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Thursday, December 08, 2022

Few chances for political change

Beto O'Rourke Speaks At A Pro-Choice Rally In Houston.
Beto O’Rourke speaks at a pro-choice rally in Houston.

Photo: AFP/MARK FELIX

Texas is big. It is almost 1300 kilometers from the southernmost tip on the border with Mexico to the farthest tip in the northwest of the US state. Contrary to their rural reputation, most of the 28.6 million Texans live in the state’s fast-growing metropolitan areas. Metropolitan areas like Dallas, Houston and Austin attract people from all over the world with large universities and well-paid jobs; after oil production and cattle breeding, the tech industry in particular is now booming here.

Beto O’Rourke is determined to see as much of this great Texas as possible. The 49-year-old Democrat is currently running for governor and, according to his campaign team, has soon covered 9,000 kilometers in his pickup truck under the motto “Drive for Texas”. He also wants to focus on the small towns and communities, which usually receive little attention from politicians. O’Rourke is himself from El Paso, a predominantly Mexican-American city on the westernmost tip of the state.

O’Rourke’s path to the governor’s mansion is anything but certain, as it has been firmly in the hands of the Republican Party since the mid-1990s. They also enjoy a decisive majority in the state House of Representatives and in the delegation that represents Texas in Congress in Washington. At the national level, the Texas Republicans presented themselves as particularly determined supporters of Trump’s policies. To do this, they serve topics that reliably mobilize the right-wing fringe of the party: nationalism, the ban on abortion, hostility towards immigrants and things read differently.

The current governor, Greg Abbott, has bused thousands of migrants from Texas into democratically governed cities since the spring. Just last week, more than a hundred people from Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela arrived at the home of Vice President Kamala Harris. Abbot has now found an imitator in his counterpart Ron DeSantis from Florida. Both use the dispute over immigration policy to mobilize their supporters. That’s not new. Abbot set up his own security apparatus on the border with Mexico in 2021 under the name “Operation Lone Star”. In the eyes of some residents, the region has become a militarized zone due to the widespread deployment of the National Guard.

Unintentionally pregnant women are no longer cared for in this state, and they have to travel long distances to other states to have an abortion. Under the new law, doctors who perform an abortion face life imprisonment and a $100,000 fine. Texas law provides no exceptions to the abortion ban, even in cases of rape or incest. Also last year, Republicans led by Abbot passed legislation that would allow parents of trans children and young people to be sued for child abuse if their children are on hormone therapy. Some of those affected have since fled the state.

Beto O’Rourke and the Democratic Party are banking on the resentment that Abbot’s policies are provoking among many in Texas. While his party is more or less united behind him, the governor’s approval rating in general polls is just over 40 percent. For many Democrats, the demographic change in the state is almost a guarantee that they will regain high office. Whites have been a minority since 2019, and the democratically voting metropolitan regions are growing much faster than the more conservative rural communities.

O’Rourke positions himself primarily as an anti-Abbott in the election campaign. He describes his Republican opponents as corrupt, ruthless and radical. After the massacre of 19 elementary school children and their teachers in the small town of Uvalde, the governor, in typical Republican fashion, refused to condemn the American gun lobby and even commented shortly after the fact that “it could have been worse”. Since then, Abbot’s inaction in the face of violence has been a staple of O’Rourke’s speaking engagements on his Texas tour. Along with some of Uvalde’s survivors, he is now calling for a higher minimum age to purchase the semi-automatic assault rifles that were used to wreak this and many other bloodbaths in the United States.

This isn’t the first time that Texas Democrats have hoped for Beto O’Rourke. In 2018, he almost managed to take the job away from longtime Senator Ted Cruz, a near historic event for the long-lost party.

As much as O’Rourke distanced himself from the right-wing Abbot, he also tried to distance himself from the left wing of the party and its demands. The former real estate investor is primarily targeting moderate Republicans and swing voters. On his “Drive for Texas” he often touted the great oil and gas sector in Texas; Abbott’s accusations of being an enemy of the police are regularly countered with the same pandering statements of solidarity with law enforcement that are so popular with Republicans. At an election campaign event in the village of Lockhart, O’Rourke made this political tightrope walk particularly clear: he did not call for restrictions on gun ownership, just the possession of certain guns.

A man who describes himself as a former Republican tearfully says he is now afraid to send his children to school. He owns guns himself, but “none of them has more than five shots or shoots more than 300 meters”. O’Rourke assured the man that he fully supports the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which gives all Americans the right to own a gun. The exchange was immediately processed by O’Rourke’s campaign team into a promotional clip for the Internet.

If you follow the current polls, this election will end in a narrow defeat for O’Rourke, as in 2018. The candidate from El Paso will undoubtedly be able to demonstrate the mobilization potential of the Democrats again. For many in the party it is already clear that sooner or later they will say that again in Texas, even if it doesn’t work this time. That demographic change is no guarantee for the Democrats is shown by the fact that two Republican candidates currently have a good chance of winning traditionally Democratic seats in southern Texas, which is dominated by Mexico. Both are Latinas from the region – and self-confessed supporters of Trump and Greg Abbott.

Beto O'Rourke Speaks At A Pro-Choice Rally In Houston.
Beto O’Rourke speaks at a pro-choice rally in Houston.

Photo: AFP/MARK FELIX

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