(Headline USA) Twice-failed candidate Beto O’Rourke is running next year for governor of Texas, pursuing a blue breakthrough in America’s biggest red state after disappointing losses in 2018 and in the 2020 Democrat presidential primary.
O’Rourke’s announcement Monday kicks off a third run for office in as many election cycles. Although the Left claimed his star-making U.S. Senate campaign in 2018 put him closer than anyone else in decades, the landscape now looks drastically different.
Not only is he regarded as a known entity with far less mystique surrounding him, but he has the aura of failure to contend with, a considerable amount of personal baggage that was unearthed in his prior race.
He burst into the 2020 Democratic presidential primary as a party phenomenon but dropped out just eight months later as money and fanfare dried up, largely due to his own failure to capitalize on it.
Moreover, following years in which Democrats used the Trump presidency to their advantage, the trend line now appears poised to shift back in favor of conservatives.
With their own failed leadership under the Biden administration, what once seemed visionary may ring hollow and cynical in the ears of jaded and fed-up voters.
“It’s not going to be easy. But it is possible,” O’Rourke said in an interview with The Associated Press ahead of his announcement. “I do believe, very strongly, from listening to people in this state that they’re very unhappy with the direction that [Gov.] Greg Abbott has taken Texas.”
Abbott, a Republican, is seeking a third term and has put Texas on the vanguard of red-state resistance to the Biden administration’s aggressive overreach, emerging as a national figure.
O’Rourke’s return sets up one of 2022’s highest-profile—and potentially most expensive—races for governor. Dark-money oligarchs have previously invested billions in failed efforts to flip the state in previous election cycles, and they are not likely to relent any time soon given what is at stake.
Still, O’Rourke is coming back an underdog. Although the state’s growing population of Latino, young and college-educated voters is a good for Democrats, the party’s spending blitz in the 2020 presidential election left them with nothing.
The outlook for Democrats nationwide is even worse heading into next year’s midterm elections. Texas has not elected a Democratic governor since Ann Richards in 1990. And the latest round of redistricting helped bolster Republicans’ standing in booming suburban districts that have been drifting away from the party.
O’Rourke, 49, will have to win over not only hundreds of thousands of new voters but some of his old ones. When O’Rourke lost to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz by just 2.5 percentage points, Abbott won reelection by double digits that same year, reflecting a large number of Texans who voted for O’Rourke and for the GOP governor.
That crossover appeal was a hallmark of a Senate campaign propelled by energetic rallies, ideological blurriness and unscripted livestreams on social media. But as a presidential candidate, O’Rourke molded himself into a liberal champion who called for slashing immigration enforcement and mandatory gun buybacks.
In one pronouncement heard far and wide in firearm-friendly Texas, O’Rourke declared: “Hell, yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15.”
“I don’t think that’s gonna sell real well,” Abbott said in January.
In the interview, O’Rourke signaled he’ll try to reclaim the middle in his bid for governor. He blasted Abbott for a “very extremist, divisive” agenda that caters to the hard right.
Asked about gun control, he said he does not believe Texans want to see their families “shot up with weapons that were designed for war.”
But he pivoted quickly to slamming Abbott abolishing background checks and training for concealed handgun permits, gun regulations that once had bipartisan support.
O’Rourke argued that the broad coalition of voters that powered his near-upset in 2018, which included Republican moderates, could be formed again.
“What I’m going to be focused on is listening to and bringing people together to do the big work before us,” he said. “And obviously that first big job is is winning this election. But the voters and the votes are there.”
O’Rourke officially announced his candidacy in a two-minute video, in which he directly speaks to the camera and criticizes a GOP agenda that he says ignores things voters “actually agree on,” such as expanding Medicare and legalizing marijuana. “Those in positions of public trust have stopped listening to, serving and paying attention to the people of Texas,” he said.
O’Rourke isn’t the only one in the race out to regain his footing in Texas.
For most of his six years in office, Abbott has had an aura of political invincibility. But his job approval rating has slipped as Democrats focus their attacks on him and paint him to be a polarizing figure. Abbott aggressively bucked the Biden administration’s pandemic policies, angering some of Texas’ largest schools and employers by banning mask and vaccine mandates.
Despite a raft of conservative policy victories, Abbott faces pressure from the right flank of his party. Two high-profile conservative challengers—former Florida congressman Allen West amd former Texas state Sen. Don Huffines—are among those who have launched primary challenges.
Still, the Texas governor enters the race with a $55 million campaign war chest, the biggest of any incumbent governor in the country.
“The last thing Texans need is President Biden’s radical liberal agenda coming to Texas under the guise of Beto O’Rourke,” Abbott spokesman Mark Miner said following O’Rourke’s announcement. “The contrast for the direction of Texas couldn’t be clearer.”
Trump’s was a narrow victory by Texas standards, 5.5 percentage points, a closer finish than his win in the storied battleground of Ohio. For deflated Democrats, it was proof that Texas is turning—albeit painfully slowly.
However, strong and demostrable evidence of vote fraud has since emerged in Harris County, the area surrounding Houston, where several Democrat leaders overseeing the election efforts have been investigated.
The party struggled for months to identify a challenger to Abbott, resulting in a “Beto or bust” plan reflecting the enduring skepticism even in their own ranks. No other Democrats have entered the race or have flirted with challenging Abbott.
Actor Matthew McConaughey, who lives in Austin, has teased a run for governor for months but has not said whether he would make one as a Republican or a Democrat.
McConaughey drew public attention last week for coming out in opposition to mandatory vaccines for children—a break in the ranks with leftist dogma that could signal potential vulnerabilities that persuaded O’Rourke that it was decision time.
Any shot for O’Rourke will require at least a touch of the magic of his Senate run against Cruz, when the onetime punk rocker from El Paso won over suburban moderates and road-tripped to the reddest of Texas’ 254 counties. He said he will again show up in tough places for Democrats, who for decades have failed to translate torrid growth and demographic shifts in Texas to a path out of the political wilderness.
Supercharged Texas has boomed to nearly 30 million people over the last decade and has five of the nation’s 12 largest cities. Texas’ explosive growth is driven almost entirely by new Latino and Black residents, traditionally Democratic voters, and Democrats say those demographic shifts combined with fatigue over crises and GOP culture wars could drive Abbott out of office.
But the numbers tell a different story—with Hispanics in some Democrat Texas districts having trended Republican in elections this year and last, largely due to Democrats’ failures to control the border.
Republicans have mocked O’Rourke as overhyped since he dropped out of the presidential race. One of O’Rourke’s first projects after ending his White House bid—leading a charge to flip the Texas House—failed to pick up a single additional seat for Democrats.
Still, it began a reboot for O’Rourke, who teased his run for president with a cover story in Vanity Fair and soul-searching blog posts but has spent much of the past 18 months as a party activist and organizer. He knocked on doors along the Texas-Mexico border to sign up new voters and led a nearly 30-mile march to the state Capitol.
He has also proved that he can still tap into a large network of donors, who fueled his record $80 million in fundraising during his Senate campaign.
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press