Democrat Beto O’Rourke has officially launched his campaign for governor of Texas, challenging Gov. Greg Abbott in a time when the extremist governor has been leading a right-wing charge to slash rights and suppress marginalized groups in the state.
O’Rourke is a leading Democratic candidate in the race for the state that is undergoing quick population growth, with many of the new residents being nonwhite. He served as a representative for El Paso in Congress for six years and in 2018 lost his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, an election that nonetheless launched O’Rourke into national prominence.
If he were elected, he would be the first Democrat to hold the governor’s office since 1995, nearly 30 years ago. This would break a nineteen-year streak of Republicans controlling the state legislature and governorship, and potentially usher in the long-vaunted blue state status for Texas.
O’Rourke criticized Abbott in a video announcing his campaign on Monday, saying that Texans were “abandoned by those who were elected to serve and look out for them” during winter storm Uri earlier this year and other crises. He highlighted priorities like expanding Medicaid and marijuana legalization, and panned Abbott for “extremist” policies that he’s put in place.
The challenge comes as Abbott’s approval ratings have plummeted to record lows amidst an especially difficult year for Texas. The right-wing firebrand oversaw a devastating energy crisis in February, pushing climate denial in the press despite the fact that it was the climate crisis that largely caused the winter storm to begin with.
Later in the year, the governor led the charge in implementing some of the harshest voter suppression laws in the country as a backlash to Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election — laws that voting rights advocates say would disproportionately affect poor and nonwhite communities. He pushed hard for anti-trans legislation, culminating in a bill he signed late last month that bars transgender students from playing on sports teams that match their gender identity and potentially endanger trans students’ lives with ensuing mental health impacts.
Perhaps most infamously, Abbott signed the nation’s most restrictive abortion ban into law that went into effect in September, banning most abortions in the state and effectively overturning rights afforded by Roe v. Wade. It allows vigilantes to sue anyone who has assisted a person in obtaining an abortion, placing a huge chilling effect on abortion providers. Backlash to this law has been fierce, and Abbott’s supposed reasons for supporting the law have been flimsy at best, and actively harmful at worst.
O’Rourke, though not an extremist far-right figure, has baggage of his own, however — moreso than when he ran for senator in 2018, as the Texas Tribune points out. Only about 35 percent of respondents in a recent survey said that they view O’Rourke favorably, while half of respondents said that they had an unfavorable opinion of him.
That poll, from October, showed O’Rourke trailing Abbott in a hypothetical matchup by 9 points. A more recent poll showed more optimistic results for the Democrat, showing O’Rourke only behind by 1 percentage point, which is considered a tie because it’s within the poll’s margin of error.
O’Rourke’s record as a public figure is checkered at best. As Susie Aquilina wrote for Truthout in 2019, among El Paso activists, “he is best remembered for his support to transform downtown by driving out low-income residents and demolishing immigrant neighborhoods.” As a city councillor, O’Rourke allied with wealthy developers in gentrifying Mexican neighborhoods in the city.
The Democratic establishment favorite has also been criticized for standing for very little during his 2020 presidential campaign outside of platitudes and flowery rhetoric. He offered few concrete policy ideas to back up his speeches, often delivered from atop a table or a counter. Democrats say this time around, O’Rourke should focus his campaign on positioning himself against Abbott.