AUSTIN, Texas — Four years ago in the U.S. Senate race, Beto O’Rourke was the darling of the Texas Democratic Party, energizing progressives across the country by positioning himself as a moderate pragmatist with a vision to turn Texas from a deep red state into a purple hue. After serving six years representing the El Paso region in the U.S. House, O’Rourke had earned a reputation for being a charismatic and gifted orator.
O’Rourke lost that race to Sen. Ted Cruz, by less than 3 percentage points. He then set his ambitions higher, running for the presidency in 2020, but failed to catch fire in the crowded field of Democrats.
Now, O’Rourke is running again — this time against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — hoping to drum up the same excitement that made him a household name four years ago.
“My lesson learned from ’18, from ’20 and from being a Texan, is that you gotta be there and meet people where they are,” O’Rourke told Xdigitalnews News last week at the Austin stop of his 20-city campaign tour ahead of next month’s primary. “And that’s the only way to run. It’s certainly the only way that we’re gonna win.”
The stakes are much different than when O’Rourke last ran to represent Texas. Indeed, an almost entirely new slate of political flash points have replaced the anti-Trump Democratic fervor of 2018.
In a case now before the Supreme Court, Texas has been at the forefront of a policymaking movement to restrict abortion access. The state has worked to ban local governments from implementing COVID mandates. Texas has made it harder for many communities to vote. And a new law makes it harder for schools to address race.
O’Rourke’s critics are likely to paint him as a liberal who went too far left for Texas during his failed presidential bid. But O’Rourke believes he can win by ignoring the national fray and staying grounded in the Lone Star State.
“We’ve gotta make sure that this election is about Texas and the people of Texas and not about Donald Trump or Joe Biden, or really anybody else,” O’Rourke said. “This is ours to decide, and what we’ve seen, and it’s been pretty clear, is that on any of the issues that matter to us, no one from outside of Texas is riding to our rescue.”
He has an uphill battle in his quest for the Austin statehouse. Biden’s middling approval ratings provide a much more ominous environment for Democrats than in 2018, when Trump’s unpopularity boosted the party’s fortunes.
And though Texas’s demographics are shifting and Abbott has charted his state on a sharp rightward course, the governor has largely avoided becoming a personal lightning rod for controversy. (Abbott did not respond to requests for comment.) Rumored to have presidential ambitions of his own, Abbott has further proven to be a prolific fundraiser; in January, his campaign announced a massive $65 million war chest. Meanwhile, O’Rourke’s team announced it had raised a solid $7.2 million since kicking off its campaign in November of last year.
Polling also gives Abbott a clear advantage at this stage of the race. The latest survey, released by the Dallas Morning News in late January, showed Abbott with an 11-point lead over O’Rourke. Notably, both candidates polled at about 40 percent among Hispanic voters, a critical constituency that O’Rourke will have to make inroads with to have a shot at unseating Abbott. In his unsuccessful race against Cruz four years ago, O’Rourke garnered an estimated 64 percent of Hispanic voters.
“In his past two gubernatorial races, Abbott has won between 40% and 45% of the Latino vote, and he is well on track to repeat this pattern in 2022, with our data projecting him to win somewhere between 40% and 45% again,” Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Austin, wrote in an email to Xdigitalnews News.
“Given Abbott’s strong support among white Texans, as long as Abbott can continue to win at least 35% to 40% of the Latino vote, Abbott and the GOP should be able to continue their statewide winning streak that dates back to 1996,” Jones wrote.
But O’Rourke is banking on his ability to motivate Texas Democrats outraged by the hard right turn of the state under Abbott and the GOP legislature.
At rallies across the state, O’Rourke has noted Texas’s rollback of initiatives meant to make it easier to vote. Amid Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged, Texas has joined other Republican-controlled states in setting new rules for mail ballots, early voting, drive-through voting, poll watchers and more. The changes disproportionately affect voters of color.
“Democracy is under attack,” O’Rourke said at his rally last Tuesday in Waco. “You see it nowhere more so than in the state of Texas.” He continued: “It is insulting to all of us, knowing how many Texans have been willing to risk, and in some cases have lost their lives, to defend and expand this democracy from just these kinds of attacks.”
O’Rourke has also pointed to Texas’s new abortion law, which is controversial even among some anti-abortion activists for its unique enforcement mechanism. The law, which effectively outlaws abortion after six weeks, uses lawsuits by private citizens to subject abortion providers to large financial penalties.
“We have a governor right now, who in addition to these crazy fringe policies of anyone being able to carry a loaded gun without a background check, … has refused to trust women,” O’Rourke said, also referencing a bill Abbott signed that allows Texas to carry handguns without a license.
Republicans are also likely to mention guns in the Texas gubernatorial race. During his 2020 presidential campaign, O’Rourke became an outspoken advocate of gun control, famously quipping during a debate: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15.” Republicans are likely going to highlight the provocative comment, which was made after a gunman targeting Latinos slaughtered 23 people in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.
Looking to not alienate even more voters, O’Rourke has since walked those comments back, saying last week that he’s “not interested in taking anything from anyone.”
In a more detailed explanation, he told Xdigitalnews News that there is middle ground in protecting the Second Amendment and public safety.
“Just like every Texan, I understand that we can both defend the Second Amendment and do a far better job of protecting the lives of those in our communities,” O’Rourke said. “Like most Texans, I grew up with guns. I grew up with not just learning how to fire and use them, but the responsibility that comes with owning them. I think that’s true for most of us in Texas. So let’s find the common ground on things like universal background checks or safe storage laws. These are things that not only Democrats, but Republicans support as well, gun owners and non-gun-owners alike. I think that’s the way forward.”
Another conservative mobilization effort across the state includes the shunning of school curriculum that’s been defined as “critical race theory,” or the idea that race is a social construct embedded in legal systems and policies. Abbott signed a law late last year to restrict the topic — and others — in public education. Under Senate Bill 3, “a teacher may not be compelled to discuss a … widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.”
An NBC News analysis found that parents have requested at least 50 books removed from public schools that deal with race, sexuality or gender, citing the “critical race theory” law, which GOP leaders in the state have championed as a way to discuss history in an “objective” manner. But O’Rourke sees the law as a way to duck painful truths about the former slave state.
“We should know the full story of Texas and the full story of the United States of America,” he said. “Not only our founding ideals and principles, but the way that those ideals and principles were often violated by the people who wrote them, or the fact that so much of the wealth and opportunity in this state was actually created by people who had no choice in the deal whatsoever. … If we don’t, then we’re trafficking in myths and things that just are not true.”
The Democrat is also hammering Abbott on an issue far from the nation’s culture wars: Texas’s privatized energy grid, which suffered a crippling failure in February 2021 during a storm. State officials say 246 people died across 77 counties. At a campaign rally in Austin, O’Rourke honored the lives lost.
“Tonight we remember those of us who we’ve lost over the last year, especially when the temperatures dropped, the wind chill was devastating and the lights wouldn’t turn on,” he said. “The water stopped flowing because the pipes had frozen, but it’s everyone else out there who knows that we can do better.”
“The Texas power grid is more reliable and resilient than it has ever been, and we are continuing to actively respond to the impact of this winter storm,” Abbott said in a statement earlier this month.
But O’Rourke clearly views the incident as a failure of the Abbott administration.
“And then here’s the punch line, although it’s not funny,” O’Rourke said at his Waco rally. “No matter the warnings before February of 2021, no matter the devastation, the loss of life and the loss of wealth across this great state, the governor has still refused to require those gas company CEOs to weatherize their part of the grid.”
About 500 Texans in total showed up to attend O’Rourke’s rallies between Waco and Austin last week, a far cry from the thousands that turned out when he held a dueling rally outside of a Trump rally in his hometown of El Paso in early 2019.
Xdigitalnews News spoke to a number of supporters, who were driven by scattershot issues.
“Texas is the future of the country, and we need to be honest about that and give ourselves a decent chance to turn Texas blue,” Waco resident Brian Maynard said.
“I like the way he takes care of Texas and takes care of Texans,” added Sandy Burleson of Waco.
“The biggest issue to me is voting rights,” said Julie Love of Austin. “If we can’t vote, nothing else matters. Democracy is gone.”
But for O’Rourke to win, something will have to change in the fundamental dynamics of the race. And at least some experts are skeptical that he will be able to accomplish that shift under what is expected to be a tough midterm election for Democrats.
“There is not much that can be done to make a great change,” Eric McDaniel, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin told Xdigitalnews News. “[O’Rourke] needs to pounce on Gov. Abbott’s missteps and hope it is enough to demobilize the governor’s supporters while energizing his base.”
The Republican Party, according to McDaniel, has been making all the right strategic moves in the state, while Democrats have faltered.
“Right now, Republicans are well mobilized and Democrats are not,” he said.
Jones, the Rice University pollster, agreed.
“At this point, barring either a massive misstep by Abbott or massive rebound in Biden’s approval ratings among Texans, the best Beto can hope for in November is a dignified loss where he keeps Abbott’s margin of victory in the high single digits and avoids the type of double-digit defeat that could represent an at least temporary death knell for his political career,” Jones said.
Despite the odds, O’Rourke is confident in his vision for Texas and believes it will be enough for voters to elect him as governor in November.
“[This is] for the future of this state,” he said. “We’re gonna come together, and we’re gonna do what it takes to make sure that we get Texas on the right track.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Xdigitalnews News; photos: Sergio Flores/Getty Images, Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images