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Beto O’Rourke’s bid for governor of Texas faces a big challenge: A state pushed to the right by Trump

Former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke announced his campaign for Texas governor in a video posted to Twitter on Nov. 15. (Video: Beto O'Rourke via Storyful)

Just as Democrat Beto O’Rourke on Monday announced his campaign for Texas governor, his party endured another painful reminder of its standing in the state as a 19-year Democratic lawmaker from the Rio Grande Valley bolted to the GOP.

The defection of state Rep. Ryan Guillen, driven by a redrawing of his district, underscored just how different the political environment has become since 2018, when O’Rourke gained national attention as a U.S. Senate candidate who came within three percentage points of defeating Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).

Back then, O’Rourke was able to gain national attention as a high-energy, fresh face who raised millions of dollars and campaigned tirelessly during a Democratic wave election on the promise of taking politics beyond tired partisan tropes. Even his loss proved potent enough to conjure for Democrats the possibility of Texas as a swing state and to prompt his brief presidential campaign.

But the state has since turned decidedly in favor of Republicans, with polls showing President Biden’s popularity in the 30s and Democrats losing a second statehouse seat this month in a special election where O’Rourke campaigned for the loser. The man he would be up against next year, two-term Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, sided with the winner.

O’Rourke, a former congressman from El Paso, also now faces the prospect of running as a known quantity who staked out far-left positions in his failed presidential bid that could become a drag as he seeks out swing voters.

In an interview with The Washington Post Tuesday, O’Rourke pointed to strong fundraising numbers within 24 hours of his campaign announcement as evidence that all, perhaps, is not lost for Democrats in Texas.

“We’ve had thousands of people make a donation … from across the state of Texas,” he said. “We’ve had thousands of people sign up to volunteer in this campaign, to knock on doors, to write letters … So that’s encouraging.”

In a video announcement Monday, O’Rourke again appealed to grass-roots energy and post-partisan governance, saying Abbott had failed to address the needs of Texans when the state electricity grid failed in February and instead had focused on cultural clashes with Democrats.

“[Texans] were abandoned by those who were elected to serve and look out for them,” O’Rourke, 49, 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.”

Abbott, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, fired back immediately by highlighting the liberal positions O’Rourke has taken since his 2018 campaign — advocating the forced buybacks of semiautomatic guns and removing the southern border wall, while praising the calls by Black Lives Matter activists to redirect police funding.

“This is not a year for a progressive Democrat to try out a new gig,” Abbott’s campaign consultant Dave Carney said. “We are going to remind people of all the crazy stuff he said.”

Although Abbott, a staunch ally of former president Donald Trump’s, is popular in the state, his approval rating fell after the deadly electrical blackout and during the pandemic. Texas’s failure to winterize its power-generating systems was partly blamed on Abbott’s leadership and the Republican-led state legislature’s lack of regulations on the operator of the state’s electrical grid. As for the pandemic, Abbott lately has been increasingly focused on opposing mask and vaccination mandates, drawing criticism. The pandemic’s toll in Texas exceeds 71,000, ranking it the 21st-highest state for deaths per 100,000 people.

And although Abbott has Trump’s endorsement, he still faces multiple primary challenges from the right, including from former Florida congressman Allen West and businessman Don Huffines.

Yet Democrats have still fared worse in recent months. A late October poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune found that 55 percent of voters in the state disapproved of President Biden’s job performance and that nearly two-thirds disapproved of how Biden had handled immigration and border security. By contrast, 51 percent described the Republican-controlled state government as a “good model for other states to follow.”

In a hypothetical head-to-head contest, O’Rourke had 37 percent support in the governor’s race, compared with 46 percent for Abbott.

O’Rourke praised Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure deal and said he doesn’t believe the president’s agenda will hurt his chances in Texas. The deal, he said, will expand broadband Internet in Texas, pour billions into the state’s transit projects, and fund repairs to its water system.

“Of course, we’d like to see more [progress] on issues like voting rights, where there’s not been enough made so far; of course, we’d like to see a rewrite of our immigration laws that, that listens to the people of Texas,” he said.

More evidence for Republican momentum has come in statehouse moves. This month, Democrats lost a state House seat they had held in the Hispanic San Antonio region in the special election that pitted the O’Rourke-backed Democrat Frank Ramirez against the winner, John Lujan, who enjoyed the backing of Abbott.

In announcing his defection, Guillen, who is Hispanic, blamed what he perceived as the drift of the national Democratic Party.

“The values of Washington, D.C., Democrats are not those of HD-31 and not those of most Texans,” said Guillen, who opposes abortion and supports fossil fuel development.

Aaron DeLeon, the vice president of Associated Republicans of Texas, said he expected to see more Democratic losses throughout the Rio Grande Valley next year, following on Trump’s surprising strength among Hispanic voters in that region during the 2020 election. Trump won Guillen’s current district by 13 points in 2020, when Guillen won reelection by 17 points as a Democrat.

“We are seeing trends that are contrary to what the Democrats thought,” DeLeon said. “In this Ryan Guillen district, a lot of the employment there is oil- and gas-related.”

But Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa dismissed the Guillen defection and the special election loss as signs of a coming sweep, saying that Guillen’s hand was forced by Republicans in Austin drawing him into a more conservative district and that Democrats have a harder time turning out voters in special elections.

“There was a shift in votes in the presidential election, and that had a lot to do with Trump,” he said. “We are doing what we can to shore up the support that Democrats have in South Texas.”

O’Rourke’s candidacy, Hinojosa said, could mean good things for Democrats down the ballot by increasing turnout.

“Anytime you have at the top of the ticket someone who has not just state name I.D. but national name I.D. and the ability to raise substantial money in his campaign and has a history of turning out the base in unprecedented numbers, it is a good thing for our party,” Hinojosa said.

Other Texas observers said Abbott’s moves to the far right might not be palatable to moderate voters in the state.

“There’s always that theory that he keeps running so far to the right for national aspirations that he could alienate some of the Republican folks who are like, ‘Okay, this is too much,’ ” said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, assistant dean for civic engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

O’Rourke is the highest-profile Democrat to enter the race for the Democratic nomination for governor, which will be decided in a March 1 primary. Actor Matthew McConaughey, a native Texan, has long said he’s interested in running for the office but hasn’t launched an official campaign or said whether he would run as a Republican or a Democrat. No Democrat has held the governorship since Ann Richards left office in 1995 after failing to win a second term in race against George W. Bush.

Beto O’Rourke quits presidential race amid financial strains and lagging popularity

A race between O’Rourke and Abbott probably would be one of the most expensive gubernatorial races of the 2022 cycle. Abbott has $55 million in cash in his campaign account, according to state filings.

In October, Abbott released an online ad against the Democrat, titled “Wrong Way O’Rourke.” The ad cites a 2019 presidential debate in which O’Rourke told voters, “hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” O’Rourke’s endorsement of a mandatory federal buyback of semiautomatic rifles came after a racially motivated mass shooting with an AK-47 style gun at an El Paso Walmart in which 23 people were killed.

In the Post interview, O’Rourke said that Abbott’s “extreme policies” — ranging from an abortion ban to allowing guns to be carried without permits — “are deeply unpopular and really hurting” Texas.

“But none of that compares to his failure when it comes to the pandemic response … and then the failure to ensure that the power grid would work,” O’Rourke said. “That is all on Greg Abbott, and the people of Texas know that.”

O’Rourke named Nick Rathod, a Virginia political consultant and former deputy director of intergovernmental affairs in the Obama White House, as his campaign manager. O’Rourke hit the campaign trail immediately Monday, holding a roundtable event on health care in Fort Stockton, Tex. He plans to visit essential workers in San Antonio on Tuesday.