By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Lone Star Tussle: Texas Governor Greg Abbott versus challenger Beto O’Rourke
The Battle for Texas is on.
On November 15, Democrat Beto O’Rourke announced his 2022 candidacy for governor against the state’s current Republican governor, Greg Abbott. Their contest reflects the larger war for the soul of our nation--a clash over whether we will allow ourselves to be ruled by the callous power and greed of a few or save our democracy and reestablish the best of America’s altruistic values. And given the number of Texas’ electors (38), and the efforts of its Republican-controlled legislature to prevent votes being counted, who wins the governorship--with that office’s veto power over further incursions on voting rights--is of national importance.
O’Rourke came out swinging. In his video announcement, he said: “This past February, when the electricity grid failed and millions of our fellow Texans were without power — which meant that the lights wouldn’t turn on, the heat wouldn’t run and pretty soon their pipes froze and the water stopped flowing — they were abandoned by those who were elected to serve and look out for them.”
He added, “It’s a symptom of a much larger problem that we have in Texas right now: Those in positions of public trust have stopped listening to, serving, and paying attention to and trusting the people of Texas, and so they’re not focused on the things that we really want them to do—like making sure we have a functioning electric grid, or that we’re creating the best jobs in America right here in Texas, or that we have world class schools.”
Given his national standing, it was no surprise that O’Rourke promptly moved to the front of the line. Although there are two other candidates running in the March 1 Democratic primary for governor, Michael Cooper, the president of the Beaumont Texas NAACP, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, and Deirdre Gilbert, an educator from the Houston area, they are the longest of long shots. The Democratic Governors Association backed O'Rourke almost immediately after his announcement.
Abbott took no time at all in punching back at the Democratic contender with the usual right-wing Republican sloganeering. On the day of O’Rourke’s announcement, Abbott predictably tweeted that O’Rourke wants to “take your guns,” “defund the police,” and supports the “failing Biden agenda.” Rather than address the issues O’Rourke had raised in his announcement, Abbott’s campaign released an animated image of O’Rourke morphing into Biden. He called O’Rourke “a socialist,” “a part of the Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democrat Party” and tried, Trump-style, to label him “Wrong Way O’Rourke.”
Abbott, 64, was described by the New York Times in July as “the driving force behind one of the hardest right turns in recent state history.” His past record fully supports that assessment. As early as 2003, as Texas Attorney General, Abbott supported the state legislature’s move to cap non-economic damages for medical malpractice cases at $250,000, with no built-in increases for any rising cost of living. This was beyond hypocritical; in 1984, when Abbott was permanently paralyzed from the waist down by a falling oak tree after a storm, he sued the homeowner and a tree service company, obtaining an insurance settlement that provided him with a lump sum every three years until 2022 along with monthly payments for life—both adjusted to keep up with the rising cost of living. As of August 2013, that monthly payment amount was $14,000 per month.
As Texas AG, Abbott also kept busy filing lawsuits—31 of them—against the Obama Administration, including against the Affordable Care Act. Abbott’s personal experience clearly did not result in the development of any empathy for others faced with a similar situation.
During his two terms as governor, Abbott has consistently skewed to the right. He has attempted to purge nearly 100,000 registered voters from Texas voter rolls, and signed both an open-carry gun law, and a campus-carry law, allowing the carrying of a concealed handgun on public college campuses. He has also backed the GOP-led legislature’s effort to financially penalize Texas cities that reduce police funding in favor of social services and emergency response. Most recently, Abbott signed the controversial legislation effectively banning most abortions in the state. And on the Covid-denial front, he signed legislation punishing all businesses that require proof of vaccination, as well as issuing an executive order banning mask mandates in public schools with a $1,000 fine for noncompliance.
O’Rourke has vehemently attacked Abbott for the new laws he’s backed that ban most abortions in Texas, limit the ability to vote, and allow permitless carry of handguns. O’Rourke said of Abbott: “He doesn’t trust women to make their health care decisions, doesn’t trust police chiefs when they tell him not to sign the permitless carry bill into law, he doesn’t trust voters so he changes the rules of our elections, and he doesn’t trust local communities [to make their own pandemic rules].”
For months before his announcement, O’Rourke was already calling out Abbott for his policies on Covid, which have included an executive order banning mask- and vaccine-mandates and, more recently, preventing employers from protecting their customers and employees. O’Rourke pointed out on his Facebook page in October that 68,000 Texans had died from Covid under Abbott’s policies, and forcefully concluded: “Abbott is killing the people of Texas.”
Abbott’s campaign spokesman, Mark Miner said, “The contrast for the direction of Texas couldn’t be clearer.” Unlike many falsehoods and twisting of facts by Republican politicians and their spokespersons, that statement at least is true.
O’Rourke’s Background and Strategy
Beto O’Rourke, 49, started his political career on the El Paso city council, where he spent six years. He followed this with six years (three terms) as a U.S. Representative from El Paso. In 2018, he ran for Senate against Ted Cruz, and came surprisingly close to winning, only three percentage points from beating Cruz.
O’Rourke achieved a reputation as a whiz at fundraising and campaigning—receiving more than $80 million from small donors for his Senate run while conducting an energetic campaign in which he traveled to at least 254 Texas counties, held campaign events in solidly Republican strongholds as well as Democratic areas, and live-streamed his efforts on Facebook.
After coming so close to beating Cruz, it might have been most helpful to democracy if O’Rourke had used his popularity, fund-raising ability, and momentum to make a 2020 run against the other senator from Texas, right-winger John Cornyn. If O’Rourke had done so and won, there might now be enough Democrats in the senate to change the filibuster rule and pass the voting rights laws needed to overcome reactionary voting legislation passed in Texas and other states this year. Instead, O’Rourke squandered his momentum on a short-lived run in the primaries for the Democratic presidential nomination. And Abbott is now using O’Rourke’s statements during that brief run against him.
In particular, Abbott has flagged a proposal O’Rourke made during his campaign in the presidential primary to require buybacks of assault weapons, emphasizing O’Rourke’s blunt, impassioned statement at the September 12, 2019 Houston debate: “Hell yes, we’re going to take away your AR-15, your AK-47.” Abbott likely counts on O’Rourke’s declaration going over like a lead balloon in gun-loving Texas.
But for O’Rourke, that position was especially heartfelt given that, on August 3, about five weeks before the debate, 23 people were killed in a mass shooting targeting Hispanic people at a Walmart in El Paso—the city O’Rourke had represented for so many years both on its city council and in Congress.
Boldly, O’Rourke is not backing away from his stand on assault weapons now that he is running for governor. According to the Texas Tribune, he has said: “I think most Texans can agree — maybe all Texans can agree — that we should not see our friends, our family members, our neighbors, shot up with weapons that were originally designed for use on a battlefield.”
In addition to maintaining his integrity on the weapons issue, O’Rourke has not only talked the talk about Texas’ needs, but walked the walk. Between his withdrawal from the presidential primary and his announcement of a run for governor, O’Rourke raised money for relief efforts in areas of Texas harmed by last February’s electric grid failure. Moreover, he has traveled to numerous counties, personally volunteering in those efforts.
O’Rourke also formed a PAC named Powered by People, focused on voter registration and voter rights, along with attempting to help Democrats obtain a majority in the Texas State House in the 2020 election.
In addition, according to Politico, O’Rourke gave major support to the Texas Democrats’ attempt to get federal voting rights legislation. Last summer, Texas Democratic legislators left their state en masse to prevent the quorum necessary for the Republican majority to ram through reactionary election laws, and lobbied Congress in Washington to pass the Voting Rights Act. During that time, O’Rourke traveled up and down the state to build public pressure for such legislation.
Because the Texas Democrats were outnumbered in their legislature and the Democrats in Washington were blocked by two feckless senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, all of these efforts ultimately failed. But both O’Rourke and the Texas Democrats cooperated, each in his or her own role, doing their very best in the battle to preserve democracy, and proving O’Rourke is a fighter for the people, not merely his own advancement. And the Democrats need such fighters.
O’Rourke has said he will—as he did in his senate race—campaign in parts of Texas hostile to Democrats. And he’s already off and running. According to CBS News, O’Rourke announced the campaign stops he'd be making in his first week: on November 16 in San Antonio and Laredo, November 17 in McAllen and November 18 in Corpus Christi. These stops were mainly in South Texas where, also according to CBS, Democrats have been losing ground.
In addition, compared to his senate run, O’Rourke is making some pragmatic changes in his approach. Previously, he had refused to accept PAC money. According to The Texas Tribune, he will now accept such donations because he doesn’t want to “run this campaign with a hand tied behind our backs.” This is a sensible decision, given what will be needed to counter the $55 million in resources Abbott already had at the end of June.
O’Rourke also plans to run ads drawing a contrast with Abbott, possibly use polling to make informed decisions about where to deploy his resources, and has said he will accept unlimited donations, which is permitted by Texas’s campaign finance system—all of which he had declined to do in his Senate campaign against Cruz.
The Political Horse Race
On November 15, CBS reported that a recent poll by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Tribune found O’Rourke was running nine percentage points behind Abbott.
AP has pointed out that the same year O’Rourke came so close to beating Cruz, Abbott won reelection to the governorship by double digits. AP speculated that the crossover helping O’Rourke then was based in part on the “ideological blurriness” of his Senate campaign—but that since he has established himself as a liberal who stands for policies unpopular in Texas (like mandatory gun buybacks and decreasing immigration enforcement), that helpful ambiguity no longer exists. The Texas Tribune has noted that O’Rourke is now better known than he was in his Senate run and that polls show more Texas voters have a negative view of him than a positive one.
Also working against O’Rourke are the political maps gerrymandered in favor of Republicans that Abbott signed into law in October. Furthermore—though it seems inexplicable— according to AP, Republicans have made strong advances with Hispanic voters along the border.
On the other hand, although Abbott recently had a nine-point lead, O’Rourke has only just announced his candidacy, and thus, has only truly begun the race. He has a year to catch up. And according to Forbes, a poll of 1,402 voters between October 14 and October 27, conducted by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation and Rice University, suggests the race may be much closer than the University of Texas and Texas Tribune poll indicated. Based on the poll cited by Forbes, in a four-way race, Abbott garnered 43 percent support among all registered voters, O'Rourke garnered 42 percent, with two percent going to a Libertarian candidate and one percent to a Green Party candidate.
Of course, in this cockamamy world, there always seems to be a wild card—in this case, actor Matthew McConaughey—who had been contemplating a run. But on Sunday, November 28, the actor announced he would not be running. That is good news for Beto: the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation and Rice University poll suggests that, while only nine percent of registered voters would support McConaughey on a five-candidate ballot, his presence would mostly take support away from O’Rourke.
But polls are only snapshots in time and so of limited value. Although Abbott is currently ahead, his handling of the pandemic, the winter power failure, obstacles to voting, banning of almost all abortions, and banning of mask and vaccine mandates within the state has caused Abbott’s approval rating to slip. Time and events may see it slip more.
In addition, the Trump-accommodating Abbott faces competition from even farther to his right—primary challenges from former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West, former Dallas state Sen. Don Huffines, and conservative commentator Chad Prather. Huffines has claimed that his candidacy pushed Abbott to a more conservative stand on issues like banning private business Covid vaccine mandates.
To top this off, although former President Trump has endorsed Abbott, he has been pressuring the governor to audit the state’s 2020 election results based on false claims of fraud—even though Trump won Texas. Abbott has refused. Given Trump’s spiteful, grudge-holding nature, that could ultimately result in a withdrawal of his endorsement.
Zack Malitz, a Texas Democratic consultant who was statewide field director for O’Rourke’s 2018 senate campaign, has said of this gubenatorial contest, “On both sides, this is gonna be an angry and existential election.”
The Texas election is clearly going to be a hard-fought race. And at this early point, it looks to be an uphill one for O’Rourke. But with his stamina, stomach for the battle, and ability to speak plainly to his fellow Texans about Abbott’s outrageous failures and their true best interests, he may have a good chance. The future of Texas and, given the restrictive voting laws recently passed, the future of the nation, may well depend on Beto’s ability to go the distance.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.