Beto O’Rourke shrugs off polling deficit, promises he won’t let down Democrats in South Texas

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Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic nominee for governor, said Saturday he was taking the latest polls putting him behind Gov. Greg Abbott by mid single digits with a “grain of salt.”

O’Rourke spoke for an hour Saturday with The New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright during the third day of The Texas Tribune Festival. His appearance came with less than two months until the November election, when he is challenging the Republican incumbent.

O’Rourke is currently behind Abbott by 7.5 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average. A Spectrum News/Siena College survey released Wednesday found O’Rourke losing to Abbott, 50% to 43%, among likely voters.

Speaking with Wright, O’Rourke repeated the age-old political maxim that the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day. He also pointed out that in his blockbuster 2018 U.S. Senate race, he outperformed polls by finishing within 3 percentage points of Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

“I take these polls with a grain of salt,” O’Rourke said of the latest surveys.

O’Rourke said he’s betting on a big turnout of voters who disagree with Texas’ recent abortion restrictions in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. He pointed out that voters have been energized by the issue of abortion rights in places like Kansas, which held a referendum on abortion rights in August and gave Democrats a win by an unexpectedly large margin.

O’Rourke doesn’t regret confronting Abbott in Uvalde

Responding to an audience question, O’Rourke suggested he did not regret interrupting an Abbott news conference in the days following the Uvalde school shooting in May.

“No, I don’t regret being there,” O’Rourke said. “I wanted to fight for those families in Uvalde, for our families across the state. The best time to stop the next school shooting is right now.”

At the May 25 news conference, O’Rourke stood up and walked toward the stage as he blamed the shooting on Abbott’s refusal to consider new gun restrictions. The confrontation drew an angry response from the Republicans onstage with Abbott, including Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin, who called O’Rourke a “sick son of a bitch.”

O’Rourke has campaigned heavily on reining in gun violence after the Uvalde massacre. He has focused most intently on raising the age to buy an assault rifle from 18 to 21, a proposal that Abbott has argued would be “unconstitutional.” Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said Friday at the Tribune Festival that his chamber will not pass any proposal to raise the age, saying the “votes aren’t there.”

O’Rourke promises Democrats he won’t let them down in South Texas

Democrats got a wakeup call in 2020 in South Texas, a predominantly Hispanic region where President Joe Biden underperformed significantly. O’Rourke said Republicans “showed up with a very strong, compelling economic message” and former President Trump offered a “false choice” between keeping businesses closed and reopening them during the coronavirus pandemic.

“What did we have on our side? Nothing,” O’Rourke said. “Candidate Biden didn’t spend a dime or a day in the Rio Grande Valley — or really anywhere in Texas, for that matter — once we got down to the homestretch of the general election.”

O’Rourke said Democrats also erred by campaigning remotely during the pandemic while Republicans stumped in person.

Now Republicans are aggressively targeting South Texas, both in the governor’s race and down-ballot contests.

“I am making sure that we do not commit the same sin as some Democrats before me have committed, which is take voters of color — Black voters and Latinos — for granted,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke noted that his fluency is Spanish is a “competitive advantage,” promising to participate in a fully Spanish debate regardless of whether Abbott shows up.

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