AP NEWS

Beto sparks excitement in Jefferson Co. after success here in November

March 15, 2019

Just last November, Beto O’Rourke’s surprisingly robust but ultimately failed Senate campaign resonated with a slim majority of Jefferson County voters.

So when the former El Paso congressman announced Thursday that he will run for president, local Democratic Party leaders got excited all over again.

“He’s a friend to this area,” county Democratic Party chairman Cade Bernsen said. “It would be great for him to be president. I’m confident he wouldn’t forget Southeast Texas.”

And that could pay off down the road, Bernsen said, perhaps during recovery from the region’s next natural disaster.

O’Rourke stayed in touch with him and a few other Southeast Texans during Tropical Storm Harvey and visited people’s homes in the aftermath to understand the destruction first-hand, Bernsen said. But he didn’t want cameras or reporters to document the visits, something that’s stuck with the local party leader.

“He did all that stuff outside of the camera shots,” Bernsen said. “He was not coming down and doing fake photo ops and doing all that stuff for campaign purposes. He wanted people to know he was authentic and actually cared about the area.”

Jefferson County Clerk Carolyn Guidry, the county’s highest-ranking Democrat, considered O’Rourke a “wonderful candidate” for Senate and noted that “he doesn’t meet strangers,” a trait that goes far in this area.

But Guidry said she’ll wait to predict his level of success in Southeast Texas until he gives more detail on his presidential platform.

O’Rourke won 50 percent of Jefferson County’s votes in the Senate run, compared to incumbent Republican Ted Cruz’s 49.5 percent. The local difference locally was less than 500 votes. O’Rourke ultimately lost to Cruz by 2.6 percentage points.

With nearly a year until the presidential primaries, O’Rourke and others in the already crowded Democratic field of candidates will have many obstacles to overcome in pursuit of the party’s nomination.

But he already has enough momentum to catch the attention not only of politicians but also political scientists.

“O’Rourke is a candidate that can generate enthusiasm from Democrats in a way that not many other Democrats can,” said University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus. “Despite the fact that there are so many candidates running, he’s the kind of candidate that inspires people.”

Rottinghaus said President Donald Trump’s low approval rating with independent voters could be key for an O’Rourke victory, should he win the party’s nomination.

“If it’s the case that independents come out in big numbers and Texas Democrats also rally around O’Rourke, it could be a game-changer for the Democrats and it’s all because of Donald Trump’s unpopularity,” he said. “Cruz was unpopular, but that was intensified by Donald Trump being in the White House.”

O’Rourke may have a legitimate shot at winning over Jefferson County voters, but it’s unclear how he’ll fare with more progressive voters across the country.

While in Congress, he joined the New Democratic Coalition, considered a more centrist group than the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

He also was one of just 28 Democrats in 2015 to give then-President Barack Obama authority to fast-track negotiations for international free trade deals. He also has not been for “Medicare-for-all” policies similar to what U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and other Democrats in the field have expressed support for.

Even if O’Rourke loses the Democratic primary, Rottinghaus said his intent to run and the energy it’s likely to create in the party will be felt down the ballot with wins for Democrats in local races, similar to what was seen in 2018.

“His decision translates to identifying volunteers and financial targets and encouraging good, qualified candidates to run,” he said. “There was a slate of good candidates that ran in 2018 that wouldn’t have if they didn’t sense there was some value in running. That’s what O’Rourke can once again provide.”

Rottinghaus said state residents should also be prepared to be inundated by even more political advertisements as candidates fight over a state he says nearly counterbalances California in Electoral College votes and could be “at play” for the first time in some two decades.

Jeremy Wallace of the Houston Chronicle contributed.

kaitlin.bain@beaumontenterprise.com

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