Running a guy who proudly declares he’s coming for the guns in a state that embraces the motto “Come and Take It” seems like an absurdly idiotic idea on the surface. But the political calculation for Texas Democrats backing Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke’s gubernatorial campaign is this: there are more voters angry and upset about Republicans passing Constitutional Carry than voters who are turned off and appalled by Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke’s quest to criminalize the ownership of the most commonly-sold rifle in the United States.
In theory, it’s a plausible hypothesis. Here’s what Democrats are looking at that gives them hope.
But in 2019, a poll found that there were more Texans who said they supported a mandatory buyback program to turn in all assault weapons than those who opposed it. Nearly half of Texans supported the buyback program, while about 29% said they opposed it, according to a poll by the University of Texas at Tyler. The rest of the respondents either were neutral or unsure.
A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll from October 2019 found that 59% of Texas voters support a nationwide ban on semiautomatic weapons, compared to 33% who oppose the policy. The approval rating included 86% of Democrats, 56% of independents and 35% of Republicans.
For Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at UT, the idea that O’Rourke is in “grave danger” with Texans on the issue of gun control is overly simplistic.
In fact, Blank said Republicans pushing gun legislation in the first legislative session after the El Paso shooting may have given O’Rourke an “entry point” on the issue.
Some 55% of voters polled in October said they disapproved of a new Texas permitless carry law that allows most Texans to carry handguns without training or a license.
“In a vacuum, Beto’s comments certainly create a challenge for him in Texas,” Blank said. “But considered in the context of the Legislature passing permitless carry, which has majority opposition, and in the first legislative session after the mass shootings … I think it is a conversation that Beto is willing to have.”
Here’s the biggest problem for O’Rourke; polls don’t vote. Universal background checks that polled incredibly well in Maine back in 2016, for instance, ended up being rejected by voters on Election Day. Heck, in Virginia polling routinely shows majority support for various gun control laws, but Democrats got shellacked in our recent elections, in large part because rural gun owners flocked to the polls and cast their vote against Terry McAuliffe and his support for a ban on so-called assault weapons.
Polls can’t always measure the voter intensity of particular issues, and I’d bet that Texans who say protecting the Second Amendment is a key issue for them far outnumber those who say that banning guns is one of their top priorities. I believe that if Texas voters have to choose between the candidate who decriminalized carrying a legally owned firearm without a license and the guy who wants to confiscate legally owned guns if they’re too big, black, and scary, even those who aren’t thrilled about Constitutional Carry are going to side with the candidate who “erred” on the side of too much freedom.
But even if Democrats are willing to disregard all that, there’s also the fact that gun control isn’t polling nearly as well today as it was in 2019. As my colleague Tom Knighton pointed out today, a new Gallup Poll has support for gun control at 52%, down 15 points from the 67% recorded in 2018. A Morning Consult/POLITICO generic congressional ballot poll released last week shows Republicans with a 7-point advantage over Democrats when it comes to who voters prefer on “gun policy.”
And there are signs that at least Democrats don’t think O’Rourke’s “Hell yes we’re coming for your AR-15” position is going to play well with voters in the Lone Star State.
Taylor County Democratic Party Chair Elizabeth Smyser said she hopes Texans interested in solutions to gun violence will have compassion for the spirit with which O’Rourke tackled this issue, noting the suffering he witnessed in El Paso. Smyser said while there may be some single-issue voters on guns that O’Rourke has lost, there is also a sizable “middle ground.”
“Those people in the middle that see and have heard the stories of all the gun violence and that are tired of kids getting mowed down in their classrooms or don’t want to see Latinos getting targeted again — there are a lot of people that feel that those things are far more extreme than what Beto said off the cuff in a moment of despair,” Smyser said.
I have some shocking news for Smyser: you can be opposed to any new gun control laws and still be bothered by violent crime. In fact, concerns over violence actually lead some people to become gun owners, as strange as that might seem to her and other Democrats. As for who voters in Texas are going to trust more with the safety of their children in school, if I were a suburban or rural Democrat running for office in the state I’d be as concerned about the Left’s strategy of “aggressively defending” Critical Race Theory as I would be about Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke’s continued embrace of a gun ban.
I believe it’s long past time for Democrats to “evolve” on the issue of the Second Amendment, but it doesn’t look like that evolution is going to happen in Texas, at least not before the 2022 elections are over. Maybe a good old fashioned drubbing at the polls will be enough to convince the party that a new direction is desperately needed, and in that respect, I guess Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke may be of some help.