The best thing that Beto can do now is not run for Senate: a pitch.
It’s tempting, now that he’s officially out of the presidential race. There’s an obvious race for him to enter, and we don’t doubt, at least, his ambition, regardless of what we think of his platform.
Cornyn seems like he -should- be beatable. Progressives have shown his potential as a spectacular Twitter punching bag. But it’s unclear whether that’ll change the situation on the ground.
And the situation on the ground is tilted against whoever gets nominated against Cornyn in 2020. Cornyn’s 2008 and 2014 wins, by 12 and 27 points respectively, almost exactly mirrored the aggregate House vote in Texas in those years, which at least indicates that ticket splitting between the houses of Congress doesn’t move the needle much either way.
But wait, you say. Texas is almost blue now. Hillary lost by only single digits, Beto came within three points in 2018, and 2020 is a presidential year. There’s at least some hope that the turnout game has been changed in a way that might carry over into this next cycle.
There aren’t many good precedents out there for what will happen in 2020, but the 2006 House elections are instructive here, I think. Despite the presence of an incredibly popular incumbent, Kay Bailey Hutchison, who cruised to reelection, Texas followed the national trend and swung left in the House races.
After Republicans won House elections by almost 19 points in 2004, Democrats held Republicans to only an 8-point margin in 2006 House races. It looked like Texas was finally tilting blue.
Despite that progress, and despite an even larger wave year in 2008, Democrats lost the state by 12, as I mentioned above. (Obama also lost Texas by 12.)
It’s interesting—we’ve gone through a few consecutive cycles where the presidential cycle is more Democratic-leaning than the midterm it immediately follows, but I don’t think that’s the lesson that necessarily makes sense to draw.
2008 was only more blue than 2006, a wave year in its own right, because the economy collapsed immediately before the election. 2004, the 9/11 Election (and the only time in the last 30 years the Democrats have lost the presidential popular vote), was preceded by a 9/11ier Election in 2002.
Lower turnout often helps Republicans, and when the enthusiasm gap favors them, it turns into 2010- or 2014-level blowouts. Still, though, I think the enthusiasm gap is a better thing to watch in trying to predict short-term shifts (and this is a short-term shift from 2018, one where demographic trends aren’t going to level the playing field quite yet).
Which brings us back to 2020. Unless the economy collapses again, which is possible but not something to assume or expect, there is at least some indication that it won’t be quite the wave year that 2018 was. (Even with the added economic burden in 2008, Republicans didn’t do that much worse than they did in 2006, losing the House vote by 10.6 points after losing it by 8.0 points in the midterm.)
And indeed, Beto’s showing against Ted Cruz, and the House coattails he created, starts to appear as more and more of an outlier once you lay it against historical House results. Remember that Obama, House Dems, and Cornyn’s opponent all did almost identically in 2008? That was not the case in 2016, where Hillary drastically outperformed the House results, losing by eight while the House margin was over 20 points.
All this is to say that 2018, where Beto came oh-so-close, seems to be about the fullest advantage that Beto could take of all of the money that came pouring in, of the ludicrous incumbent that he was running against, of the good and the bad that comes with running as Beto. I don’t see any indicator, save Cornyn’s low approval rating, that would indicate that Beto running with a similar (or, likely, slightly smaller) war chest would be able to push his ceiling over the finish line.
But somebody else might. MJ Hegar, who rode that 2018 wave to the edge of a similar stunning upset in TX-31, is already running for Cornyn’s seat.
Hegar got a lot of publicity last year from an incredible ad from her 2018 campaign that lays out her compelling story, and I don’t particularly see Beto’s charisma, particularly after a series of uneven presidential debate performances, as part of the easiest path to kicking Cornyn out of Congress anymore.
It’s important to note that Hegar’s district, TX-31, is four points -more- Republican-leaning by Cook PVI than Texas as a whole. This is oversimplifying, but if she replicated her 2018 performance statewide, she’d win by over 1%, something Beto couldn’t say. In some ways, it feels parallel to Lucia McBath winning GA-06 in the midterms, after Jon Ossoff built a ground-game infrastructure in a heavily funded losing effort.
Hegar’s website isn’t particularly specific, but there are enough policy points there to make clear that Beto also isn’t significantly to the left of her, if he is at all. Both tout a Medicare buy-in, and both stop short of the boldest proposals on things like climate and economic justice. But Hegar’s website still emphasizes the importance of access to reproductive healthcare and childcare, a path to citizenship for undocumented people, comprehensive campaign finance reform, and investing in public schools.
There used to be an adage that if you lost two elections, your political career would essentially be over. I think that’s less true than it used to be, but I also think it’s still true of politicians who tend to stick to the establishment lane. Beto probably worries that two high-profile Senate losses in a row might sink him for the foreseeable future. And he might worry, specifically for this race, that some of the gun control rhetoric he’s been using might disqualify him for a statewide run in Texas.
But given the fire that he brings to the gun control discussion, there’s an obvious spot in the political process that could use him. One that is as much a part of the political process as the elected officials. One that tends to be systemically lacking in coverage and resources, things that Beto’s reputation could bring right now, things that Beto’s reputation might not be able to bring in 2021.
Beto should join the activist side of the political process full-time.
Yes, it’s part of the political process, and our societal insistence that they are separate is part of the reason we don’t have more activists in this country.
Any of the national gun-control organizations would gladly bring Beto on board and pay his salary; they’d probably make it back simply by affiliating publicly with him. His presence could keep media attention on the efforts of the Parkland kids, on bills working their way through state legislatures, on the effort that needs to be undertaken for meaningful change to happen.
And all of those people who at one point or another were taken by Beto’s charisma? Many of them are folks who woke up on November 9, 2016, knowing that something was wrong but not knowing what they could do. A lot of them would be connected to concrete action items and to activist networks to a far greater extent than ever before. Even if it starts with a single issue area, this could pay dividends for years to come. (Not to mention that this plays into his ambitious streak as well: if any progress is made on this issue, he’d be well primed to run again when he felt the moment was right, even as early as 2022.)
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially what Stacey Abrams decided to do after the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election.
Some of you might consider that “disappearing.” Other than electoral speculation, Stacey hasn’t been making many national headlines. But for the time being, her work with Fair Fight centers specifically around Georgia and a lawsuit over elections practices. Her voter protection initiatives won’t require mobilization with a nationwide reach until the 2020 general election.
But gun violence is at this point a nearly constant news story. Beto is uniquely positioned to push back on the framing that this conversation has now had for over a decade running now, and to create a new crop of activists along the way.
If we had a political system that truly responded to the desires of the people, this wouldn’t be an out-of-the-blue ask. It really shouldn’t be; politicians who want change should cycle in and out of change-making and capacity-building roles as activists.
But until somebody high-profile does it, somebody with a large following does it, somebody like Beto does it, it’s going to seem weird to the average person, and that weirdness will trickle down into the same barriers to activism that have been systematically erected around us for years.
It’ll be better than trying to run for reelection in Texas in 2026, trust me.