Beto Wants to Make Texas Big Again

O’Rourke announces bid to take on Governor Greg Abbott, who is more unpopular than ever. But the former El Paso congressman is in for a much tougher fight than 2018.


Beto O’Rourke is running for Texas governor. That’s not exactly surprising, as the El Paso Democrat has been non-committedly telegraphing his intentions to do so for much of the past year. 

There’s not much more to be said about the former congressman, Senate superstar candidate, and then-failed presidential contender that hasn’t already been said—said, and said, and said again.

The race may be another longshot, and O’Rourke has his flaws. But the bottom line is that he likely provides Texas Democrats with their only realistic chance at knocking Governor Greg Abbott—who is more politically vulnerable than ever—off the perch he’s comfortably sat on for nearly eight years. 

With his campaign announcement on Monday, O’Rourke decried Abbott for his handling of the state’s deadly electric grid collapse this winter and for his divisive right-wing agenda that included laws effectively banning abortions through bounty-hunter enforcement and allowing permitless carry for handguns. These policies “really only divide us and keep us from working together on the truly big things that we want to achieve for one another,” O’Rourke said. “It’s a really small vision for such a big state. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And I know that together we can get back to being big again.” 

That’s the same sort of feel-good, idealistic—even saccharine—appeal that O’Rourke made to Texas voters in 2018. But things are a lot different than they were four years ago.

In 2018, his phenom Senate bid was fueled by huge anti-Trump headwinds and an unlikeable opponent in Ted Cruz. This time, he’ll be running against what are likely to be strong anti-Biden headwinds, and there’s no Trump on the ballot to spur turnout. Thanks in part to his presidential run last year, O’Rourke is also now a much more polarizing figure in the state; a whole lot of Texans have a negative view of him

Abbott has also lost a lot of his carefully curated luster that made him a popular, if somewhat unremarkable, statewide figure in the past. In 2018, he easily bested his perfunctory Democratic challenger Lupe Valdez. About half-a-million voters split their ballot for Abbott and O’Rourke. In recent months, Abbott’s once-bulletproof approval ratings have plummeted to new lows and a majority of Texans now believe the state is headed in the wrong direction. He presided over one of the deadliest energy crises in American history, then scapegoated wind turbines while letting his power natural gas allies off the hook with milquetoast reforms. He was more interested in passing a legislative agenda that would be extreme enough to outflank his right-wing primary challengers. And throughout the pandemic, Abbott has grown increasingly autocratic, aggressively using his sweeping emergency powers to ban mask and vaccine mandates in the public and private sector and to lock up migrants crossing the border in state-run jails.

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O’Rourke says he’ll be much more aggressive against his opponent in this campaign. That’s a departure from 2018. While Cruz railed against him as a left-wing radical intent on destroying Texas, O’Rourke largely refused to go on the offensive, sticking with his message of post-partisan unity and positivity. He didn’t use the enormous mountain of money he raised to run TV ads attacking Cruz until the final weeks of the race. 

O’Rourke now says he won’t hesitate to go on the offensive against Abbott on everything from the state’s new anti-abortion law, his crackdown on voting laws, and his kowtowing tobig oil and gas donors instead of fixing the grid. 

And then there’s the small matter of guns. O’Rourke’s political obituary in Texas was written by many when he announced a mandatory assault weapon buyback program in his presidential run. But O’Rourke isn’t retreating on that, saying in an interview with the Texas Tribune that he still thinks most Texans believe military-style weapons—like the one used in the El Paso massacre—shouldn’t be available to the public. 

Instead, he said Abbott’s new law allowing most Texans to carry a handgun without a permit or any training as an “extremist” stance that is out of step with the state. “What I think you’ll also find is most Texans reject Greg Abbott’s extreme, divisive policies when it comes to firearms, like signing the law for the permitless carry bill.”

Still, Abbott has been eagerly attacking O’Rourke for several weeks now in anticipation of his launch, saying his presidential campaign exposed his true “socialist” colors. “He is a part of the Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democratic Party, and that is hostile to the state of Texas,” Abbott said Monday at a political event in South Texas. “I welcome the challenge.”