"Down-ballot Texas Democrats are in Beto O’Rourke’s shadow. Will his campaign still help their chances?" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
“Your Beto sign looks lonely.”
Joanna Cattanach texted those five words and a link to her campaign website to hundreds of voters — whose numbers she’d received from the Texas Democratic Party — in her Dallas-area state House district last month. The first-time candidate said she was motivated by the sea of distinctive black-and-white signs for El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke popping up in lawns all around her.
The gambit worked. Her campaign received 200 sign orders in the 24 hours after the text was sent out, she said.
It was just the latest example of the double-edged sword Cattanach and other Democrats running in down-ballot races — particularly those for state Legislature — are confronting amid the fervor O’Rourke’s bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has sparked among the party’s base.
“If there’s $20 in a room, $10 of it is going to Beto. That’s just happening right now,” said Cattanach, who’s challenging Republican state Rep. Morgan Meyer of Dallas this fall. “The rest of it goes, in order, to the congressional candidates, [state] Senate candidates and then, if you’re lucky, as a state House candidate you can get some of that too.”
With the 2018 midterms less than three months away, Cattanach and other Texas Democrats are facing an issue that’s not uncommon for candidates lower on the ballot: getting noticed when the name at the top of the ballot is getting the most attention.
What stands out this year, many candidates and operatives say, is the level of excitement O’Rourke is generating among the party’s base, a situation that has led to the U.S. Senate race dominating attention this summer — over virtually every other race on the ballot.
Despite the fanfare surrounding O’Rourke’s run, the race remains Cruz’s to lose. Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide in nearly 25 years. Cruz won his Senate seat in 2012 by 16 points. Yet lower on the ballot, Democrats see races where a win is far more likely — if only they can get out of O’Rourke’s shadow.
But, as former Austin-based Democratic consultant Harold Cook points out, the only thing worse than having a popular name at the top of the ticket is not having one.
“If you have one Democrat that’s doing well, that’s going to help down-ballot races,” Cook said. “I can tell you that some Democrat in Texas is going to win a House seat who would not have won if Beto were not doing well at the top of the ballot. Beto is going to do whatever he can do to break up a straight-ticket Republican vote, and do a pretty good job increasing turnout.”
In House District 134, Democrat Allison Lami Sawyer said she’s experiencing this tension between O’Rourke energizing local Democrats while also monopolizing their attention first-hand. Politically, the Houston-area district is viewed as a toss-up: Harris County went undeniably blue in 2016 and Sawyer is running against state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, who is viewed as one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the state Legislature. But as Sawyer talks to Texans in her area, she said she’s finding it hard to keep the focus on her own race.
“It’s a major problem when you need to go and educate your own party about the subtleties of this race but you can’t get attention because Beto is so exciting,” Sawyer said in a recent interview with The Texas Tribune.
“A lot of Democrats down the ballot are worried that people will go in [to the polls] check 'Beto' and then leave the rest of the ballot blank,” she added.
At the national level, media outlets are pouncing on what they’re calling “Betomania,” an acknowledgment of the massive crowds that come to many of O’Rourke’s campaign events, his ability to connect with younger voters through social media and his hustle at garnering money, volunteers and attention in spite of his long-shot bid to outseat Cruz.
“Outside of El Paso, nobody had any real reason to pay attention to him,” said Cook, speaking of O’Rourke. While other Texas Democrats running for statewide office this year have struggled to fundraise and gain attention as viable competitors, recent polls show Cruz has a single-digit lead over his Democratic challenger. O’Rourke has helped boost interest in his bid by campaigning in every corner of the state, livestreaming much of it via Facebook.
“Most candidates put you back to sleep, but Beto did the opposite of that,” Cook added.
O’Rourke seems aware of how much of his party’s success this year in Texas is riding on his shoulders. While he’s received flak for not endorsing some fellow Texas Democrats — specifically Gina Ortiz Jones, who’s hoping to unseat a friend of O’Rourke’s, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, in one of Texas’ most competitive congressional races — he’s let lower-ballot candidates appear with him at events as he campaigns around the state. Over the weekend, most of the other Democratic statewide candidates joined O'Rourke on a swing through South Texas, speaking before him at "Musica con Beto" events that his campaign hosted in Laredo, McAllen and Brownsville.
“I want to make sure that wherever there’s an opportunity for these statewide candidates to meet the people who will decide their elections, that they get the chance to do that,” O’Rourke told reporters at a recent campaign event in Austin. “And I’m excited about the leadership that they’ll be able to provide this state.”
Some compare the intense focus this year on the Cruz/O’Rourke race to what most candidates across the country dealt with in 2016, vying for the attention of voters absorbed by the presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“When you have a presidential year you have the same problem. It’s just a struggle to get known,” said Jeff Crosby, a Democratic consultant in Texas, on the challenge for down-ballot candidates. “There’s not much news coverage from TV or newspapers, so you’ve got to go to where the people are. You can’t do something passive.”
Julie Johnson, a Democrat challenging Republican state Rep. Matt Rinaldi of Irving, said she’s blockwalking and holding various events in her community to make sure voters know about her platform. Though she thinks her approach is helping her effectively challenge Rinaldi, she said she’s heard from other candidates that the excitement for O’Rourke is making it hard for them to get resources, specifically local volunteers, for their own campaigns.
“There’s some competition,” she said. “Beto does an awesome job of reaching people, but they want to volunteer for the big and shiny [races]. There are some really worthy down-ballot candidates that are worth volunteering for as well.”
O’Rourke’s blockbuster fundraising — he’s raised over $20 million in his bid against Cruz — has coincided with a fundraising boom for several Texas Democrats running in U.S. House seats this year. Yet some candidates for the state Legislature think donors' excitement about flipping Congress has crowded out support for lower-ballot races.
Crosby estimated a candidate running for a competitive seats in an urban Texas Senate district may need $2.5 million for the midterms. Nathan Johnson, a Democrat challenging Republican state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, raised $360,000 between the March 6 primaries and June 30. Though he declined to say how much he’s raised since then, he said his campaign is “on track fundraising-wise, but still has a lot of work to do.”
“There’s a great allure and a sex appeal to federal races that I think largely comes from all of us reading the national newspapers,” he said. “People regard state politics as lower office or less important. In terms of competing for money, we have to overcome less spotlight and the presumption that these are inexpensive races.”
Even some Republicans consultants think down-ballot candidates have reason to worry about the focus on O’Rourke’s campaign against Cruz.
“If I were the Democrats, I’d be putting a lot more energy into competitive state House and state Senate races and stuff down the ballot. They have a real opportunity,” said Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based GOP strategist. “But that’s what happens, right? These big races do take up a lot of the time and energy of the volunteers and the money of the donors, and it’s going to be really, really difficult for any Democrat to win statewide — even O’Rourke.”
“So if I was a Democrat, I’d be saying, “I’m a state House candidate. I’ve got a shot to win. This race is competitive and if I just had $50,000 of what O’Rourke got, I can probably win this thing,” he added.
Yet for all the frustration some Democrats may have at being overshadowed by O’Rourke, many candidates are also using it to their advantage whenever possible.
Julie Johnson said she recently recruited nearly 100 volunteers at a local O’Rourke rally. Ana-Maria Ramos, a Democrat challenging Republican state Rep. Linda Koop of Dallas, said she’ll reach out to voters in her district who already have O’Rourke’s yard signs — like Cattanach has already done with some success in a nearby district.
“I’ll take the movement because we need the energy. God, we need the energy at the top. Imagine if we didn’t have him. Who else would be our energy?” Cattanach asked. “I need him to be energetic and to do everything he can to excite our midterm nonvoters because it helps me.”
Since the primaries, Cattanach has raised more than $100,000. Like her success in targeting those with O’Rourke signs in their yards, she’s also hitting up the broader pool of donors to the El Paso Democrat.
“All of Beto’s financial reports are public, so we call his donors in House District 108 and remind them that the down-ballot candidate is here. The message that we send is that if you want Beto elected, then you need to elect me too,” she added.
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.