Analysis: Seeking election in Texas can be lonely, especially in the beginning

Last year's U.S. Senate race was unusual for a number of reasons, but especially because Beto O'Rourke, a mostly unknown challenger, managed to gain attention and raise money. This year, another group of candidates is trying to repeat the magic.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, announced this summer that he's running for the U.S. Senate against John Cornyn.

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*Correction appended

Running for office is hard. Even the people who endorse you don’t always show up.

First thing Monday morning, state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, held a news conference in Austin to announce that most of that city’s delegation to the state Legislature was endorsing his U.S. Senate bid. West is one of a growing pack of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican first elected to that office in 2002.

West is also the best-known candidate in that pack, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll of Democratic primary voters. But before you go bragging on him, you should recall the numbers: 22% of those voters said they recognized West’s name. That’s better than anyone else did, but it means that the best-known Democrat in the race to unseat Cornyn is unknown to 78% of the state’s Democratic voters.

Endorsements help, even if the endorsers don’t show up. State Rep. Celia Israel was there, and so were state Sen. Kirk Watson and his predecessor, former Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos. A handful of local officials made it, too. Honestly, it’s a good thing more of the Austin officials who are backing West didn’t make it to the Monday morning gathering; the front room of the Travis County Democratic Party’s headquarters is modest, and while fewer than two dozen people were there, the air conditioner was falling behind. A bigger crowd would have pushed the affair outside, saving the AC but ruining everyone’s fresh clothes.

Don’t take this as a shot at West; he’s just the example at hand. It’s hard to run for statewide office in Texas. West said as much Monday, noting that he’s been all over the state, then adding that the Panhandle is still on the list of places to go.

He’ll have to be on the road a lot. Like most of the other candidates who’ve expressed interest, he’s been on local ballots and is just introducing himself to many of the state’s voters. West was elected to the Texas Senate in 1992 and has held that seat ever since. He’s a power in the Senate, though Democrats are in the minority, but he has never run statewide.

It’s different, as he’s learning. So are most of the other Democratic candidates. Some examples: MJ Hegar ran for Congress in 2018 and is known to Central Texas voters; Amanda Edwards was elected, at large, to the Houston City Council; Christina Tzintzún Ramirez is a progressive political organizer; and Sema Hernandez ran and lost a low-key primary against Beto O’Rourke in 2018. Chris Bell, a former Houston City Council member and member of Congress, was the party’s nominee for governor in 2006, a contest remembered for its reality TV qualities, with Bell, Kinky Friedman, Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Rick Perry all running in the general election. But that was more than a decade ago, and Bell’s name ID among current Democratic voters was at 20% — just behind West and Hegar.

The head-to-head results were weak, too. Hegar was in front, with 11%, and everyone else was in single digits. The real winners were “haven’t thought about it enough to have an opinion,” at 53%, and “don’t know,” at 13%.

It’s brutal out there.

This is why O’Rourke mounted a campaign designed to get attention on his way to the Democratic nomination and a narrow loss to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz last year. Maybe a skateboard in a Whataburger parking lot will get their attention. Maybe going to each of the state’s 254 counties will do it. It helped that Cruz, the Republican incumbent, is as popular with Texas Democrats as the villains in professional wrestling.

That would have boosted any Democrat’s visibility. It’s less likely in Cornyn’s case. It’s not that the Democrats like him; it’s that they don’t disapprove of him with the same ardor they direct at Cruz.

It’s hard to remember, after that close finish and the astonishing fundraising, that O’Rourke’s was a very unusual campaign, if only because most people in the state could still name the loser when it was over. That almost never happens, which is why it’s so interesting when it does.

He was lucky, but he started the same way West and the others are starting: known locally, if at all. No money. Not much institutional support from the party. A few friends, but not a movement.

Lonesome.

Correction: Chris Bell was the Democratic Party nominee for governor in 2006; an earlier version of this column misstated the year.