Bud Kennedy

As Harris draws crowds, some ask: Can only Beto turn Texas blue?

California Democrat Kamala Harris is in Texas this weekend winning some Democrats’ hearts.

But in a state where no Democratic candidate for president has won in nearly half a century, the party’s success might still rely on El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s volunteer force and money.

In 2016, the last time Democrats didn’t have O’Rourke on the statewide ballot, presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost by 9 points. Yet when O’Rourke spent $80 million in 2018, Democrats flipped more than a dozen seats in federal and state offices.

National candidates might say the 2020 election won’t be about wealth, money or privilege.

But in Texas, the Democratic Party is mostly the Beto Party.

“If O’Rourke is on the presidential ticket, plenty of money and enthusiasm will be there to go around for all Democrats in Texas,” said Matthew Wilson of the political science faculty at Southern Methodist University.

“But otherwise, Democrats will see him sitting on the sidelines and rue what might have been.”

With two Texans in the race — the other is San Antonio Democrat Julián Castro — Democrats are faced with choosing between fellow Texans or from intriguing potential candidates such as Harris. Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, a former college student and law professor in Houston and Austin.

“Beto was a sensation,” said state Rep. Ramon Romero, a Fort Worth Democrat and a speaker ahead of Harris on Friday at Tarrant County Democrats’ event at a hotel in Grapevine near DFW Airport.

“He showed that he would listen to people and make a one-to-one connection with people’s hearts. Harris can do that too, but she needs to show she can do that. … Do we need his money? It’s unfortunate that’s at least part of the conversation.”

With nearly a year before the Texas primary, Democrats are quickly firming up sides behind Castro, Harris, O’Rourke or Sanders.

In particular, Harris has a strong lineup of former Clinton supporters and party officials, including former Gov. Ann Richards’ granddaughter, Harris communications director Lily Adams.

Fort Worth lawyer Jason Smith was a Clinton delegate in 2008 and 2016. He backs Harris and attended a private fundraiser for her Saturday in Dallas.

“Harris or Castro will perform better than Hillary because they won’t have nearly the negatives,” he said.

betoSC (1).jpg
Beto O’Rourke speaks on the patio of the Russell House as students gather around him during a visit to USC’s campus Friday March 22, 2019, in Columbia, SC Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

“Beto being on the ticket would be a positive, but he’s not necessary, because it seems a lot of folks are ready for change.”

For 20 years, Texas has been an afterthought in presidential elections. Clinton came closer to Republican Donald J. Trump than any Democrat since President Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996, but the election still wasn’t close.

The Clinton campaign talked about running TV ads in Texas, but only bought a few.

Back in 2014, after much talk about a “Battleground Texas” campaign turning out votes for Democratic nominee Wendy Davis, she lost by more than 20 points to now-Gov. Greg Abbott.

So last year, with no Democratic organization at all in more than 20 counties and very little party structure outside urban areas, the O’Rourke campaign built a staff and volunteers from the ground up.

His maverick operation didn’t always make traditional Democrats happy, and traces of that linger.

“I think it’s correct that no other Texas candidate is likely to raise as much money as Beto, but they don’t necessarily need to,” said Democratic strategist Matt Angle of the Lone Star Project.

Harris said it was primarily the party’s leaders and donors who organized the effort in Dallas-Fort Worth and Harris County (Houston). That’s where the party flipped congressional and state Senate and House seats.

Then there’s the opposition.

“Other than Bernie Sanders, just about any likely Democratic nominee has the potential to be competitive in Texas against Donald Trump,” Angle said.

The other Democrats might not have the green to turn Texas blue.

Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.