Why on earth does Beto O'Rourke want to run for governor of Texas?

It’s always intriguing when a well-known figure whom everyone understands has no chance of winning decides to run for office.

I doubt even Beto’s under illusions about his chances. He’ll be running in a red state facing a massive red midterm wave against a Republican who’s more popular than the one he ran against in 2018 and who’s raised more money than any governor in U.S. history. Why bother?

We’ll explore below. I’ll say this much for him, though: I think his announcement message is exactly the right way to go about attacking Greg Abbott. You’ll never convince Texans that Abbott’s too conservative. You might convince them that he’s incompetent.

Righty populists across the U.S. love Abbott for having taken the hardest line of any Republican governor against COVID mandates. Even Ron DeSantis hasn’t gone as far as he has by banning private businesses from requiring their employees to get vaccinated. But that hard line on COVID measures has cost Abbott in Texas, which isn’t as uniformly right-wing as conservative media is. As cases in Texas rose this summer, Abbott’s popularity fell:

A poll published last week found him rocking a 27/57 approval rating among independents in Texas. If the 2022 midterm environment was as favorable to Democrats as 2018 was, I’d give them an outside chance of pulling an upset here. The competence angle, that Abbott’s too worried about pandering to MAGA to fix the electrical grid or be proactive in containing COVID, will resonate.

But 2022 isn’t 2018. And a candidate as far left as Beto O’Rourke isn’t the man to dethrone a longtime governor.

Team Abbott posted this ad featuring some of Beto’s greatest hits a few weeks ago. They’re going to attack him as too liberal for Texas, which he is:

O’Rourke’s defining issues when he ran for president two years ago were liberalizing America’s border and grabbing guns. Given the crush of migrants seeking asylum that the U.S. has seen this year, though, open borders is an especially toxic position to hold in Texas of all places. And gun-control is a perennial loser in a state with as robust a gun culture as Texas had. You would think today’s announcement would be an occasion for O’Rourke to say he’s rethought his previous positions on firearms. Instead, incredibly, he’s doubling down:

Abbott has already been campaigning against O’Rourke as too liberal for Texas, branding him “Wrong Way O’Rourke” and seizing on multiple positions he has taken since last running statewide. At the top of the list is O’Rourke’s proposal to require buybacks of assault weapons during his presidential campaign. That led to a memorable moment on the debate stage in which O’Rourke proclaimed that, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

O’Rourke said he was not backing away from that proposal in his latest campaign.

“I think most Texans can agree — maybe all Texans can agree — that we should not see our friends, our family members, our neighbors, shot up with weapons that were originally designed for use on a battlefield,” said O’Rourke, whose hometown of El Paso was the site of an anti-Latino mass shooting in 2019 by a gunman who killed 23 people.

His progressive views during his 2020 presidential run appear to have stuck to him in Texas as he’s polled poorly there over the past few months. Last month a UT survey found his favorable rating at 35/50, including 22/48 among indies. O’Rourke trailed Abbott 46/37 in that same poll, a pitiful showing against a governor whose popularity had waned lately. Another poll taken a month earlier also put O’Rourke at 37 percent against Abbott. A third recent survey from Quinnipiac had a mere 33 percent willing to say they thought Beto would make a good governor.

So, to repeat: Why bother to run?

I’ll give you a few possibilities. One, simply, is time. If O’Rourke had waited to challenge Ted Cruz for Senate again in 2024, he would have risked being perceived as old news, especially having failed in his two previous statewide runs. The 2024 Senate primary could be a competitive one for Democrats, with no guarantee of Beto winning. This year’s primary is easier for him since no one else wants to to face Abbott in a Republican-friendly cycle. Simply put, his political capital was depreciating. He could either use what was left of it for one more campaign or go bankrupt.

Two is fundraising. I’m skeptical that we’ll see the return of the “Betomania” money juggernaut in full force in Texas but it probably remains true that O’Rourke can raise cash more easily than the average Dem, if only by dint of name recognition. He’ll be at less of a money disadvantage against Abbott than any other prospective nominee would be. Of course, if Betomania does run wild among Democratic donors nationally, that’ll backfire on the party by drawing cash into Texas in a likely losing effort that could have gone to more competitive races elsewhere. Double-edged sword for Dems.

Three is enthusiasm. Between Biden’s troubles and the likelihood of a red wave, Democrats will have a hard time getting Texas liberals excited to vote in 2022. Having a charismatic well-known liberal at the top of the ticket who captivated them once before might boost turnout at the margins. And while that won’t be enough to make Beto governor, it might help Dems win a few state races downballot that they otherwise would have lost. His candidacy is a favor to the state party, in other words. He might even be able to steer some Latino voters who defected to Trump and the GOP last year back into the Democratic column.

Realistically, the best-case scenario for O’Rourke is that he raises a ton of money again, loses by a respectable margin, and is then targeted by Biden for some sort of national job either in the cabinet or at the DNC. Beto’s long-term challenge is staying politically relevant and another run for office advances the ball — albeit at the risk that he’s well and truly done politically if he gets blown out.

And hey, there’s always a chance that he’ll get lucky. If Texas is battered by yet another wave of COVID while Abbott sputters about the evils of mandates, that might create an opening. If, against all odds, the state suffers another winter disaster from a cold spell shutting down power plants — this time a year after Abbott vowed to winterize the grid — that might seed the perception of his incompetence so deeply that O’Rourke ends up with a puncher’s chance at an upset. Gotta be in it to win it, right? Well, he’s in it.

I’ll leave you with this. A natural fit for a reddish state.