Beto O'Rourke Hopes This Time Will Be Different in Battle for Governor Against Abbott

With reports that Beto O'Rourke is planning to challenge Governor Greg Abbott in 2022, Democrats in Texas and across the country are wondering if his third try at winning a major election could have a different outcome that his two previous high-profile losses.

O'Rourke caught fire in 2018, making Senator Ted Cruz sweat out the race, losing by just 2.5 points. But he flamed out in his run for president in 2020, failing to capture the imagination of voters despite efforts to bring similar energy to that candidacy.

If he ultimately decides to run, the former El Paso congressman would be facing an uphill battle in a bedrock red state that has voted Republican since 1980, while facing an incumbent governor with a $55 million war chest.

But there are signs Texas has changed since O'Rourke last ran statewide in 2018.

A poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas last month found that 52% of voters think the state is on the wrong track, the highest negative finding ever for the question, which the poll has tracked since 2009.

Texas has not lacked hardship since 2020, with pandemic deaths spiking during the summer and into the fall — while Abbott barred mask and vaccine mandates — along with power grid and infrastructure failures last winter.

A Quinnipiac poll last week also showed frustration with Abbott's leadership, with 51% saying he should not be reelected. But reflecting a "pox on both their houses" feeling among the state's voters, 50% of voters said they did not feel O'Rourke would make a good governor, while 49% said the same about actor Matthew McConaughey, who has said he is "measuring" a run.

Democrats who spoke with Newsweek said O'Rourke can win because he has hard data he didn't have before. For example, he knows which counties he did well in and where he needs to do better. That kind of information will be crucial, especially if O'Rourke plans to again visit every county in Texas, as he did four years ago.

They also believe the combination of demographic changes and Republican-enacted policies could serve as an elixir for his electoral fortunes, leading to a ground-shifting win.

One of the groups working to improve the landscape for O'Rourke is NextGen, a national group focused on the youth vote and young voters of color. The group just announced its $32 million budget for the 2022 cycle, almost half of which is being directed towards Texas, the third youngest state in the country.

That kind of investment will matter in a state where O'Rourke received 71% of the youth vote in 2018, but Biden was only able to garner 57% support, NextGen Executive Director Cristina Tzintzún told Newsweek.

"It's a significant dip when one in three eligible voters are under the age of 30," Tzintzún said. "When Beto ran, there was very little groundwork investing in young voters. But now NextGen alone will reach 2.5 million young people, who are likely progressive, that never would have been reached out to by any candidate or party."

Democrats said Abbott has given O'Rourke a huge opportunity with suburban women voters who might be political independents or would otherwise lean right, due his controversial new law effectively banning all abortions six weeks after conception.

"The trend is going towards a more progressive candidate because of the anti-woman legislation Republicans have been pushing," said Gilberto Ocañas, a former O'Rourke senior advisor during his senate campaign. "They've gone too far, and I don't see how women are not going to revolt."

Another expert said the state's recent hard right turn may create a backlash.

"The main thing that has changed is the extremity of it," said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, the assistant dean for civic engagement at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ school. "The last Texas legislative session, we've really seen stuff we've never imagined. That's the biggest chance for a Beto re-emergence."

Republicans countered to Newsweek that O'Rourke's past statements will ultimately sink his chances.

"I don't think Texas voters will go for a guy who says take away your guns, tax churches, and open the borders," John Wittman, Abbott's former communications director, told Newsweek. "I don't see his views lining up with the Texas electorate."

Artemio Muñiz, the chairman for Tejanos for George P. Bush, said Republicans learned lessons from Beto's campaign, like his strategy of going to all 254 counties, calling it a "wakeup call." Bush, he said, is now employing the same approach.

But he too agreed that voters will not be happy regarding his statements about "taking people's AR-15's and their guns."

"With conservative Tejanos, comments like that are going to cost him," he said.

Since Texas has enacted a stringent voting law critics say disproportionately affects voters of color, the spotlight will also be on how O'Rourke is able to excite a Democratic base that saw slippage in 2020, particularly with Latinos along the southern border.

Ocañas, who served as an advisor beginning in July 2018, said O'Rourke will have to penetrate more into minority neighborhoods to win next year.

"The popularity he had was amazing among Anglos," he said, "but not that enthusiastic among Hispanics and African Americans."

But it's clear that after a statewide loss O'Rourke has taken a page from Stacey Abrams. After losing her own race for governor in Georgia she immediately doubled down on registering voters, paving the way for Georgia to shock the country and turn blue last November, swinging the presidential election to Joe Biden.

It's the kind of under-the-radar work that leads to major change.

O'Rourke launched a PAC called Powered By People that is focused on registering and turning out Texas voters, and this summer he led a four-day voting rights march to the state capitol in Austin, which featured people like Willie Nelson and Rev. William Barber to protest against the proposed voting law.

Two days after the bill passed in September, O'Rourke launched a voter registration tool called Drive-to-You, which helps Texans register by sending volunteers to their house to help them.

"It's the presumed candidate actually using all the resources they've built since he last ran in 2018," San Antonio-based Democratic strategist Joaquin Guerra told Newsweek, making the comparison similar work by Abrams. "A rising tide lifts all boats."

Many Democrats in the state said the difficulty the party has had is that everyone sees the tall order of actually winning a race, but not everyone is willing to do something about it. The willingness to work and take the risk is why they believe in Beto.

"Nothing is going to change without doing the hard work of changing the electorate and getting potential swing voters to vote for Democrats," Guerra said.

Ocañas said it isn't about waiting for a magic moment.

"You can't wait for a major demographic shift," he said. "You have to persuade voters that you're the candidate that can win now."

To that end he said O'Rourke has to ask himself a simple question and communicate the answer to voters: What does his future hold if he doesn't win?

"If he cares about his political future after this he shouldn't run," Ocañas said. "He needs to run like it doesn't matter. If people sense he's weighing his options for later, he's in trouble. But if he's all in and people can feel that he gives a sh**, then he can win."

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke
Former United States Representative Beto O'Rourke speaks during the "Texans Rally For Our Voting Rights" event at the Texas Capitol Building on May 8, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Gary Miller/Getty Images