As early voting begins, pressure is on for Beto O’Rourke to close the gap with Greg Abbott

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks at a rally in downtown McAllen on Nov. 17, 2021. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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It’s crunch time for Beto O’Rourke.

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The Democratic nominee for governor is entering the final stretch of his third campaign in six years with the odds stacked against him. As early voting begins Monday, Republicans are salivating at the prospect of delivering a knockout punch to his political career, while Democrats are hoping they can prove the polls wrong by turning out a new electorate aligned against GOP Gov. Greg Abbott.

“This is what upset victories are born of,” O’Rourke said during a stop Wednesday in Longview. “You begin taking people for granted, especially here in Texas, and that spells the end of your time in that position.”

While O’Rourke has worked to energize Democrats on issues like abortion access and broken fundraising records, he has trailed Abbott by at least mid-single digits in almost every likely voter poll in recent months, including the latest survey released Friday in which the gap widened to 11 points. O’Rourke has shrugged off the deficits, saying polling does not fully capture new voters — and that polling underestimated him in his 2018 race against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz anyway.

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, left, debates U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz at the KENS 5 Studios in San Antonio on Oct. 16, 2018.

O’Rourke, then a U.S. representative for El Paso, left, debates U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz at the KENS 5 studios in San Antonio on Oct. 16, 2018. Credit: Pool/Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News

But Abbott’s lead has proven more consistent than Cruz’s — one of several differences with the near-miss loss in 2018 that made O’Rourke a star. The national environment continues to favor Republicans, with President Joe Biden deeply unpopular in Texas. And Republicans are motivated to finish off the candidate who has almost singlehandedly carried the hopes of Texas Democrats for five years now.

“Beto continues to pop up his head in Texas politics because it energizes the Democratic Party, but if you look at it, objectively, how many times can you fail, can you lose, in order to still be a viable candidate?” said Matt Langston, a Republican strategist based in Texas. “He cannot close the deal — and Abbott gets to be the one to put the nail in the coffin.”

O’Rourke’s campaign is betting its massive ground game, with over 100,000 active volunteers, will be more essential to an upset than any TV ads. And it still sees abortion rights as something of a sleeping-giant issue that will scramble traditional assumptions about the election.

A third of Republican women support abortion in all or most cases, according to a statewide poll released Monday by Planned Parenthood Texas Votes. Data points like that one that have O’Rourke supporters hopeful he can shift the paradigm in Texas politics.

“This is an issue that is fracturing the GOP on top of other issues where you see the extremism be off-putting to the other type of small-government, pro-business-type of Republicans,” said Dyana Limon-Mercado, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes. “I think Beto has a really strong connection to voters and communities on this issue. At the end of the day, Texans really value freedom and family, and the freedom to make the best decision for their families.”

As early voting began for O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate race four years ago, Republicans were starting to feel some relief after a summer during which he emerged as a formidable challenger and national political star. The battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court had energized Republicans, a barrage of attack ads were taking their toll on O’Rourke as he tried to stay positive, and Cruz’s campaign boasted that it had built an 11-point lead in internal polling.

O’Rourke closed strong, though, and finished only 3 points behind Cruz.

This time, O’Rourke is a different candidate on multiple fronts. He is no longer an outsider to the state’s Democratic Party, campaigning more with fellow candidates and sharing campaign resources. And while he struggled with how hard to go after Cruz toward the end of the 2018 race, he has been unsparing in his criticism of Abbott throughout this race.

But he has also had to contend with his own long-known vulnerabilities, like comments he made around his 2020 presidential campaign backing the Green New Deal and sympathizing with the movement to defund police departments. In one less-expected development, though, Abbott has since the Uvalde shooting shelved long-anticipated attacks over O’Rourke’s 2020 vow to take away people’s assault rifles.

Beto O'Rourke holds his first official 2020 presidential campaign rally on March 30, 2019 in El Paso.

O’Rourke holds his first official presidential campaign rally on March 30, 2019, in El Paso. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

At the end of the day, O’Rourke may not be able to outrun a national environment that still favors Republicans, despite a late-summer respite that gave Democrats glimmers of optimism. O’Rourke has not had the upper hand in any polls, compared with 2018, when he more regularly showed up within the margin of error and had the advantage in at least one poll in September of that year.

O’Rourke’s campaign sought to energize supporters Sunday by touting a recent poll that showed the race was within the margin of error with registered voters and “definite voters.” The survey was done by Beacon Research for the Democratic Policy Institute, a nonprofit whose executive director has previously been identified as top O’Rourke donor Alan Metni.

“I don’t think there’s much reason to think about what’s going on in the rest of the country and think Texas would be exempt from that,” said Jim Henson, a pollster at the University of Texas at Austin, referring to the historic headwinds that Democrats are facing. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any analysis right now that doesn’t show the midterm reverting to the expected mean.”

Both candidates are set to embark on aggressive get-out-the vote tours starting Monday, with plans to visit multiple cities a day. It’ll be an especially significant ramp-up for Abbott, who has been holding only a few small-scale campaign events a week.

For his final blitz, O’Rourke is reviving a tactic from his 2018 campaign — making stops very close to polling places where his supporters can cast their ballots right after hearing him speak.

Gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks to attendees during a Get Out the Vote Rally hosted by the Asian American Democrats of Texas in Asiatown on October 15, 2022.

O’Rourke speaks to attendees during a Get Out the Vote Rally hosted by the Asian American Democrats of Texas in Houston’s Asiatown on Oct. 15.

As for their closing messages, Abbott is poised to continue emphasizing the border, public safety and the economy. He visited Corpus Christi on Thursday to show off support from a group of sheriffs from both parties, touting their “bipartisan working relationship” on securing the border.

“That’s the last time we hear about or see — because we do have a three-strike law and you’re out — Beto O’Rourke,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said at a rally for former President Donald Trump in Robstown this weekend. “Let’s finish him for good.”

O’Rourke is expected to continue hammering Abbott as a right-wing extremist, especially when it comes to abortion and guns. And he is making the case that this is not the Abbott whom voters reelected in 2018, when hundreds of thousands of voters split their ticket between O’Rourke for U.S. Senate and Abbott for governor.

“We don’t blame you if you voted for Greg Abbott last time,” O’Rourke said in Longview. “That might’ve been a very reasonable decision that you made. But now it is clear that he’s failed us and he cannot get the job done. It is time to turn the page and vote for change.”

On TV, the two are now fully at war in what is the most expensive governor’s race on the airwaves. While Abbott has been unabashedly targeting O’Rourke for weeks in his TV ads, O’Rourke released his most negative spot yet last week, criticizing Abbott over the power grid, guns and abortion.

“How much more must we lose because Greg Abbott is governor?” a narrator asks at the end.

If Abbott prevails, it could be an especially dispiriting end for O’Rourke, who has become a singular figure in Texas Democratic politics since 2017. Through his U.S. Senate race, 2020 presidential campaign, down-ballot campaigning and now the governor’s race, O’Rourke has firmly established himself as the state’s top Democrat, with no close rival.

As he wound down his stump speech in Longview, O’Rourke acknowledged the end is near, win or lose.

“Last thing that I want to say, because this will probably be the last time as a candidate that I get to be in Longview with you,” O’Rourke said. “I want to say thank you. We have kept coming back to this community. You all have kept showing up.”

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood 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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