“Hell, yes,” Beto O’Rourke is considering a bid for governor.
In a radio interview last week, the El Paso Democrat said he may challenge Gov. Greg Abbott in 2022.
“Whether or not I run, I will do everything in my power to elect a Governor who looks out for everyone, keeps Texans safe, answers to the people instead of the special interests & guarantees that we all have equal opportunity to achieve our best in life,” O’Rourke said in a tweet.
Whether or not I run, I will do everything in my power to elect a Governor who looks out for everyone, keeps Texans safe, answers to the people instead of the special interests & guarantees that we all have equal opportunity to achieve our best in life. 8/8— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) January 28, 2021
O’Rourke’s enthusiasm has earned him considerable clout over the years, but following a string of recent failures, critics have accused him of prioritizing style over substance.
The former U.S. representative quickly became a liberal darling when he ran against incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, but lost. Later, he also failed to secure the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Professor Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, chair of the political science department at the University of North Texas, said O’Rourke does have a shot at the governor’s mansion. Still, it could be an uphill battle.
“If he really expects to mount a serious challenge to Greg Abbott, he’s got to be … better in those areas where he was deficient earlier,” Eshbaugh-Soha said. “That includes being able to speak confidently and specifically about policy, not just talking lofty goals that are motivational and fun to hear.”
During his bid for Senate in 2018, O’Rourke came within 3 percentage points of Cruz. He performed particularly well in South and West Texas and in areas with large urban populations such as Dallas and Tarrant counties, according to The New York Times.
Part of the candidate’s success was due to timing, Eshbaugh-Soha said. Former President Trump was still in office during the midterms, which motivated a large percentage of the state’s Democrats to march to the ballot box.
This time around, though, the Democrats are in charge, meaning conservatives are the ones more likely to mobilize, Eshbaugh-Soha said.
“O’Rourke won’t be able to ride that anti-administration, anti-Trump motivational sentiment,” he said.
Republicans may not be as concerned this time around, anyway; O’Rourke’s momentum slowed after his failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
O’Rourke’s anemic debate performances during the 2020 presidential race didn’t do him any favors, Eshbaugh-Soha said. Some pundits were quick to ridicule the former U.S. representative, with NBC News calling him a “joke or an afterthought.”
After the 2019 El Paso shooting that left 23 people dead, O’Rourke adopted a strong anti-gun stance. During the third Democratic presidential debate, he declared: “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
Eshbaugh-Soha said while that may have played well nationally, it fell flat in gun-loving Texas.
The Republican nominee for the governorship would do well to seize upon that comment, he said.
“The strategy is going to be that O’Rourke is just too progressive, too liberal, too socialist for Texans,” Eshbaugh-Soha said.
Indeed, Dave Carney, the governor’s political strategist, told Fox News he’d love for the Democrat to try his hand at beating Abbott.
"I certainly would love to run against him," Carney said, according to Fox. "The guy couldn’t get elected dog catcher."
Abbott has announced he’s running for a third term, and The Dallas Morning News notes he already has $38 million in his political bank.
O’Rourke himself has been a fundraising machine. In 2018, his campaign generated $80 million, out-raising Cruz’s by more than 2 to 1, according to The Texas Tribune.
The Democrat established a solid foundation of support after he visited each of Texas’ 254 counties on the campaign trail, Eshbaugh-Soha said. If the pandemic were wrangled into submission, O’Rourke could benefit from another statewide field trip.
In-person voter interactions are persuasive, and O’Rourke’s boots-on-the-ground campaign style cemented him as a household name, said Zack Malitz, field director for the Democrat’s 2018 Senate campaign. That legwork will aid O’Rourke should he decide to enter the governor’s race; he already has the infrastructure in place to execute another solid effort.
To up his chances, Malitz said the politician's team should run a new volunteer-voter contact program to reach millions of Texas voters via calls, texts, letters and block walking. O’Rourke would also be wise to rebuild a small-dollar fundraising list to raise money at a scale that can match the incumbent.
“I think they’re going to need to work really, really hard to have virtual and in-person interactions with as many voters as possible,” said Malitz, who also serves as treasurer for the Boot Texas Republicans Political Action Committee. “Part of Beto’s success was that he showed up, that he talked to voters and that he was accessible, which was not something that was common in a state as big as Texas.”
But while O'Rourke may have “put the scare” in Republicans in 2018, Eshbaugh-Soha said the state isn’t likely to swing left.
“I think [O’Rourke] stands a chance; there are a lot of things that can work in his favor,” Eshbaugh-Soha said. “I’m just skeptical that Texas is really ready to go blue yet.”
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