Wishful Thinking among Texas Democrats

Beto O’Rourke speaks during the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Westerville, Ohio, October 15, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The Democrats were sure that they were going to pull off a big one in Texas last night, that their victory in a special election in the Houston suburbs would be the big momentum-builder leading them to recapture the state house. Everybody and their yellow dog had a snout in that race: Michael Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden — Robert Francis O’Rourke was, as one sympathetic observer put it, “practically living in the district.” Money poured in front progressive groups around the country.

Ted Cruz carried Texas House District 28 by about 3 points running against O’Rourke. Last night, the Republican, Gary Gates carried it by 16 points.

Here’s the thing to keep in mind: That 16-point Republican victory is more typical of the district than was Cruz’s rather more narrow victory. Governor Greg Abbott, for example, won the district by a comparable margin. Texas Democrats taking O’Rourke’s numbers as a baseline for any other context are fooling themselves.

The Cruz vs. O’Rourke race represented the worst aspects of American politics: O’Rourke is a callow but likeable young poseur, whereas Cruz is a man of genuine intellectual and political substance but easy to loathe. There ought to be a lot more to these things than what you think about the cut of Cruz’s beard or the preacherly character of his oratory, but we live in stupid times.

And we make them more stupid than they have to be. I admire Cruz, but, as with a great many Texas politicians on the national stage, his Howdy-Doody Texan shtick is irritating and perplexing. Ted Cruz is many things, a product of Princeton and Harvard law who clerked for the chief justice of the Supreme Court — a good-ol’ boy he is not. And the view from my little corner of Texas is that we don’t especially need another one.

The Republicans had a good night last night, and the Democrats have predictably overestimated their ascent. But the fact remains that Republicans cannot win in cities, including in Texas: The biggest Texas city to choose Cruz over O’Rourke was Lubbock. And as the near suburbs look more and more like the cities themselves politically, Republicans are going to have trouble there. The lesson of Montgomery County, Pa., ought to haunt Republicans’ dreams. There are dozens of more examples like it.

Enjoy the win, Republicans, but don’t get cocky.

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