HOUSTON — It would be at least an hour before Beto O’Rourke took the stage at Discovery Green on Friday, but Cathy Nevil was ready.
Sitting in a lawn chair inches from the stage, Nevil, 71, was among the first to arrive for the Democrat’s campaign kickoff rally, beating even some volunteers to the event. A former Republican, Nevil said her politics shifted after the 2016 election, and she has since supported Democrats, planting posters for O’Rourke and President Joe Biden in her front yard in nearbyLeague City.
“I love Beto, and I would do anything to support him,” she said. “I believe in what he is doing and what he can do for Texas.”
O’Rourke announced his campaign for governor on Nov. 15, hoping to capture lightning in a bottle in his third major contest in as many election cycles. In his first week on the campaign trail, O’Rourke traveled from San Antonio to the border to Houston, touting a vision for Texas that includes Medicaid expansion and legalizing marijuana.
In an interview with the American-Statesman, O’Rourke said his campaign strategy is simple: He’s going to show up.
“If I have any hope of successfully serving the people of Texas as governor, then I’ve got to make sure that I meet with and listen to and find a way to work with the people of Texas,” he said. “The only way I know how to do that is showing up and literally meeting people where they are. That’s what I’ll be doing for the next year.”
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It’s a nearly identical message to the one he peddled during his U.S. Senate campaign against Republican Ted Cruz. But there’s no question O’Rourke is a different candidate today from when he emerged on the statewide scene in 2017.
Back then, O’Rourke was in his second term in Congress representing El Paso and had little name recognition outside of his hometown. His campaign against Cruz, who was coming off a bid for the GOP presidential nomination, was seen as an uphill battle by political analysts who said the odds were stacked against him in a state that had not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.
After a narrow 2.6-point loss to Cruz and an unsuccessful run for president two years later, O’Rourke is a national figure in his party — emerging as a prolific fundraiser and a powerful mobilizer with a deep bench of volunteers in different areas of the state.
This time, he’ll probably face Gov. Greg Abbott, the most well-funded candidate in Texas, who started campaigning against O’Rourke before the Democrat had even entered the race.
2022 a different race
The circumstances of the race will also be significantly different from in 2018.
O’Rourke won’t benefit from a national “blue wave” movement that emergedin the wake of President Donald Trump’s election. This year, Republicans are on the offensive and looking to make gains by campaigning against President Joe Biden’s record.
In Texas, Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature and hold all the executive offices in the state. During this year’s redistricting process, lawmakers shored up Republican control by reducing the number of competitive districts in the U.S. House and the Texas Senate and House.
The GOP also is looking to gain ground in South Texas and defend wins achieved in 2020, when Republicans trounced Democrats in contests up and down the ballot, preventing Democrats from winning control of the Texas House and flipping a handful of competitive U.S. House seats.
“O’Rourke’s problem is going to be that by every indication, nearly a year in advance, it looks like the 2022 elections are going to be substantially Republican-leaning,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and a keen observer of national elections. “And Texas has proven beyond any doubt it is still a Republican state.”
O’Rourke also has an election record to contend with, and Republicans aren’t about to let him — or voters — forget his loss to Cruz and his failed presidential campaign in 2020.
“The Republican Party looks forward to defeating Beto O’Rourke and his radical leftist ideas for a third time,” said Macarena Martinez, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee in Texas.
Democrats, she added, continue “to push the twice-rejected O’Rourke because Texas Democrats have no bench, no infrastructure, no hope and no plan.”
Previously:Amid Beto O’Rourke speculation, Texas Democrats impatient for a decision
Visiting 254 counties
In 2018, O’Rourke’s Senate campaign was driven by a goal to visit each of the state’s 254 counties — showing up for voters in a way that, he argued, Cruz failed to do during his time in office.
This time, O’Rourke said, he plans to replicate his tour of Texas.
“Yes, we’re going to every single part of this state,” he said in an interview. “There’s no county too small or too big or too red or too blue. They’re all important, and everyone in them is important.”
“If I’m governor, I want to serve everybody, so that’s the right way to run, and it’s going to be the best way to serve,” he added.
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O’Rourke also plans to come out stronger against his opponent than he did in 2018, unleashing an announcement video that focused on criticizing Abbott’s record, including his support of abortion restrictions, allowing people to carry handguns without state-issued permits and his response to the deadly winter storms in February.
When he faced Cruz, O’Rourke waited until three weeks before voting started to shift his campaign strategy to become more aggressive and confrontational with his Republican opponent.
Now O’Rourke’s stump speech focuses on allegations that Abbott “does not trust the voters in the state of Texas” and promotes extremist policies.
“This crazy extremism that folks around the world are reading about Texas right now? That’s not us,” O’Rourke said during his Houston rally. “That’s not you, that’s not me, and that’s certainly not the city of Houston.”
For his part, Abbott has looked to paint O’Rourke in a similar light, as a politician espousing extreme views held by those farthest to the left in the Democratic Party. Abbott’s campaign has dubbed the Democrat “Wrong Way O’Rourke.”
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$2 million in one day
After his run for president, O’Rourke turned his attention to Texas and launched a political action committee dedicated to supporting Democrats running in 2020.
“Over the last two years, I have been volunteering with a lot of other great people in Texas to register more voters, to protect the right to vote and to help when the pandemic first hit,” O’Rourke said. “It reminded me of an important lesson that Texas holds for this state and for the country, which is when it really counts, we’ll put our differences behind us and do the important work in front of us. That’s the moment we find ourselves in right now.”
O’Rourke said he wouldn’t use contributions from his Powered By People PAC for his gubernatorial campaign, and the group’s mission in the next year will continue to be registering as many people to vote as possible.
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During his congressional campaigns in El Paso and his U.S. Senate race in 2018, O’Rourke refused to take PAC contributions as a protest against big money in politics.
In his contest against Abbott, O’Rourke said he’ll continue to reject contributions from corporate PACs. He also plans to accept unlimited contributions, as permitted under the state’s campaign finance laws.
In the first 24 hours of his campaign, O’Rourke raised $2 million, a figure his campaign said is more than any other statewide candidate had raised over the same time period.
Abbott is also a prolific fundraiser and started his reelection bid in June with a war chest of $55 million. Over the most recent fundraising period, covering September and October, Abbott raised $5 million.
He also continues to lead polls in the race. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released last month showed Abbott with a comfortable 9 percentage point lead over O’Rourke.
But the same poll also showed only 43% of respondents approved of the governor’s job performance, while 48% said they disapproved.
Virginia Bates, 60, said she believes Abbott’s actions speak for themselves — and show why O’Rourke should be an easy choice for voters come November 2022.
“There are a lot of reasons why he needs to be governor, but these are just some of them,” she said, gesturing to dozens of posters she stuck into the grass at Discovery Green ahead of O’Rourke speech.
The scene resembled a graveyard, complete with plastic skulls and bones scattered between signs that read: “Here lies sensible gun safety laws” and “RIP 73,497 Texans from COVID.”
A sign titled the whole display: “Abbutt’s Grave New World.”
USA Today Network writer John Moritz contributed to this report.