AUSTIN — Beto O’Rourke wants to do everything he can to help Democrats win the Texas House this November — even if that means staying off the campaign trail and sending his volunteers to work for another candidate without him.
Whether the former El Paso congressman and presidential candidate’s help is a liability is a question after the Houston-area Democratic state House candidate he campaigned for in a special election last month was routed by a Republican.
After the election, the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee advised its candidates in an email not to speak to an Associated Press reporter asking whether they would accept O’Rourke’s help with their campaigns.
“Our recommendation is to provide no comment,” Justin Perez, the group’s political director, told candidates in an email obtained by The Dallas Morning News.
O’Rourke said Thursday: “If my presence is unhelpful, I’ll stay as far away as I can. I have no pride in this. My only goal is to help secure a Democratic majority in the statehouse. My only goal is to stop Trump and Trumpism in what I think is the most important year in the history of this country and to do my part.”
O’Rourke’s statement may tamp down concerns about how his political views might play in more traditionally conservative Texas districts where Democrats are fielding strong candidates. His veer to the left during his presidential run in 2019 — especially his support of a mandatory gun buyback program — would create difficulties for campaigns trying to sway independent and moderate Republican voters.
Democrats hoped that the special election in Fort Bend County would be their first opportunity to make a dent in their nine-seat deficit in the House, but Republicans exploited O’Rourke’s work as a surrogate for the Democratic candidate, Eliz Markowitz, tying her to his record on guns and on revoking the tax-exempt status of churches that oppose same-sex marriage.
The Republican, Gary Gates, won that district by 16 percentage points — double the previous GOP margin of victory in the district — leaving Democrats to rethink their use of O’Rourke as a surrogate in future races.
Reason for email
Perez’s email wasn’t about not speaking about O’Rourke; it was about keeping candidates focused on their campaigns, Andrew Reagan, executive director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee said Thursday.
“We think it’s important to make sure our candidates are focusing on the important issues, and we don’t think taking time to talk about the process is the best use of their time,” he said. “They’re out there talking to voters about the issues that matter. They’re talking about what’s the best way to get access to health care and to fund public education.”
Republicans, however, said the email confirmed the reaction to O’Rourke that they’d seen on the ground in last month’s election.
“Democrats are coming to realize that Beto O’Rourke is toxic,” James Dickey, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, said in a statement. “His gun-grabbing, church-taxing, unlimited abortion policies have been repeatedly rejected by Texans. Help from him or his PAC is almost guaranteed to sink a campaign.”
O’Rourke said those comments are exaggerated and are being pushed by Republicans, whose candidate spent $1.5 million of his own money in a race in which the full force of the GOP — including the campaigns of Gov. Greg Abbott and President Donald Trump — was brought to bear in the race.
O’Rourke said his political action committee, Powered by People, worked hand in hand with Markowitz’s team to lay the groundwork for a general election victory in November.
“We brought 1,100 volunteers together and knocked on 41,000 doors,” he said. “That did a lot of good not just for the outcome in January but for the outcome in November. You’re going to see much higher turnout in November, and we helped build relationships with thousands of voters in House District 28.”
Political experts say O’Rourke could have a major impact on the outcome of Texas House races if he and the state Democratic Party figure out how to use him in ways that highlight his positives and minimize his negatives.
“It’s incumbent on the party to be strategic about where they use him,” said Sylvia Gonzalez-Gorman, a political scientist at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “In Bell County, how close is the vote? Is it going to be strategic to bring Beto out? Is that somewhere that Beto can come out and tip the scale?”
To be effective, Democrats would have to have tough conversations that would send O’Rourke to urban and suburban areas with more progressive voters and keep him out of areas — particularly rural ones — where voters tend to be more conservative.
“Beto can still be a strong force — he still has name recognition, he’s still a very talented political leader — but like anything in life, you have to know the nuances — where he goes and where he doesn’t go in Texas,” said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a political scientist at the University of Texas. “How do you walk the fine line of using someone’s power to gain support without alienating those moderate voters?”
Rep. Celia Israel of Austin, the chairwoman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, said she saw O’Rourke as a net positive for her party’s candidates despite the results of last month’s special election.
“We are proud of the surge of grassroots energy across the state and the commitment that HDCC, Beto and his organization and all of our allies made to flip the Texas House,” she said. “We’re in this together, and we’re going to win in November.”
Still, some candidates in traditionally conservative areas where Democrats hope to flip seats declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for comment. They included Lydia Bean, who’s running for House District 93 in Tarrant County, and Likeithia “Keke” Williams, who is running for House District 54 in Bell County.
For other candidates, taking help from O’Rourke isn’t a question.
“I don’t know a Democrat running that wouldn’t take his help,” said Paige Dixon, a Democratic candidate in the March primary for House District 65 in Denton County. “He’s a candidate that really excites our base that people really love.”
All three candidates running to challenge Republican Morgan Meyer for House District 108 in Dallas County — Joanna Cattanach, Tom Ervin and Shawn Terry — said they’d welcome O’Rourke’s help.
Drawing the line on policies
But most Democrats draw a line between O’Rourke’s policy stances and their own — particularly on the issue of mandatory gun buybacks.
In a memo unveiling the 22 districts it’s looking to flip, the Texas Democratic Party said its candidates are fighting for “common-sense gun safety measures” including red flag laws to take firearms away from people who are deemed dangerous and requiring background checks for all gun purchases.
Those two policies receive broad support from Texans across the political spectrum. But mandatory gun buybacks garner less than 50% support.
A poll this month by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that 86% of Texans support background checks for all gun purchases and 68% support red flag laws. Only 44% supported mandatory gun buybacks.
O’Rourke said his policies on guns have not changed all that much since his 2018 U.S. Senate campaign, but Democratic state House candidates want to make sure their differences with him are known.
“Mandatory buybacks have never been a position I have taken or would take,” said Steve Riddell, a candidate in the primary for House District 92 in Tarrant County.
Still, candidates such as Riddell and Rep. Michelle Beckley in Denton County, say they would consider taking any help offered to their campaigns.
“We need help,” said Beckley, who said O’Rourke campaigned only once in her district during her election in 2018.
Through his PAC, O’Rourke said he can provide that help with his volunteers.
“We’re nine seats down and, in 2018, I won nine of the districts that are currently held by Republicans,” he said. “Not only can we do this but we have done it.”