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Texas’ Republican statewide primaries are heating up as challengers emerged in recent weeks for both Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton. But for all the Republican maneuvering, Democrats are remaining quiet about primary plans.
Texas Democrats are in a holding pattern as they plan for the 2022 cycle for two main reasons. First, the party establishment is waiting on former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke to announce whether he will run for governor.
Secondly, and crucially, incumbents and potential candidates across the state are awaiting the release this fall of new district maps to decide whether they’ll retire, run for reelection or consider a statewide bid. The new maps will come from the decennial redistricting process where lawmakers redraw the boundaries of the state’s congressional, legislative and State Board of Education districts.
“There’s a lot of planning and strategizing behind the scenes,” said Royce Brooks, the executive director of Annie’s List, the Texas Democratic women-in-politics group. “Whatever Beto decides to do is the domino that affects everybody.”
For months, O’Rourke has traveled the state, knocked on doors, appeared at rallies and met with voters. The former Democratic presidential candidate has said he’s not ruled out a run against Abbott.
A number of Texas and national Democratic operatives and officials said that given his near-win in 2018 against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, O’Rourke has earned the right of first refusal to be the party’s nominee for governor. It doesn’t hurt that he also has demonstrated the ability to fundraise at the top of the ticket and enjoys national name recognition.
In an interview Thursday, O'Rourke said he was not concerned about keeping other potential statewide candidates in suspense until he makes his decision.
"The filing deadline's not until December," O'Rourke said.
More than a dozen Democrats interviewed for this story speculated that O’Rourke will run, while quickly adding that they have no direct insight into his thinking. Most said they drew these conclusions from watching his travel schedule over the spring.
Over the past month, O’Rourke made stops in Houston, Prairie View, Brenham, Longview, Wichita Falls, Dallas, Denton, Texarkana, San Angelo, Austin, Marshall, Henderson and Center. Many of these cities and towns are in off-the-beaten path corners of the state, an echo of his oft-touted 254 county tour during the 2018 campaign.
O’Rourke said he hopes anyone thinking about running in 2022 would be singularly dedicated right now to the voting rights battle, referring to efforts by Republicans in the Texas Legislature to overhaul elections laws that he and other Democrats say amounts to voter suppression.
"Really anyone who cares about this state and the state of our democracy should be focused on this issue. It's existential for America and for Texas."
Whether or not O’Rourke at the top of the 2022 ticket would be helpful to down ballot candidates is a point of debate in Democratic circles.
More than a handful of Texas Democrats worry his September 2019 statement — “Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” will hurt candidates running for the state Legislature and Congress. O’Rourke made the comment after a mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso which led to the deaths of 23 people.
But other Democrats shrug off that thinking, suggesting that Texas opinions on guns are changing, that any Texas voter who might not vote for O’Rourke over that statement would never vote for a Democrat anyway, or that he is in a league of his own within the Texas Democratic world.
Assuming he jumps in, he is one of the few Texas Democrats who’s a proven fundraiser. During his 2018 Senate run, he raised $80 million and while running for president in 2019, he raised $19 million.
State office fundraising is easier than it is for the Senate or to be president, as donors are restricted from giving more than a few thousand dollars to federal candidates.
Beyond O’Rourke, there is some chatter that former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro or U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro might make a run for governor. Otherwise, the field of potential candidates are a mix of current and former state legislators.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo remains a much pined-for candidate, particularly among female Democratic operatives, but so far she has not expressed interest in running statewide next year.
And there are some Democrats who have announced runs for statewide offices, but few are well-funded.
Two candidates that have earned the most notice are Mike Collier, who ran for lieutenant governor two years ago and is making another run, and former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski, who is running for attorney general.
Down the ballot, Texas Democrats are bracing for the worst this fall, when the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature releases its redistricting maps for state House and Senate and for the U.S. House.
Republicans will have a freer hand than in decades past in map-making unless Congress is able to reinstate provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which required states and jurisdictions that have a history of voter suppression to clear changes to their voting rules and political maps with the federal government to ensure they didn’t harm voters of color. The provisions called “preclearance” were gutted in 2013 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
There is some glimmer of hope that Congress might pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would re-instate preclearance, but for now, that is a long shot possibility.
"What's frustrating is if the John Lewis Voting Rights Act was adopted and signed, then preclearance would be re-established, and Republicans wouldn't be able to discriminate in the way they intend," said Matt Angle, the director of the Democratic group the Lone Star Project.
Rebecca Acuña, the 2020 state director for the Biden campaign, said she holds out hope that Congress will pass a bill to reinstate preclearance.
“Dems are focused on protecting voting rights and still watching to see what redistricting looks like, but the world is watching Texas and Texas Democrats,” Acuña said.
In a traditional election cycle, candidates tend to roll out their campaigns over the spring and summer of the off-year, but this year potential candidates are still watching and waiting for the new district maps.
The entire Texas election calendar could also be moved back, due to the delayed census amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the ripple effect on reapportionment and the Texas Legislature's ability to draw maps.
Some statewide Democratic candidates could emerge after the maps are finished. If a Democratic incumbent finds themselves in a carved up district where he or she has no chance at reelection, the notion of running statewide — still an incredible challenge for Democrats — actually could be an easier lift than reelection.
Beyond who’s running for what, there is a mixed mood among Texas Democrats.
For some, Republican legislative advances on reproductive health and gun policy exacerbate the disappointment of 2020, when despite expectations and excitement, Democrats made almost no gains in the state beyond President Joe Biden keeping former President Donald Trump to a six-point victory in Texas.
“There's a very steep uphill climb here when you look at everything from access to abortion to reproductive rights, access to health care, voting rights and ballot access,” said Aimee Boone Cunningham, a prominent Austin-based activist and donor, reflecting a level of Democratic exhaustion that can be found around the state.
“The Republicans are engaged in this sustained and unrelenting assault on these basic tenets of our democracy, and that should be scary, and it should be discouraging. But that doesn't mean we can't and won't fight back, but anyone who isn’t scared right now isn't paying attention,” she said.
There are also structural concerns ahead beyond redistricting.
Most parties in power at the presidential level lost legislative seats during the first midterm of an administration. On Capitol Hill, the sentiment is all but certain that Republicans will recapture the U.S. House and many of their top targets are in Texas.
There is nowhere the GOP is more on offense than in South Texas, where the Democratic bastion swung hard toward Republicans in 2020.
Outgoing Harris County Democratic Chairwoman Lillie Schechter is on the optimistic side of things. She points to recent reunions of Democrats, who mostly avoided social contact during COVID-19 pandemic last year. She cites friends seeing old friends as a source of growing enthusiasm within her party.
But she said her focus will be “to hold our ground and not cede any [of their 2018 and 2020 gains] next election cycle.”
“I love the idea of offensive opportunities, but I’ve been around for a long time to have ‘10 and ‘14 [Republican waves] ingrained in my heart and so my number one objective is to hold ground.”
Former Texas Democratic operative Jason Stanford described this coming cycle as potentially as unstable as he’s seen in years. He points to actor Matthew McConaughey’s own deliberations about running for governor as a third party candidate or Independent.
“It’s looking like Abbott, McConaughey and Beto,” he said. “That’s some chaos to game out. People underrate chaos in this kind of thing…They like to plan a win but to some extent it has to be luck.”
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction, June 25, 2021: An earlier version of this story misspelled Lillie Schechter's name and misidentified Schechter's party affiliation. Schechter is the outgoing chair of the Harris County Democrats.