Beto O'Rourke Must Learn From His Mistakes for Texas Race

Beto O'Rourke's star rose exponentially when he challenged—and nearly defeated—Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz in 2018. And when subsequently he entered the Democratic race for the presidential nomination, the move was welcomed with gusto.

But his bid for the White House ended in November 2019—and as the former congressman embarks upon a race to take on Governor Greg Abbott, learning from the failings of his last outing could prove key to guiding his strategy.

Daron Shaw, a professor in the University of Texas Department of Government, said one issue in O'Rourke's presidential campaign was a lack of clarity about why he was running.

"O'Rourke's presidential campaign wasn't a terrible decision. He was perhaps the hottest name in Democratic politics, and national experience is certainly not a necessity when it comes to running for the White House these days," Shaw told Newsweek.

"But it seems to me that he never really developed a coherent sense of why he was running ('born for this' aside) nor a practical strategy for amassing the requisite delegates across the range of states in play.

"This failing is instructive for the current race: although he is unlikely to face substantial opposition for the nomination, he needs to offer a compelling rationale for turning Abbott out of office and electing a Democrat (him).

"This is a tall order, as it is a Republican state (still) and the prevailing wind is against the Democrats right now. What are the issues O'Rourke can point to as the reason to boot Abbott, and why is he the best person to run the state in Abbott's stead?"

Shaw's reference of "born for this" relates to a Vanity Fair cover which included the quote: "I want to be in it. Man, I'm just born to be in it."

This prompted backlash and O'Rourke later accepted it was a mistake that reinforced "perception of privilege."

Contemporaneous reporting of the campaign also noted this lack of specificity in O'Rourke's message. The New York Times noted at the time that O'Rourke did not "often seemed to be thinking out loud, in search of clear answers." The Guardian said "he failed to articulate a coherent vision, beyond his own celebrity, to stand out from the crowd."

Shaw suggested O'Rourke needs to "rebrand himself" this time out as he "starts with a very high percentage of voters having a 'very unfavorable' view of him."

"He has squandered a lot of the goodwill he built up in 2018," Shaw said. "He needs to rebrand himself as a statewide candidate for 2022: What are the issues that favorably distinguish him from Abbott?"

Shaw expects a "populist campaign" based on how "the 'man' is sticking it to ordinary Texans" regarding issues like wages and illegal employment practices, as well as "out of control prices."

"In short, if he runs as a personality he's in trouble," Shaw said. "He needs to identify a set of issues and allow his passion and expertise on those issues organically reform his image."

Another issue O'Rourke faces is the way in which opponents have framed him after his last race. Abbott campaign spokesperson Mark Miner said O'Rourke was on the "extreme left" of his party, The Texas Tribune reported.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor in the University of Houston's political science department, told Newsweek that O'Rourke "grasping at far left-leaning primary voters with far-out progressive policies will alienate a good portion of Texas voters."

"He's got to balance exciting a younger, more liberal base with middle-of-the-road, pocketbook policies that appeal to Peloton dads and soccer moms who tend to be moderate to conservative and might gravitate to a moderate message," Rottinghaus said.

On previous comments that could have hurt O'Rourke, Rottinghaus said: "Obviously the 'taking your AKs' is the most famous lefty line from O'Rourke but it's symbolic of the way the right has painted him as too out of touch."

This refers to comments O'Rourke made in 2019. When asked about mandatory buybacks, he said: "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We're not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore."

Rottinghaus suggested O'Rourke might not be able to fully recover from his gun comments but could "counter that with a relentless centrist message."

Another point for O'Rourke to address is ensuring he has the infrastructure in place for his gubernatorial run.

Politico pointed to problems in this area after O'Rourke dropped out of the race for the presidential nomination, describing his staff as "skeletal" and noting that major Democratic donors were not having their calls returned.

Rottinghaus pointed to Abbott's "ground game" and spoke of O'Rourke's need to counter this: "Energy and engagement are key to O'Rourke's success. He's got to out-hustle Greg Abbott who has built an extensive ground game and has a massive war chest."

While O'Rourke remains probably Texas' "best-known" Democrat, as The Texas Tribune put it, he is now laden with "considerably more baggage after a series of political failures," the report said.

His reckoning with those and how such missteps inform his plans going forward could prove crucial to his chances of success.

Newsweek has attempted to contact O'Rourke's campaign for comment.

beto o rourke at campaign rally november
Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks with members of the press at a campaign rally on November 16, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images