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Beto O'Rourke raises Democrats' hopes again in Texas

O'Rourke, who lost his last two campaigns, is having another moment, this time with a bid to unseat Gov. Greg Abbott. But is it another tease?
Democratic Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke
Democratic Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke at a campaign stop in Midland, Texas, shortly after kicking off  his 49-day "Drive for Texas" tour, on Wednesday.Eli Hartman / Odessa American via AP

MIDLAND, Texas — Once again, a buzz is growing around Beto O'Rourke.

The one-time presidential candidate, aiming to become Texas' first Democratic governor in more than three decades, has cut Republican incumbent Greg Abbott's polling lead in half. He is coming off a historic fundraising period. By his campaign's count, O'Rourke has already signed up 79,000 volunteers to make phone calls and knock on doors before Election Day.

For every note of fresh optimism, though, there is a note of caution. Republicans have long ruled Texas and have made inroads with Latino voters. Abbott remains a formidable fundraiser in his own right. And O'Rourke has come tantalizingly close before — his 2018 bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz turned him into a White House prospect — only to fall short. At a rally here Wednesday night, he entered a crowded auditorium to what he's occasionally adopted as an anthem: Spoon's "The Underdog."

But the many crises and raw political fights of the moment — from the failure of the state's power grid in 2021 to the loss of abortion rights and the tragedies of gun violence, most recently in Uvalde — have landed particularly hard on Texas. As O'Rourke kicked off a 49-day road trip across the state this week, he and his supporters wondered if this year will be different.

"There’s no state more important than Texas for determining the future of America," O'Rourke told NBC News in an interview after completing the second day of the tour.

Some validation for that pitch came this week from California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a fellow Democrat who is cultivating a higher national profile. Newsom placed ads in Texas newspapers promoting his new gun law that allows citizens to sue those who make or sell banned weapons. The law is modeled after an Abbott-signed bill that allows people to sue abortion providers.

O'Rourke’s 5,600-mile "Drive for Texas" — mocked by Abbott spokesperson Mark Miner as "The Driving Texas in the Wrong Direction Tour" — aims to build on the momentum of recent weeks and recruit even more volunteers for the fall. The trek began Tuesday night with a mariachi band at a concert hall in big-city El Paso, O'Rourke's hometown, before continuing across West Texas.

On Wednesday, his Toyota Tundra headed deep into Donald Trump country, first to tiny Pecos, where some of the dozens on hand had taken their lunch break to see him. From there it was on to a crowd of more than 400 in midsize Midland, the past 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 attend a town hall held at 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 as long as an hour to take photos — a free advertising strategy aimed at generating word of social media mouth.

"He has an amazing chance," Valerie Trujillo, a Pecos City Council member, said of O'Rourke after his event there. She recalled a visit during his 2018 Senate run drawing far fewer people. 

"People are starting to recognize that real change is needed," Trujillo said. "And the current administration hasn't done anything to improve anybody's quality of life."

O'Rourke blames Abbott for policies or inaction that he says have caused or worsened the problems troubling Texas, especially after last year's failure of the state's power grid during a winter storm. This summer, amid record-high temperatures, electric bills are rising and Texans are being asked to conserve energy as fears of a second grid failure grow.

"What has happened to the grid under Greg Abbott's watch says everything that you need to know about this guy," O'Rourke said in El Paso. "He is chaos. He is corruption. He is cruelty. And he is incompetence."

Miner, the Abbott spokesperson, responded by calling O'Rourke's rhetoric "unhinged" and accusing him of playing alarmist politics while rooting for catastrophe.

"He wants the lights to go out," Miner said. "He's basing his whole campaign around Texas failing." 

O'Rourke's run this time shows flashes of the interchangeably audacious and earnest candidate who announced his presidential campaign on the cover of "Vanity Fair" and said that, "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15" and other assault weapons. 

He crashed an Abbott news conference the day after the Uvalde school shooting, approaching the stage to blame the governor's pro-gun policies before police escorted him out. He still attempts to present as hip, declaring the mariachi band that opened for him in El Paso "f---ing amazing" and referring to his mother as "the O.G., the original gangster."

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

But there also is evidence of milder rhetoric and appeals to moderates, independents and the split-ticket voters who voted for 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 travels this week drew protesters — a man with a "Biden Sucks" sign and cardboard Trump cutout outside the Pecos event, a small crew 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're voting for this time," O'Rourke said while trying to de-escalate a disruption from a persistent heckler wearing a red Make America Great Again hat. "You're welcome to be here, but you've got to be cool."

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

O'Rourke also talks more pragmatically about guns than he did during his "Hell yes" days. He acknowledged to his audiences that he still doesn't believe people should own an AR-15 or AK-47, but he placed a greater emphasis on building a consensus around red-flag laws and raising the buying age to 21. And although O'Rourke praised elements of the "defund the police" movement in 2020, he told a voter who expressed support for the cause Wednesday in Pecos that he didn’t "see eye to eye" with him, arguing a need to provide police with resources and training.

"That's how we're going to win," O'Rourke told NBC News. "It's not Republicans, it's not Democrats. It's got to be all of us. And it's got to be the way in which we choose to respond to the challenges that we face right now. We've got to do something better."

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

A poll last month by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin showed Abbott's job approval rating since Uvalde had fallen to 43%, a 9-point swing from positive to negative in a matter of months. That poll found O'Rourke trailing by 6 points and was consistent with other polls from June and July that showed him narrowing a once-wide gap.

O'Rourke acknowledged Biden's declining popularity, but he said it hasn’t been a drag on him. No one at his first three tour stops asked him about the president or his stalled agenda. O'Rourke is even running to Abbott's right on inflation — an issue that has bedeviled Biden — by equating rising property taxes over the governor's two terms to rising costs. 

The most recent fundraising period also has raised hopes among O'Rourke supporters. His campaign collected $27.9 million from late February through June, nearly $3 million more than Abbott and what the Texas Tribune reported was a record-setting sum. But Abbott maintained a large cash-on-hand advantage: $46 million to O'Rourke's $24 million.

Those are eye-popping numbers for a Democrat in Texas, which does not rank high on the list of competitive races for governor this year. O'Rourke's success raising cash from out-of-state donors has some Democrats, who worry about closer contests in states like Nevada and Wisconsin, wondering if it's money well spent. Texas, given its size and many TV media markets, is expensive for campaigns.

"The fact people are giving him money but not folks in Nevada is just so crazy," said one national Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly. "My issue with Texas is that the price of entry is so high and the odds are so low."

O'Rourke brushed aside those thoughts.

"What I hear coming through loud and clear is more than a half-million donations over the last four months," he said. "Folks from all over 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 to be exported across the other 49 states, that defines the future and the fortune of this country."