In Texas Governor's Race, Beto O'Rourke haunted by 2020 campaign

TYLER, Texas — Even in the deep red of East Texas, even on a Tuesday afternoon, even after a failed Senate bid followed by a failed pres...


TYLER, Texas — Even in the deep red of East Texas, even on a Tuesday afternoon, even after a failed Senate bid followed by a failed presidential bid, Beto O’Rourke still draws crowds.

More than 100 supporters gathered last week at a city park in Tyler, southeast of Dallas in the Piney Woods area. Among the friendly crowd, however, there was concern and even skepticism as Mr O’Rourke bids to become Texas’ first Democratic governor in nearly 30 years.

The Texas primary is fast approaching on March 1 – early voting began on Monday – but his real challenge is November’s general election, when he is expected to face Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott. Some of Mr. O’Rourke’s comments aimed at wooing national Democratic voters in the 2020 presidential primary — such as “Damn, we’re going to take your AR-15” — may have already weakened, if not doomed, his odds in November.

“The gun commentary is going to be his biggest problem,” said Holly Gage, 40, who arrived early at Tyler Park with her family. “My husband is on the fence. It’s because of the gun.

“Texas,” added her mother, Sheila Thrash, 63, “believes in her guns.”

Mr. O’Rourke’s presidential campaign is clouding his gubernatorial bid, complicating his efforts to portray himself as a pragmatic, dedicated Texan who embraces responsible gun ownership and wants to win over moderate voters. His 2020 campaign remarks figured prominently in Mr. Abbott’s attacks and are familiar to many voters in a state where Democrats also proudly own guns. Mr O’Rourke counts himself among them – he and his wife own guns, according to his campaign – and he seems well aware of the responsibility.

“I’m not interested in taking anything from anyone,” O’Rourke said at a press conference in Tyler, in response to questions from The New York Times. “What I want to make sure we do is stand up for the Second Amendment.”

Later, in a phone interview, he said he did not regret any of the political stances he took while running for president and denied he was backtracking on his assault weapons comments. . He said as governor he would push for universal background checks and requirements for the safe storage of firearms.

“I don’t think we should have AR-15s and AK-47s on the streets of this state – I saw what they did to my fellow Texans in El Paso in 2019,” he said. he said, referring to a gunman who killed 23 people at a Walmart in the deadliest anti-Latino attack in modern American history. “I haven’t changed anything about that. I’m just telling you that I’m going to focus on what I can actually do as governor and where the middle ground is.

Mr. O’Rourke’s predicament illustrates how difficult it can be for a Democrat from the red state to return to local politics after running for federal office in the national spotlight. What draws voters in a crowded Democratic primary for president may discourage those in a statewide race in a Republican-dominated state.

At the same time, Mr. O’Rourke has attracted legions of supporters and inspired Texas Democrats with his willingness to take on the state’s most powerful incumbents and his charismatic insistence that Texas is not not destined to remain in Republican hands.

“No one is going to come to our aid, so we shouldn’t expect that,” O’Rourke said in the interview, citing new restrictive abortion and voting laws passed by the Legislative Assembly. of the State and last signed by Mr. Abbott. year. “It’s on us, and it doesn’t matter,” he added. “Travelling in the state gives me renewed confidence that we can do it.”

A three-term former congressman from El Paso, Mr. O’Rourke, 49, entered the gubernatorial race late last fall, causing a jolt in a contest that many Democrats considered unwinnable: an off-year election favoring Republicans; an incumbent governor with a war chest of around $60 million; and that decades-long losing streak. No Democrat has won a Texas statewide race since 1994.

“We don’t have the right to choose what the political environment looks like,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who advised O’Rourke during his campaign.

Mr. Martinez Fischer said he did not believe, unlike some Texas political analysts, that Mr. O’Rourke’s race was about supporting Democratic candidates in local races rather than winning. “I don’t think Beto is looking to do some sort of suicide mission,” he said.

Mr. O’Rourke remains the only Democrat in Texas with a strong statewide campaign organization, including thousands of dedicated volunteers and a fundraising ability that rivals Mr. Abbott, the Republican incumbent in two terms who oversaw a rightward shift in the state. government. In the last three-week filing period last month, Mr O’Rourke raised $1.3 million, spent $600,000 and had $6 million in his campaign account. Mr. Abbott withdrew $1.4 million, spent $4.5 million and still had $62 million available in his account.

Much of O’Rourke’s campaign echoes his 2018 run to try to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, which energized Texas Democrats and brought in donations pouring in from across the country. There are the same black-and-white “Beto” posters, the speeches he gives from the center of flattering crowds, and the feeling that an upheaval is possible.

But a lot of things have changed. Mr. O’Rourke is no longer a fresh-faced newcomer. A poll last year found he was better known to Texans than actor Matthew McConaughey, who briefly flirted with a run for governor himself. Most Texans have an opinion of Mr. O’Rourke, and for many it is not favorable. So far he has trailed Mr. Abbott in all the polls, often in double digits.

Mr. O’Rourke ran a more traditional campaign than in 2018, garnering major contributions, conducting polls on issues and attacking Mr. Abbott early, including in a new ad. It has also coordinated more closely with the State Party.

“We’ve already had discussions with him to get the Democratic Party and him in perfect sync,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. “That’s something that didn’t happen in 2018.”

And Mr. O’Rourke isn’t enjoying the long track he had in 2018, as he traveled the state and built his events from tens of people to thousands. Now, as he travels across Texas highlighting the impacts of last year’s power grid outage, he is followed by the opposition – members of Mr Abbott’s campaign who coordinated with protesters at many stops.

In Tyler, Mr Abbott’s campaign spokesman Mark Miner arrived earlier than Mr O’Rourke and helped organize a protest in support of the oil and gas industry which included a large truck of drill emblazoned with a heroic image of former President Donald J.Trump.

“This is the Green New Deal against the energy industry,” said State Rep. Jay Dean, an East Texas Republican and chief executive of Thomas Oilfield Services, as he stood near the large platform he had helped bring to the demonstration. “I’m not that worried about him,” he added of Mr O’Rourke. “First of all, he’s not going to win.”

At events in three cities last week, it was clear that Mr. O’Rourke, always an energetic activist walking around Texas, has become more cautious in his remarks and wrapped up in his presentation, as he is dragged along with a tight schedule. guarded by his campaign managers. And its crowds are full of people who have backed Mr O’Rourke for years, raising the question of how far he can grow from his current base.

During the more than 2,300-mile tour, which ended Tuesday on the anniversary of the day the lights went out across most of Texas, Mr. O’Rourke delivered variations on a short speech focused on his proposals to fix Texas’ wobbly network, such as linking it to other states and prosecuting those who made huge profits from last year’s failure. He’s garnering cheers with promises to legalize marijuana and protect voting rights.

“First time voters!” Mr O’Rourke shouted before posing with a group of young women he met in Waco, after an evening speech in a park that drew what appeared to be more than 200 people.

In Austin the next day, Mr. O’Rourke visited a nonprofit that helped feed residents stranded during last year’s power grid outage, and he accompanied their workers who were distributing meals to homeless men and women in a park between the Colorado River and a busy roadway.

“You stay here?” Mr O’Rourke asked during a conversation with Josue Garcia, 35.

“Yes, in the green tent,” Mr. Garcia said, adding that he lived in the park with his wife and an adult daughter-in-law, who works at Whataburger.

“I’m Beto and it’s an honor to meet you.”

“I will vote for him for sure,” Mr Garcia said after Mr O’Rourke went to speak to another man.

Later, as the sun set over the State Capitol, a young and enthusiastic crowd gathered to see Mr. O’Rourke in the parking lot of the AFL-CIO of Texas, in front of the mansion of the governor.

Mr. Abbott was out of town at the time, but his campaign spokesman, Mr. Miner, a longtime senior communications aide to leading Republicans, moved through the crowd of supporters. ‘O’Rourke, handing out flyers to reporters until escorted by a union representative.

On the sidewalk, protesters waved a Trump flag and an American flag and shouted – “Free crack pipes! “Communism doesn’t work, Francis!” – in an attempt to interrupt Mr O’Rourke’s nightly speech, calling him by his middle name. A publicity truck showed a black and white video of Mr O’Rourke transforming into President Biden, which was paid for by Mr Abbott’s campaign.

Many of Mr O’Rourke’s supporters recalled losing power last year. But their anger over the management of the freeze wasn’t the only issue that drew them to the rally.

Nick Tripoli, 43, wore a mask with the words “Abort Greg Abbott” on it. He said he heard Mr O’Rourke speak in 2018 and saw the enthusiasm he brought to Democrats.

“I wanted to be part of it,” Mr. Tripoli said. “Again.”



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Newsrust - US Top News: In Texas Governor's Race, Beto O'Rourke haunted by 2020 campaign
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