It’s been asked before but must be asked again: Does this guy … know he’s running in Texas?
He knows. For one thing, he adds two caveats to his impeachment pitch. One is that he’s seen enough as a congressman to impeach but not necessarily enough as a would-be senator to support removal. The Senate process post-impeachment is a trial and O’Rourke doesn’t want to be accused of pre-judging the defendant before the evidence has been formally presented. Second, he tries to downplay his support for impeachment by noting that it’s a non-starter right now. There simply aren’t enough votes in a Republican-controlled House to make it happen.
Which is true, of course. And Republicans intend to remind their own voters of that many, many times before November.
Last week, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas used his re-election kickoff rally to introduce a video featuring a faux news anchor reading would-be headlines were conservatives not to vote in November.
“Senate Majority Leader Schumer announced the impeachment trial of President Trump,” one of the anchors says…
The mere thought of impeachment could energize Trump supporters who may otherwise be disinclined to vote in the midterm elections without him on the ballot, supporters of the strategy say…
And to those voters in the political center who may be uneasy with, or simply exhausted by, his tumultuous administration, the possibility of an even more chaotic 2019 in Washington is unappealing.
Impeachment is a turnout incentive for Republicans. For Democrats too, of course, but Democratic enthusiasm this fall is already expected to be sky high. Any liberal apt to be persuaded to vote by the prospect of impeaching Trump has probably already been persuaded to vote by other means. Conservatives, however, are at risk of the midterm blues since their party controls the government. There aren’t many legislative accomplishments to point to apart from tax cuts to get them excited to vote, and the gains from those cuts could be slashed if a trade war with China erupts. When in doubt, turn to negative partisanship: The liberals are coming for Trump and only your vote can save him.
And now here’s Beto O’Rourke, playing right into it.
I do think he has a strategy in mind here, just as he had with his other bizarrely liberal pronouncements about the NRA and abortion. At first blush it seems inexplicable that a Texas Democrat would run to the left. If you’re a blue candidate running in a red state, naturally you should run as a purplish centrist, right? That would be the safe play. But O’Rourke may be calculating that tacking to the center is apt to leave no one impressed. Conservatives will reject him as a phony, liberals will reject him as a sellout. Without the all-important enthusiasm of his base, he’s destined to lose badly. If you’re a Democrat running against a damaged candidate like Roy Moore in a red state, running to the center makes sense. Your task is simply to make yourself as inoffensive as possible and hope that each party’s base is so disgusted at the Republican candidate that they’ll nudge you over the finish line. That might not work in Texas, though. Cruz isn’t Mr. Popularity but he isn’t scandal-prone like Moore. If he runs a ho-hum boring race the Republican advantage among the electorate should carry him to an easy reelection.
So O’Rourke is gambling. He’s going to try to maximize liberal turnout this fall and hope against hope that something goes badly wrong for Cruz and the GOP to make the race competitive. If he talks up gun control and abortion and impeachment, the money will pour in from across the country and Texas liberals will be ready to turn out in droves. If the big blue wave this fall materializes, that could push a larger than expected share of independents into his column too. That’s still no problem for Cruz *as long as* he doesn’t hit any potholes — no economic downturn, no tariff pain, no unpopular wars. Trump isn’t popular in Texas by red-state standards but he’s likely popular enough right now to make victory relatively easy for Cruz. If his popularity declines, though, all bets are off. O’Rourke’s gamble is that, by being a faithful liberal, he’ll net more votes than he loses. For every one demoralized conservative who ends up turning out grudgingly for Cruz because they hate O’Rourke’s leftism, two excited Democrats will turn out because they love it.
I think he’s kidding himself with that math and that it’s a recipe for being Wendy Davis-ed. If it’s true that a blue wave is coming and that Democratic voters will be ready to walk over broken glass to get to the polls, it seems to me that the unexciting centrist Doug Jones-ish approach makes more sense than the Kennedyesque liberal thing he’s trying to do now. His goal should be to bore Cruz’s voters with his middle-groundism to the point where they forget what day the election is. O’Rourke’s own base will turn out anyway because they hate Cruz just that much. In an age of negative partisanship you should make negative partisanship work for you: If your side is motivated because it hates the Republican, don’t do anything to make the Republican side hate you. (Especially when there are many more Republicans around than Democrats.) Yet here he is winking at impeachment. Weird.
It could be that he’s playing the long game. He’ll lose nobly, wait six or 12 years, then run again when the demographics in Texas are more Latino and favorable to Democrats. His 2018 campaign will be celebrated for its staunch, unapologetic defenses of liberal priorities, which will endear O’Rourke to Democratic voters and spur him to a win. That’s the best I can do to explain what he’s up to. Exit question via the WaPo op-ed page: If you want Trump out, why not pay him to leave?