Texas’s primaries are only 9 months away. Whom the primaries produce as the Republican and Democratic nominees for Governor of Texas could have a profound impact on the outcome of the presidential elections of 2024 and 2028. Whoever wins the Texas governorship in 2022 will have a major shot at his party’s presidential nomination in 2024 or 2028. The two Texans most likely to win the governorship next year are Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke. Both have presidential ambitions. Each will win a greater chance of winning the White House should he first win the governorship in 2022.
The office of state governor is the most important stepping stone to the American presidency. Of the 45 men who’ve made it to the White House, 16 served as their states’ governors at some point in their careers. For 9 presidents, the governorship was the last office they held before their election to the presidency. In contrast, 14 presidents were once vice presidents, but 8 entered the White House on the deaths of their predecessors. Only 6 were directly elected to presidency after completing full terms as vice president. And while 17 presidents were once senators, only 3 won direct election to the presidency from the senate. It is as the successful chief executive of a major state that a would-be president can best command the resources necessary for a presidential run, and can best show that he has both the ability and experience to be president.
And whoever wins the Texas governorship will be able to show not only his executive abilities, but his ability to keep Texas red or turn it purple, if not blue. This latter ability will make him especially important in presidential politics.
For decades, Texas has been ignored in presidential politics because it is deep red. Democrats and Republicans alike have paid little attention to Texas because presidential election results in the Lone Star State have been seen as foregone conclusions. But Texas has seen Democratic gains in 2018, the narrowing of Republican victory margins in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, and the shrinking percentage of the Republicans’ Anglo base since 1990. These have all made both Republican and Democratic strategists believe that Texas will once again become a pivotal state in future presidential elections. Each party’s strategists should soon realize, if they have not already done so, that the outcome of the presidential election in Texas will no longer be a foregone conclusion. They should want to work harder to win Texas’s loyalty. And there’s no better way to increase the probability that a pivotal state will support a given party’s presidential candidate than to make the state’s governor its presidential nominee.
So consider Greg Abbott. He’s not yet explicitly said he plans to seek the GOP presidential nomination. He claims he wants to wait until after his probable re-election in 2022 before making a final decision on the presidency. But he’s not ruling out a presidential bid either. Given the growing possibility that Texas may someday go blue in a presidential contest, Republicans may well consider making Abbott their presidential nominee in the expectation that his popularity in Texas would keep Texas red.
Should a Democrat be elected governor of Texas in 2022, he (or she) will almost certainly have a great chance to win a Democratic presidential nomination too if not in 2024, should President Biden decide to seek re-election, then in 2028, when Biden will be term-limited out of office. Of all the possible Democratic gubernatorial candidates, none is currently attracting more attention, or has a better chance of winning the governorship, than Beto O’Rourke. He’s not yet declared for the governorship, but he’s certainly the best known of any Democrat, which makes him the odds-on favorite to win the nomination, should he choose to seek it. And should O’Rourke go on to win the governorship itself, he will have proven that he’s one Democrat who can win in Republican Texas. Democrats will begin to see him as a possible presidential nominee in the hope that if he can win in Texas, then the Democrats, with O’Rourke as its presidential nominee, can win Texas’s electoral vote for the first time since 1976.
Neither Governor Abbott nor prospective Governor O’Rourke is guaranteed the presidency. There’s always the unexpected. Other established national figures—former President Trump or current Vice President Harris, for example—can be expected to do their best to upset the plans of rivals seeking the White House. Or somebody not yet known to the general public could emerge out of nowhere to become a major presidential candidate. But given the office of governor as a pathway to the presidency, and given the potential revival of Texas as a pivotal state in presidential politics, the nomination and election of the Governor of Texas next year could be among the first, and most important, opening rounds in the contests for the presidency this upcoming decade.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.