O’Rourke, who also ran for Senate in 2018 and president last year, made the announcement in a fundraising email to supporters, where he touted himself as a unity candidate and railed against “fringe policies and incompetence that we see in Texas today.”
“I am running for governor to serve ALL of the people of Texas,” he said. “I believe that the only way we are going to achieve great things for this state is by looking out for each other and moving forward together.”
In a subsequent video posted on Twitter previewing his run, O’Rourke cast his decision to challenge Abbott as a result of the state government’s bungling of a winter storm earlier this year, during which hundreds of Texans died and millions more were without power due to unusually frigid temperatures.
“This past February when the electricity grid failed and millions of 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 are elected to serve and look out for them,” he said. “It’s a symptom of a much larger problem 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.”
In the video, O’Rourke indicated he would tackle a slate of issues, including strengthening the electricity grid and expanding Medicaid.
“Instead, they’re focusing on the kind of extremist policies around abortion or permitless carry or even in our schools that really only divide us and keep us apart and stop us from working together on the truly big things that we want to achieve for one another. It’s a really small vision for such a small state, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”
O’Rourke’s entry into the race marks a win for Texas Democrats, who had privately fretted that they’d be without a top-tier challenger to Abbott if O’Rourke didn’t throw his hat into the ring.
O’Rourke, a former three-term congressman, first saw his star rise in 2018, when he launched a challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that ignited the grassroots in Texas and across the country. He fell short by under 3 points, a margin that suggested Texas could be within reach for Democrats.
However, he saw far less success in his 2020 presidential bid, dropping out in November of 2019 before any primaries were held. During that campaign, he adopted a slew of progressive policies, including on mandatory gun buybacks, saying at a debate that “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” a quote that will surely haunt him in a state with a prominent gun culture like Texas.
Since suspending his presidential campaign, O’Rourke launched a voter registration campaign in Texas, touting in his fundraising email that his effort had signed on over 250,000 new voters. That effort also sent volunteers to help residents during the winter storm.
“Beto O’Rourke enters the race for Governor with the highest name recognition and fundraising ability of any Democratic challenger in a generation,” Ed Espinoza, president of Progress Texas, said in a statement. “Gov. Abbott has spent the past year appeasing the far-right base with policies such as banning abortion, permitless carry, and bizarre covid policies, while doing nothing to address the failing energy grid or access to affordable health care.”
Despite his prominent standing in the state and proven ability to raise funds from across the country, O’Rourke will face stiff headwinds in a challenge to Abbott. After going to Cruz by under 3 in 2018, Texas went for former President Trump by over 5.5 points in 2020.
Beyond the dynamics of the state, Abbott has amassed a gargantuan war chest of over $55 million and has won statewide several times, making him a difficult opponent to topple.
Reacting to O’Rourke’s announcement Monday, Republicans boasted that the liberal policies he touted in the presidential race will hurt him in a state that still leans toward Republicans and that Abbott remains in a strong position to fend off a challenge.
“Beto 2.0 vowed to confiscate the firearms of law-abiding citizens, pledged to tear down physical barriers along the border, and supported regulations that would kill over a million jobs across the state and raise taxes and the cost of living on families and small businesses,” said Republican Governors Association spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez. “There’s no telling how far Beto 3.0 will go in his vain attempt to stay relevant after running out of promotions to chase in Washington.”