The Democratic meltdown in Virginia and closer-than-expected finish in New Jersey offered a taste of how brutal the midterms could be for the party next year.
But Beto O’Rourke — who can ill afford another loss — is going to take his chances anyway, announcing on Monday his long-anticipated campaign for Texas governor.
In a video on social media, the former congressman from El Paso, who had for months been laying groundwork for a campaign, cast the incumbent Republican governor, Greg Abbott, as a divisive politician focused on “extremist policies” surrounding gun rights, abortion and schools.
“This past February, when the electricity grid failed and millions of our fellow Texans were without power — which meant that the lights wouldn’t turn on, the heat wouldn’t run and pretty soon their pipes froze and the water stopped flowing — they were abandoned by those who were elected to serve and look out for them,” O’Rourke said. “It’s a symptom of a much larger problem that we have in Texas right now: Those in positions of public trust have stopped listening to, serving and paying attention to and trusting the people of Texas, and so they’re not focused on the things that we really want them to do.”
The race represents a comeback bid for O’Rourke, who became a Democratic sensation during his failed Senate run against Ted Cruz in 2018 but whose 2020 presidential primary campaign fell flat, with O’Rourke dropping out before the first votes were cast. Still, Democrats in Texas remain enamored of him, and the chair of the state Democratic Party, Gilberto Hinojosa, and other Democrats in Texas had been heavily lobbying O’Rourke to run.
O’Rourke will start the gubernatorial race at a disadvantage. A poll by the University of Texas at Austin and The Texas Tribune recently showed O’Rourke running 9 percentage points behind Abbott. The Republican governor is already sitting on a war chest of $55 million in a state where Donald Trump beat Joe Biden by nearly 6 percentage points last year and where the last Democrat to win the governorship was Ann Richards, more than a quarter century ago.
But Abbott’s job approval rating slumped amid the resurgence of the coronavirus, and O’Rourke’s advisers and other Democrats in Texas believe Abbott, as an incumbent, is a more vulnerable target than Republican Glenn Youngkin was in Virginia’s gubernatorial race this month.
Texas Democrats are banking on controversy surrounding state Republicans’ restrictive voting bill, as well as the state’s near-ban on abortion, which the Supreme Court allowed to go into effect earlier this year, to galvanize Democratic voters in the long-red state. And O’Rourke for months has been hammering Abbott for his handling of the state’s electric grid failure and coronavirus pandemic, including an executive order barring mask and vaccine mandates in the state.
“68,000 Texans have died from Covid on Abbott’s watch,” O’Rourke wrote on social media last month. “More will die as he prevents employers from protecting customers and employees. Abbott is killing the people of Texas.”
O’Rourke was widely considered the most credible candidate Democrats could run against Abbott, with a higher profile and stronger fundraising record than any other Democrat in the state. The party’s bench is relatively weak in Texas, and the few prominent Democrats other than O’Rourke — including the Castro brothers, Joaquin and Julián, and Lina Hidalgo, the Harris County judge — were not expected to run.
O’Rourke does not come without baggage. His support for mandatory buybacks of assault weapons during the 2020 presidential primary may damage him in a state with a deeply rooted gun culture. Republicans successfully yoked him to down-ballot Democrats in Texas to tarnish them in elections in Texas last year. Dave Carney, the Republican strategist who advises Abbott, has called O’Rourke “unelectable in Texas” and has said publicly for months that he hoped O’Rourke would run.
Last month, Abbott’s campaign began advertising against O’Rourke, highlighting his progressive positions on gun control, immigration, health care and climate change.
In 2018, O’Rourke came within 3 percentage points of toppling Cruz, while raising more than $80 million, and political strategists of both parties have said they expect him to be able to raise millions of dollars for the 2022 campaign from his massive list of small donors.
The race will serve as a test of many Democrats’ long-held belief that Texas, owing to its rapidly diversifying electorate, is on the cusp of turning blue. So far, there is little evidence it is. Though Democrats picked up 12 state House seats in 2018, Republicans two years later not only carried the presidential vote in the state, but also prevented Democrats from making gains down ballot. If Democrats can beat Abbott, it would not only upend politics in Texas, but significantly alter the nation’s electoral landscape, putting the largest red state in play in the presidential election two years later.
The stakes are equally high for O’Rourke. He has now lost two elections in a row, and many political professionals in Texas believed the most prudent option for him would have been to sit out the gubernatorial election and run instead against Cruz, a more polarizing Republican than Abbott, in 2024. He could still lose next year and run against Cruz, but a loss in the interim would likely weaken him.
O’Rourke insisted in an interview this summer that he was not making such calculations.
“You just never know until you’re in it,” he said. “Everyone said that Cruz was going to be impossible, and it wasn’t impossible, but you don’t know. If you wait until all of this pencils out or the stars align or the calculations are complete, then you’ll never do anything.”