HOUSTON – Beto O’Rourke entered the Texas gubernatorial race on Monday, challenging an ultra-conservative and well-funded two-term Republican nominee in a long-running bid to win a post the Democrats last held in 1995 .
Mr. O’Rourke’s arrival immediately set the stage for a political showdown next November over the future of Texas at a time when the state – with its expanding cities and diverse population – is increasingly in addition to gain.
Mr. O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has been a darling of Texas Democrats and party activists since his run against Senator Ted Cruz in 2018. Although ‘he lost the Senate race by nearly three percentage points, the fact that he nearly toppled the incumbent Republican Senator turned Mr. O’Rourke into a national figure and convinced many Democrats that the state was about to turn blue.
His campaign hopes to rekindle that enthusiasm as it attempts to topple Greg Abbott, the Republican governor who seeks re-election for a third term. A recent public poll found Mr. O’Rourke to be nearly tied with Mr. Abbott in a hypothetical game, and another showed him losing by nine percentage points.
“Those in positions of public trust have stopped listening, serving and paying attention – and trusting – the people of Texas,” O’Rourke said in a video announcing his campaign released Monday. He opposed Texas Republicans’ “extremist policies” that limited abortion and extended gun rights to positions he said he would support, including extending Medicaid and legalizing marijuana. .
And the video sought to recapture the anger felt by Texans when the state’s power grid failed in February. “It’s a symptom of a much bigger problem that we have in Texas right now,” he said.
But Democrats also saw their history of political change in Texas complicated by the 2020 election results.
Former President Donald J. Trump won the state by nearly six points and gained ground for Republicans among Hispanic voters in the Democratic stronghold of the Rio Grande Valley. Republicans also held the state House of Representatives despite a concerted effort by Democrats to overthrow control. And Republicans had an electoral lock on the governor’s mansion that stretched for nearly three decades. The last Democrat to serve as governor was Ann Richards, who won the election in November 1990 and served from January 1991 to January 1995.
The 2022 race will take place in a national context that favors Republicans, including an economy that is still struggling to bounce back after the pandemic and a Democratic president whose popularity is collapsing. And after the failure of his own presidential campaign, Mr. O’Rourke faces the challenge of demonstrating to voters in Texas that he is focusing on the issues of the state, not the national spotlight.
His advisers seemed aware of the need to remind voters of the action taken by Mr. O’Rourke in Texas, especially after the winter storm that led to the devastating blackout in February. Mr O’Rourke solicited donations for storm victims, organized welfare checks for the elderly and delivered water from his van.
His organization, Powered by People, has also helped register voters – nearly 200,000 since late 2019, according to the campaign – and Mr O’Rourke has raised around $ 700,000 to support Texas House Democrats after many fled to Washington to block a restrictive law. new voting measure which was finally adopted.
He also used his platform to push for pandemic-related public health measures like those supported by local Democratic leaders in Texas, unlike Mr Abbott, who banned warrants for masks or vaccines .
The campaign’s message, his advisers said, is that Mr. O’Rourke has been there for Texans while Mr. Abbott has shifted his own political ambition and the demands of Republican primary voters to the needs of ordinary people.
In the video, Mr. O’Rourke, who is fluent in Spanish, made his announcement from the predominantly Hispanic border town of El Paso, where he grew up and now lives.
Democrats had been urging Mr. O’Rourke to get into the race for months, and he had started to seriously consider doing so at the end of the summer as he called out the state’s Democratic leadership. In addition to giving them a chance to visit the governor’s mansion, Democrats are hoping Mr. O’Rourke’s presence at the top of the list will increase turnout and help Democratic candidates in ballot races across Texas.
With just under a year of the election, no other top Democrat has entered the race, leaving Mr Abbott’s advisers to view a series of messages attacking Mr O’Rourke as too extreme for Texas. They will likely focus on the comments he made about guns and the border wall during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
“Republicans didn’t need a lot of reasons to come forward and have intensity, but it’s going to push it,” said Matt Mackowiak, political consultant in Austin and chairman of the Republican Party in Travis County, saying reference to Mr. O’Rourke entering the race. “It will be kryptonite for Democrats in suburban areas, and it will be fuel for Republicans in rural areas.”
Long before Mr. O’Rourke’s announcement, the governor’s campaign began running digital ads featuring montages of those statements, including one from a 2019 debate that came to define what some political observers in Texas consider Mr. O’Rourke’s uphill battle in the state. .
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“Hell yeah, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” Mr. O’Rourke said, to the applause of the crowd.
At the time, his presidential campaign promoted a shirt with these words. His campaign in Texas is set to take a different turn. Aides said Mr O’Rourke is calling for an extension of background checks.
Although he never won statewide in Texas – no Democrats have since 1994 – he remained one of the few Democrats with enough fundraising prowess. and statewide campaigning ability to take on Mr. Abbott, a former Texas attorney general who oversaw a dramatic turnaround. right in the state and has a campaign war chest of nearly $ 60 million.
Democrats’ eagerness to find someone to challenge Mr Abbott sparked interest in seeing actor Matthew McConaughey enter the race. Mr McConaughey has tentatively stated that he “measures” to do so, but has yet to make any announcements.
For his part, Mr Abbott recently highlighted his efforts to restrict the way race and gender are taught in schools, an apparent nod to the unexpected success of Republicans in Virginia, where Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, won the governor’s race with a similar focus on schools. Mr Abbott has also regularly drawn attention to his efforts to expand the presence of law enforcement and National Guard troops at the border.
The Abbott campaign responded to the ad by visually linking Mr. O’Rourke to President Biden – in a slowly transforming image of both of their faces – and in a statement that attacked Mr. O’Rourke for supporting the ” pro-open border ”of the Biden administration. Strategies. ”
“The last thing Texans need is President Biden’s radical liberal agenda coming to Texas under the guise of Beto O’Rourke,” campaign spokesperson Mark Miner said in the statement. .
The race for governor was likely to take place on two grounds in the state: its expanding suburbs, particularly on the outskirts of Austin, Houston and Dallas, and along the border with Mexico.
Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign envisioned an aggressive organization on the ground, going door-to-door in places like South Texas, where a lack of in-person campaigning appeared to have hurt Democrats in 2020. Mr. O ‘Rourke was expected after his announcement to make his first campaign in the South Texas border region.