A few days after announcing a record-breaking fundraising haul of nearly $30 million in the first half of 2022, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke hit the road in mid-July for an ambitious Texas barnstorming.
Seventy campaign events in over 65 counties, many in deep-red rural towns. Sweating through shirts in the dog days of a brutal summer. Rooms packed to the brim, preaching to and hearing from enemies, skeptics, and apostles alike. Polls indicating a tightening race. Sound familiar?
Unlike his 2018 Senate run, O’Rourke is no longer an unknown curiosity from far-flung El Paso. Tarnished by his own ill-advised presidential run and fighting unfavorable headwinds, his bid to deny Abbott a third term as governor is a steep one. But he can still muster some magic on the campaign trail. The Texas Observer caught up with him in Brenham, seat of firmly red Washington County, in early August to chat about abortion rights, immigration, and the path to power.
What lessons did you learn from your 2018 campaign?
I learned you can’t assume that people know everything about what’s going on in the state of Texas and who’s responsible for it. In 2018, I thought with Ted Cruz, he’s the best-known politician in Texas; everybody’s formed their opinion on this guy.
So we’re reminding people, why did the grid shut down? God didn’t do it. Mother Nature didn’t do it. Greg Abbott did it. Why are your property taxes up? It is Greg Abbott. Why do we keep having one mass shooting in the state after another? It is Greg Abbott. I’m going to make sure that everyone understands who’s responsible. I didn’t do a good job of that in 2018.
How do you plan to counter all the money that Abbott is gearing up to spend on ads blasting you all across the state?
We’ve got to anticipate that and, eyes wide open, realize that he’s very likely going to raise and spend well over $100 million.
Because we know that we will likely raise less, we’ve got to be that much more effective and efficient with dollars spent—whether it’s TV, paid media on other platforms, investing in organizers, [and door-knocking].
Many people split their tickets in 2018, voting for you as well as Abbott. Now, you’re looking to draw a stark contrast with a governor who you’ve said is willing to do anything to hold on to power—no matter how divisive or harmful. What’s changed?
It’s just clear now, after seven and a half years in power, that he’s unwilling or incapable of doing the right thing or doesn’t care about the consequences of his decisions.
So for that person who voted for Greg Abbott in 2018 and said this guy’s a middle-of-the-road Republican or a Texas Republican, they never bargained for a total ban on abortion or a total failure of our electricity grid, so I want to make sure they know they’re welcome to be with us. If you voted for Greg Abbott before, you are not part of the problem. No one would have thought it would have gotten this bad. But you do have a choice now to get us on the right track.
What could you get done as governor with a Republican-dominated Legislature that’s lurched so far right?
You saw, after Democrats exceeded every expectation in 2018, the session we had in 2019—it was one of the more moderate in recent memory. You saw when Democrats underperformed expectations in 2020, the 2021 session was one of the most vicious and cruel sessions that I can remember. We win in 2022 and the world changes in 2023.
They’ll see the returns on election night in November when choice was on the ballot as much as anything else, and they’ll recognize that if they want to get re-elected, they’ve got to come to the table and find a way to do better for the women of Texas. We’re going to fight for the full repeal of that trigger law and the full repeal of that six-week abortion ban. There’s a bipartisan basis in school funding, Medicaid expansion, and other things that I think we can find common ground on. The big agenda that I’m running on, I think we can get that done.
You’ve said you would continue parts of Abbott’s border security mission, Operation Lone Star, like state support for local law enforcement. What else would you keep?
I would never put a migrant on a bus to D.C. for a political stunt at taxpayer expense that does nothing to deter anybody else from trying to enter this country. I wouldn’t build any more of this wall that takes private property from our fellow Texans to do absolutely nothing in terms of improving our security—all at public expense. And I would end the involuntary activation of the 10,000 members of the National Guard. Eight have died so far. None of them have been killed by migrants or anybody coming in from Mexico. These are stunts.
What about ordering the Department of Public Safety to arrest and jail migrants on criminal trespassing charges?
We’ve seen in the Rio Grande Valley a 1,000-percent increase in tickets [for minor offenses, including traffic violations] written. Last year was the deadliest year on Texas highways [since 1981]. When you take these DPS troopers and you put them down there, there’s a real cost to that. Where you have a county sheriff or local law enforcement on the border say, “I really need some state help right now,” we should be there. I think there is a legitimate use for DPS in those cases. I think there may even be a legitimate use for some voluntary part of the Guard where they can assist.
But all that is going to be a Band-Aid. What we need is a solution. We haven’t had comprehensive immigration reform since Reagan was president. I think no state has a better chance of leading the national effort on this than Texas.
Is there a past governor or other elected official from Texas that you see as a model?
I think about Barbara Jordan, who expanded the Voting Rights Act in 1975 to include language minorities. I think about Ralph Yarborough, who was there for the little guy and the little gal and stood up to the corporations and special interests.
But I think about LBJ as maybe one of the most transformative people this state’s ever produced. That guy used that power and allowed himself to be moved by others who had different life experiences from him to do the right thing. He was not without his challenges and problems, but he really did begin to help make this a multiracial democracy. That’s the very thing that we’re losing and we’re losing it in no place faster than Texas right now.
You are 18 days into a 48-day tour around the state. How does this compare so far to the barnstorming of your Senate campaign?
We never did more than 32 days on the road at that time. So this is a much longer, harder push. Even though I’m older, I’m healthier. I run every single morning. I try to get some sleep. This woman just made us two big tins of cookies that we’re going to eat in the truck. So, you know, I feel good.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.