In an interview, O’Rourke said that he went from dismay at November’s election results to excitement at the grass-roots activism he saw in Texas. In the first months of 2017, O’Rourke toured the state, joining political rallies and talking to local party leaders, coming away convinced that “the conventional wisdom” about Texas was wrong.
“I’d go to Lubbock or Midland or College Station, and I’d see folks coming to events saying, ‘I voted for Trump, but I think we need something better in our government,’” said O’Rourke.
It’s been 29 years since Democrats won a Senate race in Texas, and 27 years since they won any statewide offices at all. During Barack Obama’s presidency, the party made serious-looking runs at the governor’s mansion, running former Houston Mayor Bill White in 2010 and Dallas-area state senator Wendy Davis in 2014.
Both lost, while Republicans mocked the Democrats’ dream of a “blue Texas” and, at the same time, warned donors of a future where the minority party actually succeeded in flipping the state.
In 2016, with less hype, a backlash to Donald Trump among suburban voters and nonwhites spiked Democratic turnout in Texas. Trump’s 52 percent of the vote was the lowest for a Republican presidential nominee in 20 years; his victory margin in Texas was smaller than his margin in swing state Iowa.
Despite the trends, Democrats are not currently planning to spend money in Texas. Five of the party’s incumbents are up for reelection next year in states that voted by landslides for Trump; five more are in states that flipped from Obama to the Republican. O’Rourke, for now, is spinning that to his advantage by suggesting he’ll seek small donations to compete with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s fundraising network.
“We’re not hiring pollsters, we’re taking no corporate cash, no PACs,”” said O’Rourke.
Asked about Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, O’Rourke said he had not been able to watch his confirmation hearings, but quickly came up with concerns that would have stopped him from supporting him.
“I’m concerned about his rulings that favor business interests,” said O’Rourke, citing the “frozen trucker” case that Democrats focused on during the hearing. “I’m concerned about his lack of support for voting rights, and what seems like his indifference to the impact of undisclosed money on our democracy.”
O’Rourke framed the rest of his race in pragmatic terms, saying he could work well with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) — who has called O’Rourke’s bid a “suicide mission” — and that he’d be a full-time senator, without Cruz’s national ambitions.
“I don’t think Ted Cruz is a bad person, but we all know he spent four years running for president,” said O’Rourke. “And he did a really good job at it. That’s good for him, it’s just not great for Texas.”