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Opinion Beto O’Rourke doesn’t need your money

Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke in Alexandria, Va., in April 2018, during his campaign for president. O'Rourke has announced he plans to run for governor of Texas in 2022. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Democrat Beto O’Rourke — former member of Congress, former Senate and presidential candidate, punk rocker, skater dudeannounced on Monday that he’s running for governor of Texas.

Democrats should be happy about this development: He’s the best-known Democrat in the state, and if anyone has a shot to beat Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, it could be O’Rourke.

But it’s not a great shot — the odds will be against him. Nevertheless, it could attract more attention than any other race in the 2022 election. Which means Democrats all over the country will be sending O’Rourke contributions.

To which I say: There’s something better you can do with your money.

Don’t get me wrong, I like O’Rourke. I’d be only too happy to see him become governor of Texas. But this will be a hugely consequential election, and there’s a good chance Democratic donors will make the same mistake they’ve made in the past: Sending ungodly amounts of money to high-profile, long-shot candidates while ignoring races where those funds could make the difference between victory and defeat.

We saw it in 2020, when generous donors dropped tons of cash on Democratic candidates who had almost no chance to win, because they were running against figures despised by liberals. In South Carolina, Jaime Harrison raised an incredible $130 million — and lost to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham by 10 points. In Kentucky, Republican Mitch McConnell, then the Senate majority leader, routed Amy McGrath by nearly 20 points, despite the $94 million liberals put in her bank account.

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You can argue that, unlike those two states, Texas is trending blue. And didn’t O’Rourke get within three points of beating Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018?

He did — but that was Ted Cruz. Even in these polarized times, Republicans and Democrats come together to agree that Cruz is a uniquely loathsome creature. “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you,” Graham once joked.

And that Texas Senate race was 2018, a blowout year for Democrats — while the 2022 election will, if history is a guide, be a blowout for Republicans.

While there will be a number of close Senate races in 2022 in key states such as Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia, the Texas gubernatorial contest could attract more attention than any of them, because of who the candidates are.

On the Republican side, the incumbent Abbott has had some popularity struggles of late; according to pollsters at the University of Texas, more voters in the state now disapprove of his performance than approve. This may be because of the way he has galloped to the right, signing a blatantly unconstitutional law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, and fighting against efforts to combat the coronavirus.

Those actions have made Abbott much better known among liberals throughout the country, all of whom would love to see him tossed from office — and relish the idea of a Democrat winning the Texas governorship for the first time since Ann Richards in 1990.

But if Democrats hate Abbott, Republicans may hate O’Rourke even more. They think he’s shallow, too liberal, and exactly the kind of guy who got to date the cool girls back in high school. He’s already famous, so he can easily become the main Fox News villain of the 2022 campaign.

In July, when no one knew whether Abbott would face any Democratic opposition, he already had $55 million in the bank for this campaign. Presuming O’Rourke becomes the Democratic nominee, it would be a surprise if these candidates didn’t raise and spend $200 million each by the time this race is over, which would make it the most expensive nonpresidential campaign in U.S. political history.

So if you’re a Democrat wondering what to do with the $100 or $200 you’ll want to donate in 2022, let me suggest that O’Rourke will probably be fine without you.

On the other hand, if you really want your money to make a difference, donate to candidates for state representative in a swing state. In races where far less is spent, a smaller donation can make a much bigger difference.

As Democrats get pulverized in the redistricting process controlled by state legislatures — which makes it almost certain that Republicans will take back the House next year and stop President Biden’s legislative agenda in its tracks — the importance of state races becomes even more clear.

Yes, it takes a bit of research to figure out where to send your money. You may not be as drawn to the personality of a candidate for state representative, as opposed to someone you’ve watched on TV for years. And could O’Rourke win? Sure, it’s possible. But if you want to get some real bang for your buck, it shouldn’t be a hard choice.