Beto O’Rourke’s campaign reflects on failed governor race

Beto ORourke gives his concession speech after being defeated by incumbent Greg Abbott in the race for Texas governor on Nov. 8 in El Paso. On Monday, ORourkes campaign team reflected on the loss. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre For The Texas Tribune, Ivan Pierre Aguirre For The Texas Tribune)

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The leaders of Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for governor generally defended their strategy Monday, saying they made a valiant effort despite a formidable incumbent and national headwinds. At the same time, they said they were looking into a range of decisions they made on the way to an 11-percentage-point loss to Gov. Greg Abbott.

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“When the margin is what it is, you’re not one silver bullet away from victory,” O’Rourke’s deputy campaign manager, Jason Lee, said Monday on a post-election conference call with reporters. “There’s a lot of things that we’re going to have to look at across the board — investment, resource allocation, maybe even on the messaging side.”

Texas Democrats are once again soul-searching after a statewide blowout. O’Rourke’s campaign team echoed some of the factors that have already been publicized over the past week, such as turnout that fell short of both sides’ projections. Abbott’s campaign has argued it had a “better messenger and a stronger message.”

Lee congratulated Abbott on a “very disciplined, effective, extremely well-financed” campaign, but he noted it was the smallest margin of victory Abbott has had in his three gubernatorial campaigns, among other bright spots for Democrats down-ballot. For example, he said Democrats were able to minimize their losses in South Texas, which the GOP was aggressively targeting, and exit polling shows Abbott did not win the Hispanic vote statewide, which he had promised to do.

While O’Rourke ultimately outraised Abbott, the governor still spent more, and Lee noted the odds were stacked against O’Rourke during “a year in which Democrats across the country faced low Biden approval ratings, record inflation, instability on the southern border and the perception of a major rise in crime in our urban cores.”

But Lee said the infrastructure that O’Rourke built for Democrats will pay dividends for years to come.

“The way that states ultimately flip … is that the party that’s not in power must compete every cycle,” Lee said. “Even when the environment is unfavorable, we must mount serious electoral efforts to make sure that we don’t take a step backwards. Never let go of the rope.”

Abbott’s campaign held its own media call the morning after the election, saying O’Rourke was saddled with an upside-down favorability rating throughout the race — a product of his past campaigns — and that Abbott was more focused on the most important issues to voters, such as the economy and border.

“The fact of the matter was, the governor is better than Beto on issues,” said Gardner Pate, Abbott’s campaign chair.

On Monday’s call, Lee and O’Rourke’s communications director, Chris Evans, expressed few regrets about the campaign strategy, particularly when it came to outreach to young voters and rural communities.

Although O’Rourke toured college campuses and prioritized registering young voters, Lee said the campaign probably did not get the youth turnout it had hoped for, pending a final analysis.

As for rural Texas, O’Rourke regularly faces questions about whether it is worth it to campaign there given the sparse populations and heavily GOP voters.

“You can do multiple things at once,” Evans said. “You can hold an event in the Panhandle while also running a campaign in Harris County. So often we think we have to pick or choose.”

The O’Rourke campaign officials did suggest they grappled with how to respond to Abbott’s attacks against O’Rourke. Asked if there was anything they wished they would have done differently, Evans suggested one area was “responding more directly to attacks coming our way” while also keeping the heat on Abbott.

Lee acknowledged that Abbott’s efforts to tie O’Rourke to an unpopular president had some impact, especially when they were centered on an issue like inflation. But Lee said combating those attacks is “not as simple as responding because these are established narratives” that historically favor Republicans.

“It’s very difficult to switch an established narrative in the middle of an election cycle, particularly when you’re outspent,” Lee said.

To that point, Lee said Abbott “did a very good job focusing people’s attention on issues where they had an advantage.” He also said Abbott “very effectively” used the power of his office to earn massive media attention, pointing to Abbott’s busing of migrants to Democratic-run cities. And Lee credited Abbott’s campaign with targeting traditional Democratic voters with negative information, potentially depressing the party’s turnout.

Going forward, Lee said Democrats need to start campaigning sooner and build a “much stronger coordinated platform across the state.” While he and Evans said they expect O’Rourke to remain politically involved, Lee noted Democrats “can’t count on someone like that every time.”

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