If O’Rourke, or any Democrat vying for statewide office, is to win, persuading suburban voters will be essential. Fort Bend County, a sprawl of developments southwest of Houston, illustrates both the possibilities and the limitations of banking on the suburbs. The once rural area voted reliably Republican for half a century until, boosted by Houston’s supercharged growth, it more than doubled in population between 2000 and 2020, becoming one of the more diverse counties in the nation. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the first Democratic Presidential candidate to win Fort Bend since Lyndon Johnson. Two years later, O’Rourke doubled her margin, winning the county by about twelve points.
O’Rourke outperformed expectations in the suburbs, and his close loss to Cruz seemed to portend the long-awaited purpling of Texas, where no Democrat has been elected to statewide office since 1994. In 2020, Democrats made a splashy effort to win control of the Texas House, targeting twenty-two seats they considered vulnerable. One was in District 28, in Fort Bend, where a moderate Republican had just resigned, triggering a special election. Democrats spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the off-season campaign. Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren endorsed the Democratic candidate, Eliz Markowitz, and O’Rourke and Michael Bloomberg block-walked on her behalf. But Markowitz lost the special election by sixteen points and didn’t do much better in the regular election a few months later. Democrats needed to pick up nine seats to flip the House; they didn’t win a single new one. “Why did we not do better? I think Democrats were frankly outworked by Republicans,” O’Rourke told me, last week. “Democrats, in the middle of a pandemic, were literally phoning it in. And the Trump campaign, and Republicans statewide, were really hungry. That’s why what you see from us in 2022 is making sure that we go everywhere, earn every vote, write nobody off, and take nobody for granted.”
Even as Texas suburbs trend more competitive, they’ve become the sites of the state’s most vicious culture wars. Ultraconservative groups have successfully taken over ostensibly nonpartisan school boards in the North Texas suburbs and have said that they hope to expand elsewhere in the state. The big news in Fort Bend County the week I visited was about a mother in the city of Katy who’d filed a criminal complaint, citing a book in a high-school library that she considered “harmful.” (The book, “Flamer,” by Mike Curato, is a semi-autobiographical graphic novel about a closeted teen-ager at Boy Scout camp; it won a Lambda Literary Award in 2021.)
But Texas Republicans’ pandering to their radical fringe has offered O’Rourke an opportunity to position himself as the reasonable alternative, and the abortion law provides him with a particularly strong case. Eighty per cent of Texans, including more than seventy per cent of Republicans, support access to abortion for victims of rape and incest—for whom the law makes no allowance—according to the Texas Politics Project’s polling. O’Rourke is making an overt play for these voters, releasing a series of social-media posts featuring former Republican voters who have switched allegiance. “I’ve always been a bit more conservative-leaning, but I find his passion intriguing,” a middle-aged woman in a floral blouse told me, at an O’Rourke event in a San Antonio bookstore. When I asked her about the abortion law, she sighed. “That’s a hard one. For me to lean toward the middle on that is . . . ” she said, widening her eyes theatrically. “But I’ve come to see there are gray areas.”
In his campaign appearances, O’Rourke is emphasizing another area in which some of his views align with the majority of Texans’: gun restrictions. During its 2021 session, the legislature removed many limits on carrying firearms in public. In the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, perpetrated by a young man who bought two AR-style rifles days after his eighteenth birthday, O’Rourke has been pushing to raise the minimum age for buying such weapons to twenty-one. The idea is broadly popular in Texas, even with the notably conservative mayor of Uvalde, who is no fan of O’Rourke. Families of Uvalde victims, as well as the Uvalde city council and the school board, have asked Abbott to call a special session to enact the policy; so far, he has declined to. (O’Rourke is also advocating red-flag laws and universal background checks, which are likewise supported by a majority of Texans.)