Beto O’Rourke confronts a formidable GOP firewall as he woos rural Texans

Despite its dwindling population, rural Texas has consistently helped protect GOP dominance in statewide races, even as Democratic support grows in the state’s populous metro centers and suburbs.
Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat, addresses a room full of supporters...
Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat, addresses a room full of supporters during a campaign stop July 27, 2022, in Texarkana.(Source: Fred Gamble/KSLA News 12)
Published: Sep. 2, 2022 at 10:14 AM CDT
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AUSTIN, Texas (TEXAS TRIBUNE) - In 2018, Beto O’Rourke put more work into campaigning in rural Texas than perhaps any statewide Democratic candidate ever has. He visited all 254 counties, campaigning in far-flung communities where many had not seen a Democrat running for senator in their entire lifetime.

Still, he lost rural Texas by the same kind of landslide that met Democrats who came before him. O’Rourke lost to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz statewide by 3 percentage points, but the margin was 51 points in counties with fewer than 50,000 people — virtually the same deficit Hillary Clinton had against Donald Trump in those counties two years later.

Despite its dwindling population, rural Texas remains a stubborn firewall that has consistently delivered GOP statewide victories, even as Democratic support grows in the state’s populous metro centers and suburbs, and even when up against a unique Democratic talent like O’Rourke.

Now, running for governor four years later, O’Rourke is confronting the same challenge all over again.

His campaign says this race is different. After largely avoiding criticizing Cruz in 2018, O’Rourke is explicitly arguing that Gov. Greg Abbott has been bad for rural Texas on issues like broadband internet and public education. And his campaign is doing more to make his events count, engaging attendees in new ways.

“Even for two years, it’s a world of change,” said Stuart Williams, a former Lubbock County Democratic party chair who worked for O’Rourke’s campaign in 2018. “He’s leaned into it a lot better this time. The messaging is a lot more targeted. … He’s not as green as he was before.”

Democrats have long argued they do not need to win rural Texas, just narrow their margins by at least a few percentage points to prevail statewide. O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign brought that theory into focus: While he ran up the score in the cities and blazed new territory for his party in the suburbs, he captured only 24% of voters in counties with a population of less than 50,000, a percentage point better than Clinton.

O’Rourke lost to Cruz by roughly 215,000 votes overall. He bested Cruz in the counties that make up bigger cities and suburbs, but he lost by a total of about 441,000 in rural Texas, eclipsing his advantage in the rest of Texas.

“O’Rourke’s commitment to campaigning in rural Texas is a reflection of the fact that Democrats can’t rely simply on urban and suburban voters and expect to win statewide elections in Texas,” said Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “And they definitely can’t expect to do this while they continue to lose rural Texas by margins of 3-to-1.”

The latest UT poll shows how much O’Rourke has his work cut out for him. The June poll, which is the latest available, showed only about 23% of rural voters favoring O’Rourke over Abbott, the same range as his 2018 share of the vote in rural Texas.

More than half of rural voters approved of Abbott’s job performance, while they gave O’Rourke an unfavorable rating of 60%, including 57% who called their opinion “strongly unfavorable.”

Undeterred, O’Rourke has been especially visible in rural Texas during his latest 49-day barnstorm of the state that started in August, visiting places like Quanah, just outside the Panhandle near the Oklahoma border, and Junction, one of the last stops on Interstate 10 on the way before entering remote West Texas. Both places are home to less than 3,000 people.

O’Rourke has received large, enthusiastic crowds in the communities. And he has encountered Republicans both hostile and open to his candidacy, generating a flood of media attention showing him engaging, often cordially, with the other side.

Abbott’s campaign dismissed the notion that O’Rourke is making any substantive impact in rural Texas. The campaign’s chief strategist, Dave Carney, said O’Rourke is bound to maximize Democrat turnout — and attract some curious Republicans and independents — in towns that rarely see a gubernatorial candidate. But Carney argued there is “no correlation” between the crowds and outcome in November, saying Trump got big crowds in 2020 and still lost to Joe Biden, who “was in his basement doing Zoom calls with 12 people.”

Dustin Van Ness, a former Republican in Levelland who no longer identifies with either party, said Abbott isn’t as popular among Republicans he talks to anymore. But as long as people are worried about the economy, he said, O’Rourke can’t win over rural voters.

“Most people are going to hold their nose and vote with their wallet this election cycle,” Van Ness said. “I figured the Roe v. Wade decision would’ve shot Beto’s popularity way up, but it seems people are way more worried about the costs of everything going up.”

Then, there’s what Van Ness considers O’Rourke’s “Achilles’ heel” — his positions on gun restrictions, highlighted by his 2020 embrace of a mandatory buyback of assault-style weapons. O’Rourke no longer campaigns on that proposal, and his supporters believe the Uvalde shooting made it less of an issue — but it was clear from interviews with rural voters that it still lingers.

“Whether you like guns or not, just about everyone owns one here in Texas,” Van Ness said. “It’s the only issue Dems and Republicans [here] can agree on, and I think that hurts him significantly.”

Nonetheless, at least some Texas Republicans are not taking rural voters for granted. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick launched a bus tour last week that his campaign said will make 131 stops, and while the campaign has not released an itinerary, it appears to be targeted at rural Texas.

“My goal is to recognize, galvanize, and mobilize rural Texans to keep the Lone Star State red,” Patrick wrote in an email to supporters about the bus tour as it got underway.

Patrick is in a rematch with his 2018 Democratic challenger, Mike Collier, who outperformed O’Rourke in rural Texas — getting 25.6% to O’Rourke’s 24% — as he lost to Patrick by 5 points statewide. Collier has also been making overt appeals to rural Texans, recently launching a radio ad in the Amarillo and Lubbock areas in which he says he knows “a lot of good Texas Republicans, and Dan Patrick ain’t one of them.”

But few Democrats dispute that their fortunes mostly hinge on O’Rourke’s efforts in rural Texas given that he is far better-known and better-funded. They have been especially encouraged by his attacks on Abbott over rural issues, a welcome improvement over his hands-off approach to Cruz.

O’Rourke has argued Abbott has “left behind” rural Texas.

“My impression is that he’s sleeping on you all,” O’Rourke said last month in Decatur, a city of about 6,000 people that is a 40-mile drive northwest of Fort Worth. “He thinks these votes are in the bag.”

O’Rourke has been hammering Abbott over the closure of rural hospitals in the state, calling it a consequence of the governor’s refusal to expand Medicaid. He also regularly criticizes Abbott for vetoing a bill to shore up the Universal Service Fund, which helps subsidize broadband internet in rural Texas. And O’Rourke has especially dogged Abbott over his recent embrace of school vouchers, saying the governor wants to “defund” public education by letting parents use taxpayer dollars to send their kids elsewhere.

The issue of vouchers has always been thorny in rural Texas, generating opposition from GOP state lawmakers there who are fiercely protective of their public schools. But the party’s primary voters overwhelmingly approved a pro-voucher ballot proposition in November, including in rural counties, and an August survey found voters statewide supported the concept by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

“He can talk about that all he wants,” Carney said. “He is for the teacher-union bosses, and we’re for the parents. And we’re gonna win that argument every single day.”

Guns also continue to loom large among rural voters, though O’Rourke’s supporters believe the Uvalde massacre changed the terrain of the issue for him.

Vickie Vogel, a Texas member of the Democratic National Committee who serves on its Rural Caucus, said she thought O’Rourke’s positions on gun control were “gonna really be a downside when the race started, but after Uvalde, that’s changed, and he’s more in line with what polls are showing.” O’Rourke has also helped himself by dropping all talk of the buyback proposal and campaigning on more popular proposals like raising the age to buy an assault-style rifle from 18 to 21.

Still, the perception that he is hostile to the Second Amendment is prevalent in rural Texas.

“I’m a staunch supporter of Second Amendment rights,” said Brent Colwell, a 31-year-old Republican from Levelland, which is 30 miles west of Lubbock. “I feel that there are already laws in place that should put a good strain on [gun violence].”

Jose Alvarado, also from Levelland, said O’Rourke’s gun policy was also a dealbreaker for him.

“It’s my constitutional right, why should I vote for someone who wants to take that away?” Alvarado asked. “All I know is he’s shown his cards and there’s a lot of gun owners in this state.”

When it comes to guns, O’Rourke has found a useful foil in Abbott, saying that his positions are so extreme that even the most ardent gun enthusiasts disagree with him. He has also sought to contrast with Abbott that way on another issue that has captured headlines this summer: abortion rights.

“I find in the most rural, most Republican — as well as in the most urban, blue parts of the state — that there’s no issue more unifying than respecting and protecting the freedom of Texans to make their own choices about their own body,” O’Rourke told reporters last week on the same day the state’s “trigger law” went into effect, banning almost all abortion in Texas.

O’Rourke’s campaign says it is not just his message in rural Texas that has changed since 2018. They are also doing more to capitalize on events everywhere and to ensure attendees stay involved with the campaign afterward.

When O’Rourke speaks at the events, he asks which attendees want to serve as a canvass host rather than just volunteer. Those canvass hosts are now set to lead 120 “volunteer rallies” from Sept. 3 to Oct. 12, with nearly half the events in rural Texas. O’Rourke’s campaign held only 38 such events in 2018.

O’Rourke’s campaign has also been asking attendees to sign up for specific volunteer activities in the days after the event, hoping to capitalize on their excitement from seeing him. In 2018, they would just ask attendees to sign up to volunteer in general and follow up with them at a later date.

And O’Rourke’s video team has created recaps of some of his rural events that the campaign then runs as digital ads in the same market, hoping to show people what they missed — and chip away at the Democratic stigma in rural Texas.

Despite all the efforts, O’Rourke faces an uphill battle to narrow the gap in rural Texas. He is up against decades of Republican dominance in rural Texas that has left the Democratic brand in tatters, according to local party leaders. And the situation did not improve after O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign, as Biden got 22% of the rural Texas vote, losing it to Trump by 54 points.

“The problem has been getting the message out to people to stop voting against their own interests, and that’s our big challenge,” Vogel said. “He’s right on all of the issues, but we’ve just got to get people to understand why it’s in their best interest to stop voting for people like Abbott and the Republican Party.”

Vogel and other rural Democrats are nonetheless cautiously optimistic about O’Rourke’s chances of breaking through, especially in an election cycle that initially looked highly favorable for Republicans nationwide.

As the final two months of the campaign near, O’Rourke’s campaign plans to maintain a regular presence in rural Texas, eschewing the notion that the candidate’s increasingly precious time is better spent exclusively in more vote-rich areas.

Bill Brannon, a veteran Democratic consultant who has focused on rural Texas, said he is “more optimistic than … I’ve been in a while.” He said he was not worried about O’Rourke’s ability to balance his campaign in rural Texas with other areas, noting its massive get-out-the-vote operation that is running concurrently.

“I think they can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Brannon said, “and I think they’re doing it.”

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