Beto O’Rourke’s first official 2020 presidential campaign rally was in El Paso in March 2019. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

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Four years ago, a little-known Democratic congressman from El Paso named Beto O’Rourke announced he was running for U.S. Senate, challenging Republican incumbent Ted Cruz.

O’Rourke got started early, launching more than a year and a half before the general election. At the time, a majority of voters told pollsters they were unfamiliar with him. And perhaps for that reason, the incumbent virtually ignored him for 11 months, as O’Rourke began to tour all 254 counties in Texas, built an electrifying campaign that captured the nation’s attention and ultimately came within 3 percentage points of Cruz.

He had the wind at his back as the country delivered a blue wave in rebellion against President Donald Trump’s first two years in office.

And in the process, O’Rourke became the new star of a Texas Democratic Party that desperately needed one, smashing fundraising records, energizing young people and attracting a healthy amount of GOP defectors. Even his defeat was treated as a kind of victory by Democrats as the “Beto wave” swept their other candidates into office down the ballot.

This time, O’Rourke’s statewide campaign is starting in a completely different place.

His run against Gov. Greg Abbott, which he announced Monday, is starting 229 days later than his U.S. Senate campaign did in 2017. O’Rourke is now well known statewide — and polls show more Texas voters have a negative view of him than a positive one. And Abbott’s not giving him a pass, regularly rallying Republicans against him on the campaign trail and releasing videos attacking him.

This time, national politics will not play in his favor. Trump is out of office, President Joe Biden is deeply unpopular in Texas and Democrats are expecting to take a beating in the midterm elections nationwide.

Meanwhile, O’Rourke’s shine has dulled considerably after an unsuccessful presidential campaign during which he took positions that could be politically perilous in Texas.

“The dynamics are just much more different, and the climate’s totally different,” said Nick Maddux, a Texas Republican strategist who worked on Cruz’s 2018 campaign.

Of course, Abbott is also not in the same position he was the last time he was on the statewide ballot four years ago, when his race was an afterthought compared to Cruz’s. After navigating the coronavirus pandemic, February’s winter weather disaster and a series of contentious legislative sessions, the governor’s approval rating has sunk to the lowest it has been since he took office in 2014.

Zack Malitz, a Texas Democratic consultant who was statewide field director for O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign, said the Senate race was “this runaway, totally unexpected, pretty joyous campaign.” While Cruz was a “real villain,” Malitz added, he was not an executive like Abbott, who, especially in the time of pandemic, is making decisions every day that affect many Texans.

“This is just gonna feel different because it’s so vividly clear that lives are on the line,” Malitz said, acknowledging that both candidates are already “fairly well defined in the minds of Texas voters.”

“On both sides, this is gonna be an angry and existential election,” he added.

One of O’Rourke’s top goals, Democrats agree, should be to ensure the race is a referendum on Abbott, who this year ushered through some of the most conservative laws — on abortion, guns and voting — in recent Texas memory.

Abbott’s campaign is already trying to make the contest about O’Rourke, branding him “Wrong Way O’Rourke” and spotlighting comments in which he has tacked to the left since the 2018 race.

“He clearly keeps running more to the left and he stands at the extreme left wing of his party as of today,” Abbott campaign spokesperson Mark Miner said. “Now he’ll try to reinvent himself, but he can’t run from his past.”

Beto O'Rourke speaks to his supporters after losing to Ted Cruz in the 2018 midterm elections, Tuesday, November 6, 2018, in El Paso, Texas. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
Beto O’Rourke spoke to supporters in El Paso in November 2018 after losing to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the midterm elections. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

A series of losses

Even before losing to Cruz, O’Rourke was being discussed as a potential White House contender.

He launched in March 2019 after months of fervent speculation. The initial fanfare quickly gave way to tougher scrutiny than O’Rourke faced in the Senate contest, beginning with a glossy Vanity Fair cover story that accompanied his launch in which he declared he was “just born to be in it,” referring to public service. Soon after, his presidential campaign faded into the back of the crowded primary pack.

A pivotal moment for O’Rourke nonetheless came that summer, when a gunman opened fire inside a Walmart in El Paso, killing 23 people and injuring 23 others. The tragedy was personal for O’Rourke, who often touted his love for his hometown on the campaign trail and frequently reminded people that it was one of America’s safest cities.

O’Rourke responded to the massacre by becoming one of the loudest voices in the Democratic presidential primary on gun control and proposing a mandatory buyback of assault weapons.

That led to a debate performance that would live in infamy among both O’Rourke’s supporters and detractors.

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke vowed from the debate stage in Houston, garnering loud applause.

Despite the new urgency that O’Rourke brought to his campaign after the El Paso massacre, he remained low in the polls. Running out of money and facing the possibility of missing the cut for the next debate, O’Rourke announced on Nov. 1, 2019, in Iowa that he was dropping out of the race.

Presidential candidate and El Paso native Beto O'Rourke walks with U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, right, during a Silent March for those that lost their lives to the mass shooting at a local Walmart, on Sunday, August 4, 2019, in El Paso.
Then-presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, center, walked with U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, in August 2019 during a silent march for people who lost their lives in a mass shooting at a local Walmart. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

O’Rourke wasted little time returning to Texas politics after his presidential bid. He resisted encouragement to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and instead launched a political action committee to boost the state’s Democrats in the 2020 election.

The group, Powered by People, made its first major project a January special election for a state House seat in suburban Houston that Democrats thought was trending in their favor. O’Rourke became omnipresent in the contest, spending dayslong stretches in the district hundreds of miles from El Paso.

But the all-out offensive ended in devastation for Democrats: The Republican won by a large margin.

Weeks later, O’Rourke reemerged on the national political scene to endorse Biden for president — making a surprise appearance with two other former Biden rivals at a Dallas rally on the eve of the Texas primary. Afterward, Biden and O’Rourke dined together at a nearby Whataburger.

“When Beto took the stage that night to endorse President Biden, it electrified not only that room but the surging Biden campaign,” said Mike Collier, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor who was a senior adviser to Biden’s campaign in Texas.

Biden went on to win the Texas primary comfortably, part of a sweep of the Super Tuesday states that set him on the path to the nomination.

O’Rourke, meanwhile, redoubled his efforts in Texas, diving headfirst into the Democratic campaign to capture the state House majority. Democrats thought — and Republicans worried — that they had a real shot at controlling the lower chamber for the first time since they lost the majority in 2002 in what would have been a thunderous shakeup in Texas politics.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, talks in the spin room after the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston on Sept. 12, 2019.
Beto O’Rourke spoke in the spin room after a 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston in September 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
First: Beto O’Rourke spoke in the spin room after a 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston in September 2019. “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke vowed during the debate. Last: O’Rourke and then-presidential candidate Joe Biden ate at a Whataburger in early March 2020 after O’Rourke endorsed Biden for president. Credit: Jonathan Bachman and Elizabeth Frantz/REUTERS

With the coronavirus pandemic bearing down on the country, the efforts went mostly virtual, with O’Rourke leading massive phone banks over Zoom.

While many candidates welcomed O’Rourke’s support — grateful for the attention, fundraising and organizing he brought — Republicans salivated. That was especially true of Abbott and his campaign, which painted O’Rourke the central villain in its multimillion-dollar effort to keep the state House red.

One Democratic candidate in a tight state House election, Joanna Cattanach, recalled seeing digital ads from the National Rifle Association linking her to O’Rourke, portraying both as “red-faced bogeymen.” She believes such ads did not necessarily change minds in her race but inspired more Republicans to turn out.

“Beto for many of us is — and always has been — an energizing force to a campaign,” said Cattanach, who ended up losing to state Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, by a small margin. “Good or bad, there is an energizing force that comes with Beto. I always found it uplifting. I always found it worth it.”

Despite the massive push by O’Rourke and other Democrats, the GOP easily held on to the state House majority, with neither side netting any seats.

In the days after the devastating election, O’Rourke joined other Democrats in conceding they were hurt by not campaigning in person during the coronavirus pandemic as much as Republicans did, among other factors.

The next time most Texans would see O’Rourke in the headlines, it would be in a less political context. After millions of Texans lost power to electric grid failure in February, O’Rourke began raising money for relief efforts and traveling the state to volunteer for those affected. His actions drew the spotlight back to him but also provided a contrast with Abbott, who was getting pilloried by some for his response to the crisis.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, speaks at “Texans Rally for Our Voting Rights” at the Texas Capitol in Austin on May 8, 2021. Critics of SB 7 claim that the legislation suppresses voting rights by limiting and changing state voting procedures.
Beto O’Rourke spoke at a voting rights rally in May at the Texas Capitol. Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune

Finally came this year’s legislative sessions, during which Abbott steered the state further to the right on issues like guns and abortion, all while he took aggressive executive action to roll back statewide coronavirus restrictions and prohibit local officials from acting on their own. The biggest debate that caught O’Rourke’s attention, though, was the fight over Abbott’s priority elections bill, which further tightened voting rules in Texas. The proposal prompted Democrats in the Texas House to flee to Washington, D.C., shutting down business in the Legislature for nearly six weeks for lack of a quorum.

As the state lawmakers used their time in Washington to lobby for federal voting rights legislation, O’Rourke raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep them there and sought to build public pressure on Congress back home, crisscrossing the state for nearly two dozen events. It was the most statewide travel for a political cause that O’Rourke had done since his 2018 race, and speculation about his 2022 plans followed him virtually everywhere.

Still, he waved off questions about challenging Abbott, saying he would make up his mind after the fight over the elections legislation.

It ended in yet another loss for Democrats, with the state lawmakers eventually returning home and restoring quorum for the GOP to send the elections bill to Abbott’s desk. And despite O’Rourke’s efforts, Congress has yet to send federal voting rights legislation to the president’s desk.

Running a different race

After O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, presidential campaign and starring role in the 2020 election in Texas — and all the GOP attacks that have accompanied each endeavor — O’Rourke’s image in the state is damaged.

In the span of four years of polling from the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune, O’Rourke went from a politician that 55% of voters said they were unfamiliar with to one that only 7% said they were unfamiliar with. In the latest survey, conducted late last month, 35% of voters rated O’Rourke favorably, while 50% rated him unfavorably.

“Everyone has an opinion of Beto O’Rourke — and it’s upside down,” said Maddux, the Cruz strategist.

At the same time, Abbott has found himself at one of the most vulnerable points in his governorship. Two months ago, the same poll gave Abbott his highest disapproval rating — 50%. It ticked down to 48% in the latest survey.

For those reasons, Democrats hope O’Rourke can keep the focus on Abbott and the governor’s response to the electric grid failure and coronavirus pandemic.

Whether — and how much — to go after the incumbent was a hotly debated topic in O’Rourke’s 2018 race, and O’Rourke grappled with it for months before deciding to launch anti-Cruz ads in the closing weeks of the contest. He does not appear to be hesitating this time.

“I want to make sure that the people of Texas understand the choice before us,” O’Rourke said in an interview with the Tribune. Asked if that means he will run ads that provide a contrast with Abbott, O’Rourke replied, “Absolutely.”

Art Pronin is a longtime Democratic activist from Houston who is president of the Meyerland Area Democrats. Pronin said Democrats are hoping O’Rourke has a “disciplined, hammered, honed-in message on Abbott” and do not “want to have a situation where it’s all about Beto and every single thing he’s ever said and done.”

“I think that’s really key for his run,” Pronin said. “It has to be really disciplined, and Beto’s a guy who speaks from the heart, which is part of the appeal, but I think there’s a widespread recognition this has to be different from 2018.”

Democrats are also looking for a more professionalized campaign from O’Rourke, who famously eschewed polling in his Senate race. In the interview, he signaled openness to using polling to make certain campaign decisions.

“I’m certainly happy to look at data and to make sure that we make informed decisions about where we deploy resources, but I will never take a poll or look at a survey to try to determine what I believe or what the people of Texans want,” O’Rourke said.

And of course, Democrats are hoping O’Rourke is ready to address guns after his “Hell yes” moment from the 2019 debate stage. He said in the interview that he would not be shying away from that proposal in his race against Abbott.

Michael Tolbert, chair of the Smith County Democratic Party in deep-red East Texas, said O’Rourke has “good instincts, and I believe part of his success in his Senate campaign was that he relied on his instincts.” But when it comes to guns, Tolbert added, O’Rourke “needs to do his research to find out what Texans think and feel.”

“If he wants to come hunting in East Texas, I would be happy to train him, go hunting with him, kind of let him see that’s part of the culture here,” Tolbert said. “Yes, we do believe there needs to be more background checks, more gun safety, but there’s gotta be a way to do it without going too far to the extreme.”

The gun comment is not the only one O’Rourke has made since 2018 that he will have to grapple with against Abbott. The governor’s campaign has already spotlighted other statements O’Rourke has made expressing varying levels of support for the “defund the police” movement and the Green New Deal, the ambitious progressive plan to fight climate change.

Then there is Biden, who, as of now, is anything but an asset for a Democratic statewide candidate in Texas. Only 35% of Texas voters approved of Biden’s job performance in the latest UT/Texas Tribune Poll, compared with 55% who disapproved.

While O’Rourke was a key supporter of Biden in the 2020 election, O’Rourke has not given Biden a perfect score in the White House. O’Rourke has said Biden could do more to push for voting rights legislation and wrote an op-ed in September criticizing how the administration dealt with the thousands of Haitian migrants who showed up at the Texas-Mexico border.

Both of those critiques have been from the left of Biden, though, and it remains to be seen how O’Rourke will appeal to those on the other side of the political spectrum from the president. Asked about Biden in the interview, O’Rourke responded by focusing on how Texas benefited from the federal COVID-19 recovery money that Biden’s administration has distributed — and how the state will soon benefit from the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that Biden is set to sign into law Monday.

Activists hold signs advocating for improvements to Texas’ energy grid at a progressive rally at the south gate of the Capitol on April 22, 2021.
Activists held signs advocating for improvements to Texas’ energy grid at a progressive rally in April at the south gate of the state Capitol. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Malitz, the staffer from O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign, said O’Rourke can stand out in the challenging national environment by focusing on “local circumstances” — issues exclusive to Texas like the power grid debacle.

“This is gonna be a tough midterm for Democrats, and if you have to win, you have to defy the trend,” Malitz said. “For a race to defy a national trend, voters have to go to the polls to vote on something affecting their state specifically.”

The differences for O’Rourke are not all negative. After all his work in the 2020 election, Texas Democrats now see him as much more of a team player, a far cry from the 2018 candidate who did not always seem comfortable with the intraparty responsibilities that came with leading the statewide ticket.

O’Rourke is also running in a different campaign finance system at the state level — one that allows unlimited donations to candidates. That will be key if O’Rourke wants to have any chance of catching up to Abbott’s overwhelming campaign war chest, which stood at $55 million at the end of June. He confirmed in the interview that he will accept unlimited donations.

O’Rourke was otherwise restrained in discussing how he is approaching this campaign differently from his 2018 run, repeatedly saying his strategy would be informed by what Texans are telling him.

“If I have any chance of winning this,” he said, “I’ve got to listen to, trust, work with the people of Texas.”

Disclosure: Walmart and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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