversies over the past year, including the state’s power grid failure during a massive winter storm in 2021, the fatal elementary school shooting in Uvalde in May and the state’s attempts to ban most abortions, particularly in light of the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade.

“He’s looked weak,” said Jon Taylor, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “This is why I would argue the end of Roe and the Uvalde school shooting are influencing and will continue to influence this race going into the fall.” 

And Abbott’s approval ratings appear to be in decline. According to a poll released by the Texas Politics Project earlier this month, Abbott’s approval rating slipped 3 points to 43 percent. The governor’s disapproval rating sat at 46 percent, according to the poll.

Nationally, the mood could not be better for Republicans looking to win seats on Capitol Hill, in state legislatures and at governor’s mansions across the country, given Biden’s low approval ratings. The same Texas Politics Project survey showed Biden with a dismal 35 percent approval rating and a 55 percent disapproval rating in the state. 

The poll showed O’Rourke with 39 percent support and Abbott with 45 percent support. 

“I think in some ways [O’Rourke] is isolated from the politics of the White House and Congress,” progressive political strategist Sawyer Hackett said. “On the other hand, Beto has done a good job to distinguish himself from many of the failures of the Biden administration, especially on issues like immigration and issues like voting rights where Beto has been calling for more action and the Biden administration has come up short.” 

Talarico has repeatedly emphasized what he says are the differences between Texas Democrats and their D.C. Beltway cousins, recently accusing national Democrats of deploying “spineless talking points and soulless fundraising emails.”

“Texas Democrats have a history of being a little different from our national counterparts, and Beto O’Rourke is a prime example of that,” Talarico said, before recounting O’Rourke confronting Abbott at a press conference after the Uvalde school shooting in May.

“I really can’t imagine President Biden or Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] or [Senate Majority] Leader [Charles] Schumer [D-N.Y.] ever doing something like that,” he said. 

O’Rourke’s exposure to the national spotlight could stand to help him as well in his home state. After nearly defeating Cruz in 2018, interest in O’Rourke skyrocketed, and he went on to run in the Democratic presidential primary before dropping out in November 2019. 

“He’s had an opportunity over the years to get a relatively high name ID and has continued to campaign in one way or another throughout this time,” Hinojosa said. 

O’Rourke’s allies also point to what they say is an upbeat energy on the ground that is different from past elections, particularly in rural areas. 

Republicans maintain they are not taking the polls for granted but point out that O’Rourke’s high name ID comes with the baggage public political figures often carry. 

“They were floored that how could it be possible that a race could be that close in Texas,” said one GOP strategist, referring to Abbott’s allies watching the Senate race in 2018. “Now they find themselves in a similar situation, frankly, with a much more wounded Beto than the brand that Cruz had to deal with.” 

The strategist said the polls were indicative of the electorate responding to the recent rulings from the Supreme Court and the government’s response to the Uvalde school shooting. 

“I think by the time you get to November, God willing that nothing like that kind of incident happens again, I think if the electorate is again focused on the economy and things that are going wrong under the Biden administration, I think that plays right into the hand of a red state like Texas,” the Republican strategist said. 

“I’m not super worried. I don’t think many people are,” the strategist added. “They’ve got to step up their game, though, and hopefully they do that here soon.” 

Both candidates have reported impressive fundraising hauls so far, with O’Rourke narrowly leading Abbott in the money game. 

O’Rourke’s campaign announced earlier this month that it raked in $27.6 million from Feb. 20 to June 30, which came from more than 511,000 contributions. 

Meanwhile, Abbott’s campaign said he raised $24.9 million during the same period from about 113,000 contributions. The campaign’s cash-on-hand total at the end of the period was just under $46 million. 

O’Rourke’s campaign did not say how much cash it had on hand at the end of the reporting period.

“It helps that O’Rourke is decently funded, unlike the last two Democratic nominees,” Taylor said. 

“[Democrats] also have to be aware of the power of the incumbency,” he added, referring to Abbott’s advantage in the race. 

“Stay tuned,” Taylor said. “It’s going to get nastier and crazier because this is Texas politics.”