Beto O’Rourke is raising hopes for Democrats in Texas again

MIDLAND, Texas – Once again, excitement surrounding Beto O’Rourke is growing.

The former presidential candidate, who is aiming to become Texas’ first Democratic governor in more than three decades, has made it cut Republican incumbent Greg Abbott cut the electoral margin in half. He comes from a historical fundraising period. By the count of his campaign, O’Rourke has already enlisted 79,000 volunteers to make calls and knock on doors ahead of Election Day.

However, with every fresh optimism comes a warning. Republicans have long ruled Texas and gained a foothold among Latino voters. Abbott remains an impressive fundraiser himself. And O’Rourke has come tantalizingly close before — his 2018 attempt to unseat Senator Ted Cruz made him a candidate for the White House — only to fail. At a rally here on Wednesday night, he walked into a packed auditorium to what he has occasionally adopted as an anthem: Spoon’s “The Underdog.”

But the many crises and raw political struggles of the moment – from the 2021 state power failure to the loss of abortion rights and the tragedies of gun violence, most recently in Uvalde – landed particularly hard in Texas. As O’Rourke set out on a 49-day road trip across the state this week, he and his supporters wondered if this year would be any different.

“There is no state more important than Texas in shaping America’s future,” O’Rourke told NBC News in an interview following the conclusion of the second day of the tour.

Some endorsement for that pitch came this week from California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a fellow Democrat who cultivates a higher national profile. Newsom placed ads in Texas newspapers to promote his new gun law, which will allow citizens to sue those who make or sell prohibited guns. The law is modeled after a bill signed by Abbott that would allow people to sue abortion providers.

O’Rourke’s 5,600 miles”Drive to Texas— derided as “The Driving Texas in the Wrong Direction Tour” by Abbott spokesman Mark Miner — aims to build on the momentum of recent weeks and recruit even more volunteers for the fall. The hike began Tuesday night with a mariachi band at a concert hall in the metropolitan city of El Paso, O’Rourke’s hometown, before continuing through west Texas.

On Wednesday, his Toyota Tundra drove deep into Donald Trump’s country, first into the tiny Pecos where some of the dozen in attendance had taken their lunch break to see him. From there it moved on to a crowd of more than 400 in the mid-sized Midland, the former home of both Presidents Bush and a county where Trump beat President Joe Biden by more than 55 percentage points in 2020.

Beto O'Rourke
Beto O’Rourke supporters hold campaign signs as they visit a town hall held as one of the stops on the Texas gubernatorial candidate’s “Drive for Texas” in Midland, Texas on Wednesday.Eli Hartman / Odessa American via AP

After his remarks at each stop, O’Rourke stayed for up to an hour to take photos – a free publicity strategy aimed at generating word of mouth on social media.

“He has an incredible opportunity,” Valerie Trujillo, a Pecos City Council member, said of O’Rourke after his event there. She recalled a visit during his 2018 Senate run, which was attended by far fewer people.

“People are beginning to see that real change is needed,” Trujillo said. “And the current government has done nothing to improve anyone’s quality of life.”

O’Rourke blames Abbott for policies or inactions that he says caused or worsened problems in Texas, particularly after the state’s power grid went out during a winter storm last year. This summer, in the middle record high temperaturesutility bills are rising and are Texans being asked Saving energy as fear of a second power failure grow.

“What happened to the Grid under the supervision of Greg Abbott says everything there is to know about this guy,” O’Rourke said in El Paso. “He’s Chaos. He is corruption. He is cruelty. And he is incompetence.”

Miner, Abbott’s spokesman, responded by calling O’Rourke’s rhetoric “out of joint” and accusing him of pursuing alarming policies while anticipating the disaster.

“He wants the lights out,” Miner said. “He’s basing his entire campaign on Texas failing.”

O’Rourke’s run this time features flashes of the alternately bold and serious candidate touting his presidential campaign on the cover of Vanity Fair and said, “Damn it, yes, we’ll take your AR-15” and other assault weapons.

The day after the Uvalde school shooting, he crashed an Abbott press conference and approached the stage to blame the governor’s pro-gun policy before police escorted him out. He still tries to present himself as hip, calling the mariachi band that opened for him in El Paso “f—ing amazing” and calling his mother “the OG, the original gangster.”

Democrat Beto O'Rourke interrupts a news conference led by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on May 25, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.
Democrat Beto O’Rourke interrupts a news conference led by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott May 25 in Uvalde, Texas. Liz Moskowitz for NBC News

But there are also hints of softer rhetoric and appeals to moderates, independents and the split-ticket voters who voted O’Rourke for Senate and Abbott for governor in 2018.

O’Rourke lost to Cruz that year by about 215,000 votes, or 2.6 percent. His trips this week drew protesters — a man with a “Biden Sucks” sign and Trump cardboard cutout ahead of the Pecos event, a small group of hecklers at the Midland rally — but also some curious Republicans.

“I don’t care who you voted for last time, I don’t care who you voted for this time,” O’Rourke said while attempting to de-escalate interference from a persistent heckler wearing a red Make America Great Hat again. “You’re welcome to be here, but you have to be cool.”

He promised to hand the microphone over to the man when it came time for questions from the audience. The heckler left a few minutes later.

O’Rourke is also more pragmatic about guns than he was in his “hell yes” days. He acknowledged to his audience that he still didn’t think people should own an AR-15 or AK-47, but he placed more emphasis on building consensus on red flag laws and reducing the buying age to 21 years to raise. And although O “Rourke praised elements of the Defund the Police movement in 2020, he told a voter who expressed support for the cause in Pecos on Wednesday that he was not “on an equal footing” with him, arguing that the police are lacking resources and training must be taken care of.

“That’s how we’re going to win,” O’Rourke told NBC News. “It’s not Republicans, it’s not Democrats. It must be all of us. And it has to be the way we choose to respond to the challenges we’re facing right now. We have to do something better.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke addresses a crowd June 26 at Pan American Neighborhood Park in Austin, Texas.Sergio Flores/Getty Images

A poll last month by the Texas Policy Project at the University of Texas at Austin, Abbott’s job approval rating has shown a 9-point spike since Uvalde fell to 43% positive to negative within a few months. This poll found O’Rourke falling 6 points, consistent with other polls June and July this showed him how to narrow a once wide gap.

O’Rourke acknowledged Biden’s waning popularity but said it didn’t weigh on him. No one asked him about the President or his stalled agenda during his first three tour stops. O’Rourke even runs Abbott right when it comes to inflation — an issue that has plagued Biden — by equating it rising property taxes over the two terms of governor to rising costs.

The recent fundraising phase has also raised hopes among O’Rourke supporters. His campaign raised $27.9 million from late February through June, nearly $3 million more than Abbott and the Texas Tribune reported was a record amount. But Abbott kept a large cash stash: $46 million versus O’Rourke’s $24 million.

Those are staggering numbers for a Texas Democrat who isn’t high on the list of races for governor this year. O’Rourke’s success in raising funds from out-of-state donors has some Democrats, concerned about tighter competition in states like Nevada and Wisconsin, questioning whether the money is well spent. Texas is expensive for campaigns due to its size and many TV media markets.

“The fact that people are giving him money but not the people in Nevada is just so crazy,” said one National Democratic strategist, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. “My problem with Texas is that the price of admission is so high and the odds of winning are so low.”

O’Rourke brushed those thoughts aside.

“What I hear coming through loud and clear is more than half a million donations in the last four months,” he said. “People from across the state and many across the country who understand that this nation will rise or fall with Texas, and if we allow these extreme policies to continue here and export them to the other 49 states, that defines the future and the wealth of this country.” Beto O’Rourke is raising hopes for Democrats in Texas again

Fry Electronics Team

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