This week, outgoing Congressman Beto O’Rourke said he would not rule out running for president in 2020. Beto (one of the few politicians written about on a first-name basis), who took Texas and the nation by storm with his campaign to replace Senator Ted Cruz, has become one of the major figures in American politics, and many have surmised that he may be the Democrats’ best shot at taking back the White House from Donald Trump in 2020. He’s got the good looks, the charisma, the youth, and no major skeletons in his closet – so why not go for it?
It’s a tantalizing prospect, and running a Southern Democrat has certainly worked before. As a huge Beto fan, I’m confident he would run a great campaign for President, and if he were the nominee I’d support him. But running Beto, or any of the amazing Southern Democrats who emerged in 2018, would be missing the forest for the trees.
The Changing South
The Democratic Party is making gains in the South like we haven’t seen in years. Doug Jones’s victory in Alabama last year was primarily a triumph of grassroots organizing among black women. Georgia’s 7th congressional district, formerly the home of Newt Gingrich, is now held by black female gun control activist Lucy McBath; and Virginia, formerly the capital of the Confederacy, is now a solidly blue state.
Part of the reason 2018 was so exciting was the fact that Beto and other Southern Democrats Andrew Gillum, and Stacey Abrams all made history running in states that haven’t elected Democrats to statewide office in more than 20 years. Although all three of them lost, they proved how Republicans are losing gone in once-solid-red parts of the country Trump becomes a liability and the states themselves grow more diverse (and Gillum and Abrams might have won had it not been for electoral malfeasance in their respective states of Florida and Georgia.)
There’s still a lot of work to be done – this week, Cindy Hyde-Smith won her election as Senator from Mississippi despite a history of racism and racist remarks. According to U.S. News and World Report, her home state is ranked 46th in education, 48th in the economy, 49th for opportunity and infrastructure, and dead last for healthcare.
But even writing off a state as red as Mississippi does a disservice to liberals who came out for her opponent, Mike Espy. Espy only lost by eight points, which is astounding given Trump’s 18-point margin of victory in 2016. Mississippi may be slow to change when it comes to demographics – it is still mostly white and Christian– but in another ten years, it could look like an outlier as the states around it shift demographically.
The Importance of State Parties
There is no question that Beto is going to have a major role in the Democratic Party going forward, and he may be a great presidential candidate. He already ran the best Senate campaign any Democrat has in Texas for decades. He had great organizers working for him to mobilize the Latino vote, and big tech supported him by creating apps to register voters. If he ran for President he could take all this to a national level.
But assuming he runs and has to campaign in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, what would happen in Texas? What presence would the Democratic Party have on the ground there? In 2020, there will be a Senate race against incumbent Republican John Cornyn. Without Beto running against Cornyn, or a Beto-like opponent, would Democrats be prematurely sacrificing a win on the state level?
A Better Strategy
The signs for change in the Lone Star State are already present. Since Trump’s election, eight Texas Republicans have resigned from Congress, and seven Democrats have been elected in their place. Political insiders are already preparing themselves for more retirements to come. New local candidates will, no doubt, come forward, and Texas’s House representation will grow stronger. But winning a statewide race will be the thing that strikes fear into the Republicans’ hearts.
Democrats have not won statewide in Texas since the 1990s, and it may be wiser politically for Beto to channel his grassroots energy and infrastructure into challenging Cornyn rather than letting presidential ambitions get the better of him. He already has everything in place and could get even more new voters out to the polls than he did before. Plus, some of the problems people had voting with Texas’s computers will be fixed by then, which could potentially give him more votes.
I think the same hold true for Gillum and Abrams, neither of whom are being discussed as presidential contenders, but whose presence on the national stage will become stronger if they build a Democratic presence in Florida and Georgia. After her heartbreaking loss, Abrams started a group called Fair Fight Action, which is suing Georgia for its mismanagement of elections and working to elect John Barrow as Secretary of State next week. Gillum has not announced his next move yet but would be wise to avoid the 2020 buzz. Even though 2022 is still four years away, he would be a formidable opponent for either Ron DeSantis or Marco Rubio, who may seek a third term in the Senate.
As traditional swing states like Ohio grow increasingly red, the path forward for Democrats is to go through the South, but that can’t happen without strong state parties doing the work now. Beto is in a great place to do just that, and he may do more good for national Democrats overall by staying in Texas and earning statewide representation. Even if it doesn’t flip the state blue electorally, he and his fellow Southern Democrats will lay the groundwork for these states to become Democratic – and given that no Republican has won the White House without Texas since 1968, it would deliver a fatal death blow to their party.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.