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Hot or not, in or out: Our forecast of 2022’s most interesting Southern political races

Trump’s sway will be key metric in outcome of midterm elections across region

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Decision 2022(CFP) — 2022 has dawned, and with it a mid-term election year in which most Southern states will decide who gets to be their governor and congressional races across the region will play a key role in deciding which party controls Congress.

Of the eight Southern states with open races for governor this year, seven will feature incumbents seeking re-election, with the only open race in Arkansas, where former Donald Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders appears on her way to victory.

Nine U.S. Senate seats will be up, with open races in Alabama and North Carolina and Georgia Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock battling for a full term after winning a special election runoff in 2020.

Here is a look at some of the hottest races, and likely biggest political stories, of the upcoming year.

Reapportionment Primary-Palooza

The redrawing of new U.S. House maps after reapportionment has set up two Southern primary contests, one in each party, where incumbents will need to defeat a current colleague to stay in Congress.

In Georgia, Republican mapmakers have pitted Democratic U.S. Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux against each other in Atlanta’s suburbs. McBath’s existing district in the northwest suburbs became too Republican for her to survive; Bourdeaux’s in the northeast suburbs actually became more Democratic with the addition of areas that had been in McBath’s orbit.

The two women — who campaigned with each other in 2018 and 2020 and differ little politically — will face off in what is likely to be an expensive primary. McBath has a stronger national profile and fundraising operation, but the district now centers on Gwinnett County, which Bourdeaux currently represents.

One caveat is that voting rights groups are suing the block the new map, which, if successful, could provide a wrinkle ahead of the March filing deadline.

In West Virginia, the loss of one of the state’s three U.S. House seats sets up a primary contest between Republican U.S. Reps. David McKinley and Alex Mooney for a new district that includes the northern half of the state.

However, this race will have more of an ideological flavor than the primary in Georgia. Mooney, a former Washington lobbyist who moved to the state in 2014 from Maryland to run for Congress, is a member of the ultra-conservative, anti-establishment Freedom Caucus. McKinley, a seventh-generation West Virginian and former state party chair, is more aligned with the Republican Party’s establishment wing.

Expect to hear a great deal in this race about McKinley’s vote in favor of establishing a bipartisan commission to investigation the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, which Mooney opposed.

The Power of Trump

The former president has already been active in offering endorsements and pursuing revenge, particularly against Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for refusing to indulge his claims of widespread fraud in the state’s 2020 vote.

Trump recruited former U.S. Senator David Perdue to run against Kemp, setting off what is likely to be a bare-knuckled brawl in the Republican primary ahead of a stiff challenge from Democrat Stacey Abrams. He also endorsed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice’s bid to unseat Raffensperger.

And in one of the strangest early developments of the 2020 campaign, Trump also reportedly encouraged his former ambassador to Slovenia, Lindy Blanchard, to drop out of the U.S. Senate race to run instead against the very popular Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, in a fit of pique over cancellation of a July 4th Trump rally (a decision Ivey did not actually make.)

Trump has also waded into the attorney general’s race in Texas with an endorsement of incumbent Ken Paxton, who has drawn a gaggle of primary challengers (including Bush family scion George P. Bush and stalwart pro-Trump U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert) after a criminal indictment and FBI bribery investigation.

Taking down Ivey would seem a long shot at this point; Kemp is holding his own against Perdue in early polls; and Paxton race seems likely to be headed to an unpredictable runoff in March. So it remains to be seen whether the Trump endorsement machine will produce results in 2022.

Trump has also endorsed in three U.S. Senate races. In Georgia, his nod put Herschel Walker on a glide path to the Republican nomination, but his chosen candidates in Alabama (U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks) and North Carolina (U.S. Rep. Ted Budd) are facing tough primary battles against more establishment candidates.

Adding to the MAGA Squad

Trump’s election has led to the rise of a core group of MAGA-philes in the House – social media savvy, outspoken, and willing to pounce on fellow Republicans who display the slightest scrap of bipartisanship. Among this group are Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, Florida’s Matt Gaetz, the aforementioned Gohmert and Brooks, and North Carolina’s Madison Cawthorn.

In 2022, they are hoping to add to their numbers by offering endorsements and fundraising help to like-minded candidates across the South and around the country, which will put them in position to be power brokers if Republicans take control of the House (a prospect likely to give House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy heartburn.)

Some of these candidates are little known and will face tough climbs against incumbent Republicans. But it is worth noting that both Greene and Cawthorn followed this same playbook successfully in 2020, going from unknowns to the halls of Congress with lightning speed.

Southern Black Woman in the U.S. Senate?

No black woman has ever been elected to represent a Southern state in the Senate. This year, Democrats are poised to pick two black women as their Senate nominees – U.S. Rep. Val Demings in Florida and Cheri Beasley in North Carolina.

Demings, the former police chief of Orlando who served on the first House impeachment committee that investigated Trump, faces an uphill climb against Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, particularly with his strong core of support among Hispanic voters in South Florida. But with her national profile, she has been posting strong fundraising numbers that could make the race competitive.

Beasley, the former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, may have better prospects in running for an open seat in a race where Republicans are slogging through a multi-candidate race in which Trump has intervened in favor of Budd.

A victory by either in November will make history.

Palmetto State “RINOs”

The most serious insult that can be hurled in Republican politics these days is to call someone a RINO – a Republican in Name Only.

Two incumbent U.S. House members in South Carolina have been branded with the RINO label by their critics – Nancy Mace in the Lowcountry and Tom Rice in the Pee Dee – and are each facing multiple challengers in their respective Republican primaries.

Mace was among the few Republican House members to offer criticism of Trump after the January 6th Capitol attack, although she did not vote to impeach him. Rice did, which got him censured by the state’s Republican Party, and he compounded his sin among the MAGA fervency by supporting the bipartisan commission to investigate the attacks.

As a result, Mace has four GOP challengers; Rice has 12. Trump has encouraged their challengers but has yet to announce a favorite. His blessing may be good enough to earn a runoff slot against the incumbent.

Thinking Outside The Box

After Warnock won a January special U.S. Senate election runoff in Georgia, he immediately become the Republicans’ primary 2022 target. Yet, no sitting U.S. House member ventured to take him on, nor did the three Republicans who ran against him in 2020.

Enter Herschel Walker, University of Georgia football hero and NFL standout. Though he carries significant personal baggage and has not a whiff of political experience, he does have the one accessory every Republican candidate wants in 2022 – Trump’s blessing.

Trump’s endorsement didn’t clear the primary field, but it did get Republican Senate leaders in Washgington behind Walker’s candidacy – taking a significant leap of faith in a race against a charismatic Democrat with Obama-level political skills.

Is this a gamble that will pay off or blow up? The answer may decide control of the Senate.

Beto O’Crist for Governor

The good people of Texas told Beto O’Rourke that they didn’t want him to be their senator in 2018, even after he spent $80 million trying to persuade them otherwise. The good people of Iowa and New Hampshire told him they didn’t want him to be their president in 2020, without nearly as much money going down the drain.

But not willing to take no and no for an answer, O’Rourke is back again, running this time for governor against incumbent Republican Greg Abbott. Only this time, he’s running in the gun-loving Lone Star State after telling a Democratic presidential debate audience that he was in favor of confiscating their assault weapons.

But lest you think Beto is the region’s most resolute embracer of questionable causes, he pales in comparison to Florida’s well-tanned political chameleon Charlie Crist, who is running for governor again this year after losing two statewide races in the past eight years and metamorphosing from a conservative Republican into an independent and then into a liberal Democrat.

Which begs the question: What part of “no” don’t you understand?

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Democrat Beto O’Rourke launches run for Texas governor

Former congressman from El Paso decides to challenge Republican Governor Greg Abbott after failed bids for U.S. Senate, president

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

TexasEL PASO (CFP) — Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has announced he will run for governor of Texas, giving Democrats a high-profile candidate in their quest to unseat Republican Governor Greg Abbott.

In a video announcing his candidacy posted November 15, O’Rourke charged that “those in a position of public trust have stopped listening to, serving and paying attention to, and trusting the people of Texas.”

ORourke

Texas Democratic governor candidate Beto O’Rourke

“They’re not focused on the things we want them to do,” he said. “Instead, they’re focused on the kind of extremist policies around abortion, or permitless carry, or even our schools that really only divide us.”

O’Rourke, 49, represented El Paso in the U.S. House from 2013 to 2019, giving up his safe seat to make a run against Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in 2018.

In that race, he proved to be a prodigious fundraiser, raising $80 million, almost twice as much as Cruz. But he lost by more than 200,000 votes in what was a stellar year nationally for Democrats.

Based on the national profile he built in the Senate race, O’Rourke ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. But his campaign sputtered, and he pulled out of the race months before the Iowa caucuses.

During his White House run, O’Rourke made a comment that may come back to haunt him in gun-loving Texas, telling a debate audience that, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

Indeed, shortly after O’Rourke announced his run for governor, Abbott took to Twitter to charge that O’Rourke wants to “take your guns,” ending with a two-word retort to his candidacy: “Bring it.”

Abbott, 64, is seeking his third term as governor of Texas, a state where governors are not term limited. While he won by more than 1 million votes for years ago, this time around he is now facing a competitive primary against two candidates running at him from the right, former GOP state chair Allen West and former State Senator Don Huffines from Dallas.

Abbott has run into political resistance for COVID-19 mitigation measures he imposed during the worst phases of the pandemic. However, more recently, he has led the charge against mask wearing in public schools and vaccine mandates for public agencies and even private businesses.

The wildcard in the race is Hollywood actor and native Texan Matthew McConaughey, who has been publicly toying with a run for governor. At this point, it remains unclear if he would run as a Democrat or an independent or enter the Republican primary, where nine candidates are already running.

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Julian Castro ends his run for Democratic presidential nomination

Former San Antonio mayor was the last Southerner left in the 2020 contest

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

SAN ANTONIO (CFP) — Julián Castro, the last Southerner and the only Latino in the 2020 presidential race, has ended his campaign for the White House.

“With only a month until the Iowa caucuses, and given the circumstances of this campaign season, I’ve determined that it simply isn’t our time,” Castro said in a video message to his supporters that he ended with the phrase “Ganaremos un día.” (One day, we’ll win.)

Julián Castro

Castro, who served as mayor of San Antonio and as housing secretary in the Clinton administration, also called for the Democratic Party to change its nominating process, which he said he believes disadvantages candidates of color.

In an appearance on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” Castro criticized starting the process in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire “that lack people of color ” and was also critical of the caucus process used in Iowa.

“If you didn’t know anything about the Iowa caucuses, and I told you, look, this is how we’re going to start this process — you can only vote on one day at 7 o’clock in the evening, there’s no early voting, there’s no secret ballot … people would think that Republicans designed the Iowa caucuses,” he said.

While Castro was polling poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire, he was also polling in low single digits nationally and in other early voting states such as Nevada and South Carolina that are more racially and ethnically diverse.

Castro was one of just three Southerners who entered the 2020 race. The other two — Democrat Beto O’Rourke from Texas and Republican Mark Sanford from South Carolina — had previously ended their campaigns.

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Beto O’Rourke ends quest for 2020 Democratic nomination

O’Rourke tells supporters in Iowa that “we do not have the means to pursue this campaign successfully”

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

DES MOINES, Iowa (CFP) — Seven months after beginning his quest for the presidency with high hopes and lavish media attention born of political star power, former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has brought his campaign to an abrupt and quiet end.

O’Rourke’s exit from the race, amid anemic polling results and fundraising numbers, was made official November 1 in front of a crowd of supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, where he had been scheduled to speak at a Democratic event with the rest of the 2020 field.

Beto O’Rourke withdraws from Democratic race in Iowa (NBC News via YouTube)

“This is a campaign that has prided itself on seeing things clearly and speaking honestly,” O’Rourke told a small crowd of subdued supporters. “We have clearly seen at this point that we do not have the means to pursue this campaign successfully and that my service will not be as a candidate, nor as the nominee of this party for president.”

An aide to O’Rourke later told reporters that he would not enter the U.S. Senate race in Texas, as some Democratic leaders have been urging him to do. The filing deadline in Texas is December 9.

Watch video of Beto O’Rourke’s speech leaving the 2020 race

O’Rourke’s short-lived campaign will perhaps be best remembered for a moment in a September debate where, in a call for mandatory buybacks of assault weapons, he said, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.

While the audience cheered, even some of his fellow Democrats winced at a soundbite likely to be weaponized by Republicans — and which may have extinguished any hope of a statewide political future for O’Rourke in Texas.

But O’Rourke offered no apologies during his withdrawal speech, saluting his campaign for being “unafraid to confront the conventional wisdom of what it was possible to say in the public sphere.”

O’Rourke, 47 — whose given first name is Robert but who uses his childhood nickname, Beto, a Spanish diminutive — served three terms in Congress representing El Paso before deciding to challenge Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in 2018.

Given little chance at the beginning, O’Rourke and his campaign fired the imagination of Democratic activists around the country, raising more than $80 million and coming within 3 points of ousting Cruz, the runner up to President Donald Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential contest.

O’Rourke hoped to ride that momentum to the Democratic nomination when he entered the race in late March. While his initial fundraising and polling numbers were strong amid an avalanche of media attention, both began to fade after uneven performances in early presidential debates.

O’Rourke pivoted to the gun control issue in August after a gunman killed 22 people at a Wal-Mart in his hometown of El Paso, but it did not resonate enough to propel him to the front of the Democratic pack.

O’Rourke was polling at 2 percent or less nationally and didn’t even register in one recent poll in Iowa, the first caucus state where he was drawing large crowds back in April.

His fundraising had also dried up, leaving his campaign with just $3.2 million at the end of September with early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire looming.

O’Rourke’s departure from the race leaves just one Southerner in the presidential race, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro.

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Chasing Cornyn: Gaggle of Democrats vie to take on Texas’s senior U.S. senator

Wild card in Democratic primary remains Beto O’Rourke, although window to switch to Senate race may be running out

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

AUSTIN (CFP) — As he faces re-election in 2020, Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn can boast of nearly two decades of experience; he has more than $9 million tucked away in his campaign coffers, with millions more on the way; and he represents a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since the days of Ronald Reagan.

And yet, Democrats are falling all over themselves to get into what appears to be, at least on paper, an enterprise with dubious chance of success.

Nine Democrats are already running, with a little more than three months to go before the filing deadline. And the question mark hanging over their primary is whether former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke will abandon his campaign for president and return to the Lone Star Star state to try once again for the job that eluded him in 2018.

Indeed, it was O’Rourke’s 2018 race that has inspired the Democratic energy now aimed at Cornyn. O’Rourke didn’t beat Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, but he came closer than any Democrat since the late Lloyd Bentsen won in 1988. After getting kicked in the teeth in statewide races for 20 years, Democrats have seized on that result as a sign of happier days ahead.

U.S. Senator John Cornyn

However, there are some shadows over such a sunny assessment. For one thing, Cornyn is much less polarizing than Cruz and has a higher net approval rating. The vaunted “blue wave” — which, in the end, was unable to carry O’Rourke to victory — is unlikely to be replicated in an election with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, in a state where his approval ratings are better than they are nationally. And the Democrats will have to slog through a competitive primary, which was a hurdle O’Rourke didn’t face.

O’Rourke and his campaign team insist, with some vehemence, that he will stay in the presidential race and has no interest in switching to the Senate. And even if he were inclined to change his mind, his time may be running out.

Texas has an unusually early primary, in March 2020; the filing deadline is in December 2019, well before O’Rourke will know how he fares in Iowa or New Hampshire. Just six months remain to put together a credible campaign in the nation’s second-most populous state, and it is unlikely that the other Democrats in the race are going to abandon their campaigns to accommodate a failed presidential candidate settling for his second choice.

The candidate in the Democratic race who is perhaps the most O’Rourke-like is MJ Hegar, 43, a retired Air Force fighter pilot. Like O’Rourke, she excited the Democratic grassroots during 2018 with what was ultimately a losing campaign for a U.S. House seat in suburban Austin, and she got into the Senate race after O’Rourke decided to make a White House run instead of taking on Cornyn.

Hegar is the only Democrat who was in the race and raising money during the first half of 2019. According to Federal Elections Commission reports, she raised just over $1 million — about one-tenth of Cornyn’s haul over the same period.

The Democrat chasing Cornyn with the most robust political pedigree is State Senator Royce West, 66, who has represented a metro Dallas district for more than 25 years and is among the state’s most prominent African American leaders.

State senators in Texas actually represent more people that members of the U.S. House, giving him a strong geographical base, and the state now has the largest African-American population of any state, at more than 3.8 million.

The decision by West — a veteran lawmaker not given to tilting at political windmills — to challenge Cornyn was seen as an indication of Cornyn’s perceived vulnerability. However, West doesn’t have to give up his seat in Austin to run.

African Americans and Latinos together make up a majority of Texas Democratic voters, which is reflected in the Senate primary field, where seven of the nine candidates come from those two communities.

Three African-American candidates are running in addition to West, including Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards. The race has also drawn three Latino candidates, including Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, 36, a Latina community activist who founded the civil rights group Jolt Texas.

Rounding out the top tier of candidates is Chris Bell, a former congressman from Houston who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2006.

Geography also plays a role in Texas politics. West has the Dallas lane mostly to himself; Bell and Edwards will compete in Houston, and Hegar and Tzintzún Ramirez are both based in Austin.

Fundraising totals for the third quarter, due in October, should provide more clarity about which of these candidates are actually going to be viable. But none of them are going to come anywhere close to the $80 million O’Rourke raised in 2018, for a race he didn’t win.

Cornyn has not drawn a primary opponent, which will allow him to aim all of his financial firepower at whomever survives on the Democratic side

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