Beto O’Rourke heads into Texas governor’s race an underdog against Greg Abbott

O’Rourke will have to contend with Abbott’s so-far successful conservative agenda, plus the task of winning back the once-reliably Democratic South Texas region.

By Jill AmentNovember 18, 2021 9:53 am,

In a parking lot packed with supporters next to the building of the Communications Workers of America union in downtown San Antonio, Beto O’Rourke made his first public campaign appearance on Tuesday. Before he took the stage the crowd chanted, “Beto! Beto! Beto!”

“Buenos dias, San Antonio!” O’Rourke shouted back.

In a speech, the Democratic candidate for Texas governor railed against the current governor and incumbent, Republican Greg Abbott’s, agenda during the state’s latest legislative cycle.

“We’re gonna get back to the big things again that unite us, that bring us together, and get us past the division, the smallness, the meanness of this moment,” O’Rourke said.

Abbott signed into law measures creating some of the strictest abortion regulations in the country, limiting transgender youth participation in public school sports, allowing the permitless carry of handguns and restricting voting access.

But it was also apparent at O’Rourke’s event that he’s going to be focused on issues that appeal to more moderate voters.

“The only way we’re going to do big things, create the best jobs in America, here in Texas, have world-class public schools, make progress on things like expanding Medicaid, is bridging these divides that we’ve got right now,” O’Rourke said.

Sofia Cortez, 19, was at O’Rourke’s event. She’s a student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She considers herself a “Beto superfan.”

“I saw him on the campaign trail against Cruz. And then I saw him on the campaign trail when he was running for president,” Cortez said. “I’m a big supporter of his. He’s like the change we need for Texas.”

But in a matchup against O’Rourke, Abbott is pulling ahead by 9 percentage points, according to a poll from the University of Texas at Austin.

“I think Beto O’Rourke is going to have a harder time this cycle than he did in 2018 for a number of reasons, including the fact he’s been damaged in his presidential campaign,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist based in Austin.

Comments O’Rourke made about gun control during a 2019 presidential debate will come back to haunt him, Steinhauser says, especially in gun-loving Texas. Steinhauser also says Abbott’s campaign focus on border security will also play well with the governor’s base of supporters.

“And you’re seeing this governor take stronger action than anybody I have seen in the country and anybody I’ve seen in Texas on that issue,” Steinhauser said.

Steinhauser pointed to a Republican win in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, which he argued could be an indicator that there are still suburban voters to be won by the GOP.

“You are seeing some suburban voters potentially coming back to the GOP, mostly because of the COVID policies of Democrats,” he said.

A lot of eyes are also watching a Democratic bastion for decades: South Texas. In 2020, the Democratic Party actually lost ground in that largely Latino region. Ed Espinoza, director of the progressive think tank, Progress Texas, says the myth of the so-called Latino vote hurt Democrats in 2020 who counted on Latinos to help them win but, instead, lost a significant amount of that voting bloc to former President Donald Trump.

“The old idea that there was a ‘sleeping giant’ that would one day awaken and vote all the same way, well, it wasn’t going to happen by itself and it wasn’t all going to be Democratic,” Espinoza said.

Overall, he says Democratic statewide candidates have to face the fact they just haven’t won in Texas in 30 years.

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