For months, Texas Democrats have failed to field a single serious candidate to challenge Governor Greg Abbott’s reelection bid. But today, Beto O’Rourke is announcing in Texas Monthly that he is entering the 2022 gubernatorial race. The former three-term congressman from El Paso, who had run losing bids for U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz in 2018 and for president in 2020, is not expected to face any serious challengers for his party’s nomination. He will seek to become the first Democrat to win statewide office in Texas since 1994, ending the longest statewide losing streak in America for either party.
It will be an uphill battle. Abbott, who has raised more money than any governor in U.S. history, had $55 million in his campaign treasury as of July 15, the last time he reported the size of his war chest. While polling has found that Abbott is not as popular as he once was, O’Rourke’s numbers are worse. A University of Texas poll conducted in October found 43 percent of Texans approved of the job Abbott is doing and 48 percent disapproved, but only 35 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of O’Rourke against 50 percent who had an unfavorable view.
Running for senate three years ago against a polarizing Cruz, O’Rourke had some success courting moderates: about half a million Texans who voted for Abbott also voted for O’Rourke, and he lost by only 2.6 points. But in 2019, seeking the Democratic nomination for president, the El Pasoan pivoted to appeal to a national base of Democratic primary voters and campaign contributors. He moved left on energy, guns, health care, and immigration, providing the Abbott campaign with an arsenal of provocative quotes it has packed into a preemptive thirty-second digital attack ad, titled “Wrong Way O’Rourke.”
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to entirely count out O’Rourke, whose 2018 race against Cruz set the high-water mark for a Democratic statewide challenger over the past two decades. Last time he ran statewide, O’Rourke broke U.S. Senate fund-raising records. His campaign refreshed Texas Democrats like nothing else in their long electoral drought, and the turnout he inspired among Democrats and independents helped flip two seats in Congress and a dozen in the state House—though Democrats were unable to add to those gains in 2020.
Also, the past two years haven’t been good ones for Abbott. The state’s pandemic response and the failure of its energy grid in February have brought the governor criticism from both sides. He will face primary challenges from two aggressive candidates to his right: Don Huffines, a former state senator, and Allen West, the former chair of the state GOP.
Should the governor survive those challenges, as expected, the biggest question of his race against O’Rourke will be whether Abbott, in his zeal to keep former president Donald Trump’s endorsement and appease unrelenting criticism from those on the right, cedes some of the center in Texas politics that was once securely his. Over the past year, emboldened by having repelled Democrat advances in 2020, Abbott has proudly signed conservative legislation that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. He signed a law opposed by 55 percent of Texans that allows any resident to carry a handgun without a permit or any instruction, and an abortion bill with an enforcement mechanism, opposed by 57 percent, that allows private citizens to sue anyone they believe helped someone get the procedure.
Texas Monthly spoke with O’Rourke about why he decided to run for governor, why he thinks the race is winnable, and whether he regrets his presidential bid. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Texas Monthly: After months of rumors, can you confirm that you’re running for governor and, if so, why?
Beto O’Rourke: It’s true. Yeah. I want to serve this state and try to bring the people of Texas together to do some of the really big work that is before us and get past this smallness and divisiveness that Greg Abbott has brought to Texas. You see it in the things he wants us to focus on right now, like which girls can play which sports in middle school, or what history teachers in public schools can teach. [In October, Abbott signed a law restricting transgender K-12 students from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. In June he signed a slate of laws dictating how educators can discuss issues relating to race.] You see it in the absolute failure of our electric grid in February.
And you see all this in the midst of extraordinary opportunity and need in Texas. There are really big things that we should be doing, like ensuring that we have a world-class public school system, making sure that the best jobs that are created in America are being created right here in Texas, and then moving forward on things that make a lot of common sense and that a lot of people in our state agree on, such as expanding Medicaid so more people can see a doctor and be well enough to pursue their career or their education.
TM: Former state senator Don Huffines launched his primary campaign against Abbott on May 10. He has pulled the governor to the right on, among other issues, building a border wall in Texas, banning vaccine mandates by private employers, and auditing the results of the 2020 election in Texas. Without you in the race, there hasn’t been a countervailing voice from a Democratic candidate for governor. Do you think precious time to make the case against Abbott has been lost?
O’Rourke: I don’t, and I don’t know how much any candidate is going to have to do to convince the people of Texas that Greg Abbott has failed them as governor. By one report, seven hundred people were killed due to his mismanagement of the power grid. And in the legislative session that followed, he did nothing meaningful to prepare us for the next winter storm or the next test of our electricity grid. His bungled response to COVID has resulted in more than seventy-one thousand Texans dead so far, and counting.
And then on the big things that I hear people talk about when I listen to them, like the quality of their kids’ schools, seventy percent of fourth graders in Texas are not able to read at grade level. The average Texas teacher is paid ten thousand dollars less than the national average. Our schools and our kids are underfunded in their education. When you look at jobs, we used to be the jobs leader in America. This past year, we ranked thirty-first in job creation, and because of things like the abortion ban we’re beginning to lose Texas-based employers or relocation opportunities to this state. And then when it comes to health care over the last ten years, the majority of which Greg Abbott was governor, we left more than one hundred billion dollars on the table [in federal funds that would be available to the state if it expanded Medicaid eligibility].
And I think the people of Texas know that. I’ve seen it in the polling that shows him very unpopular, and a large number of Texans [52 percent] see the state headed in the wrong direction. So I don’t I don’t think any time has been lost. But we also have a wonderful opportunity over the next year to really make this case both about how Abbott has failed Texas and what we can do to ensure that this state truly reaches its potential.
TM: Abbott’s popularity has waned, but you enter the race even less popular. Unlike in 2018, you are now a well-known and polarizing figure, and the Abbott campaign will make sure Texans repeatedly hear the statements you made when you ran for president that put you to the left of most Texas voters. Will those define you negatively?
O’Rourke: I don’t think this will be much of a campaign if it’s about me. I think it really has to be about Texas. It has to be about all of us.
And the success I’ve had in my life has only been when I’ve been able to work with others and help to bring people together. As a small-business owner in El Paso starting a technology business that was creating high-skill, high-wage, high-value jobs in this community, I had an amazing team with whom I did that. Serving on the El Paso City Council, where we didn’t have a party affiliation next to our name, we were just focused on delivering for this community, and we really did. Serving in Congress for six years, every one of which I was in the minority, I had to find a way to bridge the divide with Republicans to deliver for veterans and to pass meaningful legislation that improved outcomes for those who have served this country. I got it [the Honor Our Commitment Act] passed with a Republican colleague who might not agree with me on everything and ultimately signed into law by a president, Trump, with whom there was almost no common ground, and yet there was enough to move forward.
TM: You’ve mentioned laws Abbott has signed that put him at odds with those in the state. Which do you think is closer to the center of Texas politics: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” which you said when running for president, or, say, a law that allows the carrying of guns without permits or instruction?
O’Rourke: I know that Texans don’t want to see their friends and family members and neighbors shot up with these weapons of war. I also know that Texans expect better from our governor when it comes to gun safety and responsible gun ownership and expect him to listen to and trust law enforcement, including the police chiefs who begged Greg Abbott not to sign into law the permitless carry bill. That law allows anyone in this state to carry a loaded weapon in public without a license [the bill prohibits those already banned from carrying a gun from doing so], despite the fact that we’ve had more than thirty-five hundred gun deaths over the last year, despite the fact that women are twenty-four percent more likely to be killed with a gun here in Texas than in any other state, despite the fact that we have four of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history right here in Texas. And despite the fact that over the last five years there’ve been thirty-eight thousand license-to-carry permit requests that have been denied or withdrawn, meaning that law enforcement said this person is a danger to themselves, or a danger to the people in our community, and that person should not be able to carry a gun in public.
We had a program that allowed for the due diligence, the vetting, training, and the background check to protect the public. That is all gone due to the extremist policies of Greg Abbott. So that’s what I’m hearing back from the people here in Texas.
TM: For a Texas Democrat, the political climate seems even more daunting now than in 2018. Midterm elections are historically bad for the party in the White House. President Biden’s favorables are under water here, with only 35 percent of Texans approving the job he’s done. And a fresh round of redistricting in the state has ensured that few congressional and legislative districts will be competitive, suffocating the prospect of lively local races that provide oxygen, and up-ballot turnout, for statewide candidates. Why do you think you can surmount these obstacles?
O’Rourke: I think you’re trying to say this is not going to be easy. I agree with you. And just to compound everything that you laid out, Texas was already the toughest state in which to register and participate in an election. With the elections bill signed into law by Greg Abbott [this summer], it is now even harder to vote in Texas.
But I think there’s also an opportunity there. In the 2020 elections, more than seven million eligible voters did not cast a ballot just in the state of Texas, in the most consequential election arguably since 1864. I want to make sure that I am reaching out to and listening to those who either had an obstacle in place that prevented them from voting, or never heard from a candidate and felt forgotten or written off or not included in the conversation and in the future of this state.
But if we think about 2018 now, at the outset of that race, it was seen as just as hopeless, but at the end of it, together, we produced the largest voter turnout in a midterm since 1970, and a five hundred percent increase in young voter turnout. I want to build on that and I want to bring even more people in and I really want to make sure that it is not Democrats versus Republicans. Not only is that not a winning strategy for me as a candidate, that’s not a winning strategy for us as a state or for us as a country. It’s got to be about how we make this state better for all Texans.
TM: How would you have handled the failure of the state’s power grid differently than Abbott?
O’Rourke: Ask yourself how we got here. And for me, the answer came through in March when Abbott received a $1 million campaign contribution from Kelcy Warren, whose company [Energy Transfer Partners] made more than $2.4 billion in profit during the February power grid failure—on the suffering and the loss of life of our fellow Texans and the absolute incompetence of Greg Abbott. In the legislative session that followed into that May there were no meaningful provisions to weatherize and prevent future catastrophes and tragedies like we saw in February. In other words, Greg Abbott is looking out for his donors and his campaign contributors and not for the people of Texas.
What would an answer look like? It would mean requiring the weatherization of our entire power grid and supply chain for electricity so that we can count that the lights will come on, the heat will run, and the water will flow, because the pipes have not frozen. And yes, it means making sure that when we produce surplus energy in this state and have surplus capacity, that we’re able to sell that out onto the national grid, and then drive those earnings back into weatherizing and fortifying the electricity grid here. And that when we have an emergency, like we had in February, and we need to draw down power from other parts of the United States, that we’re able to do that, as well.
And oh, by the way, it should not be the Texas ratepayer who foots the bill at the end of the day. Because of Abbott’s incompetence, you will now have an Abbott tax on almost every single utility bill, and you’re looking at a fifteen percent surcharge on every bill that you get for the next ten years here in Texas.
TM: Do you regret running for president?
O’Rourke: I am moved by the opportunity to serve and to help and I was extraordinarily fortunate to have the chance to run in 2019. And no, it did not work out as well as I wanted it to. Somebody put it to me this way: I wanted to run in the worst way—and I succeeded in that.
But since then, I’ve put everything I can into volunteering along with a lot of other great Texans with Powered by People [a voter registration political action committee O’Rourke launched in 2019]. Our focus has been on improving the outcomes here in Texas, and we focused on voting rights, voter registration, but we’ve also just been there when our fellow Texans need us.