Bud Kennedy

Can Beto beat Trump in Texas?

Beto O’Rourke in his own words on migrant caravan, Trump

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke speaks with Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy before a rally at the Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth on Saturday, Oct. 20.
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U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke speaks with Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy before a rally at the Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth on Saturday, Oct. 20.

Beto O’Rourke has plenty of reasons not to run for president: his thin portfolio of work in Congress, the dispute over whether he left the scene of a 1998 DWI crash, the absurd new complaint that he’s more centrist than his party.

But to Democrats, winners to the popular vote but losers in the Electoral College twice in the last five elections, there is one case for putting O’Rourke on the 2020 ticket:

If he can beat New Yorker Donald Trump in Texas.

Sure, that’s a longshot. The Democrats have easier ways to win. But if O’Rourke looks like he might help Democrats take Texas’ 38 electoral votes, then Ohio or Wisconsin can stay red. It won’t matter.

I asked some of our regular experts — political consultants and college professors — whether Beto might beat the President.

I was surprised how many said “yes” or “maybe.”

“I would handicap a 2020 Beto-Trump match in Texas as a toss-up,” Rice professor Mark P. Jones wrote by email, explaining that it depends whether O’Rourke is forced to the liberal extreme just to win the turbulent Democratic primaries.,

“And within the context of the current political alignment, if Beto were to defeat Trump in Texas, it would be extremely difficult for Trump to win.”

O’Rourke has sharpened his criticism of Trump. During the U.S. Senate campaign, O’Rourke said he would vote to impeach Trump over the collusion the President has already shown with Russia, and over telling former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end that investigation.

O’Rourke didn’t unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. But more than 4 million Texans sided with O’Rourke.

Polls before the election consistently showed that Cruz is about 5 points more popular in Texas than the President.

O’Rourke lost by only 2.6 percent, and won among native Texans.

Republican political consultant Matt Mackowiak of Austin, chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, was doubtful.

“Losing the Senate race will be Beto’s high-water mark,” he wrote by online message.

“He was not vetted [and] earned only positive media. … In a presidential race, his lack of any accomplishments, socialist views and lack of substance would be front and center.”

But Democratic consultant Matt Angle of Washington said Donald Trump is no Ted Cruz.

“Trump is even more divisive, equally unlikable and has narrower appeal than Ted Cruz,” Angle wrote by email.

“Make no mistake, though, Texas is still very tough for Democrats running statewide.”

Recent complaints that O’Rourke isn’t as liberal as 2016 hopeful Bernie Sanders are helping O’Rourke, Angle wrote: “Attacks from Bernie reinforce that Beto has broader appeal and is not a liberal ideologue.”

University of Houston professor Brandon Rottinghaus predicted a Trump-Beto race would go narrowly to Trump in “an ugly win, but a win.”

The Republican would have the advantage “in that the race will be substantially about immigration and border security.” he wrote. That would spur GOP turnout.

Texas Christian University professors Jim Riddlesperger and Adam Schiffer were leery of O’Rourke’s chances.

Schiffer wrote: “If Beto wins Texas in 2020, it would only be because he’s winning the presidency in a landslide.”

“Texas is a Republican state, even after the 2018 election,” Riddlesperger wrote, saying the higher turnout in a presidential year would make a Beto win “unlikely, but not impossible.”

If he’ll bring another $78 million, Democrats will let him try.

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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.
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