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Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke said Monday that he is running to become governor of Texas, aiming to become the first Democrat to hold the seat since the 1990s.
In a video announcing his decision, O’Rourke begins by discussing the failure of the state’s power grid in February and the response from the state government, saying that those who lost their power, heat and water “were abandoned by those who were elected to serve and look out for them. It’s a symptom of a much larger problem that we have in Texas right now.”
“When the electricity grid failed and those in power failed all of us, it was the people of Texas who were willing to put their differences behind them and do the work doing the job at hand, which meant helping our fellow Texans get through that crisis,” O’Rourke continued. “We did this out of a sense of duty and responsibility to one another. Now imagine if the governor of Texas felt the same way.”
He also cited the Texas Republican Party’s positions on education, abortion and guns — as well as his desire to expand Medicaid coverage and legalize marijuana — as part of his reason for running. He immediately becomes a heavy favorite in the Democratic primary to challenge two-term Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott.
“The last thing Texans need is President Biden’s radical liberal agenda coming to Texas under the guise of Beto O’Rourke,” Abbott campaign spokesperson Mark Miner said in a statement. “The contrast for the direction of Texas couldn’t be clearer.”
After representing the El Paso area in the U.S. House, O’Rourke rose to prominence during the 2018 midterms when he challenged Republican incumbent Ted Cruz in the Senate race. O’Rourke built up a grassroots campaign network within the state and a massive nationwide fundraising effort, but ultimately fell short.
He lost by less than 2 percentage points, the closest Senate race in the state in four decades. With O'Rourke's help, Democrats picked up a number of local, state and federal offices in Texas that November.
Texas’s last Democratic governor, Ann Richards, was elected in 1990 but lost her reelection bid four years later to future President George W. Bush. No Democrat has won statewide in Texas since 1994, and the state has voted Republican in every presidential race since 1980, despite perennial hopes among Democrats to flip it.
While many Democrats hoped O’Rourke would mount another Senate race in 2020 against Republican Sen. John Cornyn, he instead opted for a run at the Democratic presidential nomination. Despite a launch that included a Vanity Fair cover story and early fundraising success, the campaign failed to gain traction, and he withdrew in late 2019.
After a mass shooting in his native El Paso in August 2019, O’Rourke called for increased gun safety regulations, including proposing a mandatory buy-back program for assault weapons. In a September 2019 speech at Texas Southern University, he said, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
A poll released earlier this month by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune found Abbott with a 9-point lead over O’Rourke, with 10 percent of respondents saying they had no opinion. A September survey from Quinnipiac University found Abbott’s approval rating underwater and 51 percent of respondents saying he did not deserve reelection.
A former state attorney general, Abbott won reelection by 13 points in 2018. O’Rourke faces a difficult political environment. In the 2020 election, Republicans made gains among the state’s Latino voters as President Donald Trump won the state by 6 points. President Biden’s approval rating is worse than Abbott’s in the state, with a recent poll finding him with 35 percent approval versus 55 percent disapproval.
Meanwhile, actor Matthew McConaughey has said he is weighing a run for governor. The Texas native and Oscar winner describes himself as an “aggressive centrist” who would run as an independent.