TYLER, Texas — Even in scarlet East Texas, even on a Tuesday afternoon, even after a failed Senate bid followed by a failed bid for the president, Beto O’Rourke still draws a crowd.
More than 100 supporters gathered last week in a park in the town of Tyler, southeast of Dallas in the Piney Woods region. Among the friendly crowd, however, there was concern and even skepticism as Mr. O’Rourke attempts to become Texas’s first Democratic governor in nearly 30 years.
The Texas primaries are fast approaching on March 1 – the early voting began on Monday – but his real challenge will be the general election in November, when he is expected to face Republican incumbent Governor Greg Abbott. Some of Mr. O’Rourke’s comments aimed at wooing national Democratic voters in the 2020 presidential primaries — such as “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15” — may have already been weakened, if not doomed for his chances. to damn in November.
“The gun comment is going to be his biggest problem,” said Holly Gage, 40, who arrived at Tyler Park early with her family. “My husband is on the fence. It’s because of the gun thing.”
“Texas,” added her mother, Sheila Thrash, 63, “believes in its guns.”
Mr. O’Rourke’s presidential campaign overshadows his campaign for governor, complicating his attempt to present himself as a pragmatic, to you Texan, who embraces responsible gun ownership and wants to win over moderate voters. His 2020 campaign remarks have featured prominently in Mr Abbott’s attacks and are well known to many voters in a state where Democrats also proudly own guns. Mr O’Rourke counts himself among their numbers — he and his wife own firearms, his campaign said — and he seems well aware of the liability.
“I’m not interested in taking anything from anyone,” Mr. O’Rourke said at a news conference in Tyler, answering questions from DailyExpertNews. “What I want to make sure is that we’re defending the Second Amendment.”
Later in a telephone interview, he said he had no regrets about political stances he took during his presidency and denied that he backed down on his comments about assault weapons. He said that 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’re doing to my fellow Texans in El Paso in 2019,” he said, referring to a mass shooter who killed 23 people at a Walmart in the deadliest anti-Latino attack in modern US history. “I didn’t change that. I’m just telling you that I’m going to focus on what I can do as governor and where the interfaces are.”
The predicament of Mr. O’Rourke illustrates how difficult it can be for a Democrat in the Red State to return to local politics after running for federal office in the national spotlight. What appeals to voters in a crowded Democratic presidential primaries may deter those in a statewide race home to a Republican-dominated state.
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At the same time, Mr. O’Rourke attracted legions of supporters and inspired Texas Democrats with his willingness to take on the state’s most powerful office holders and his charismatic insistence that Texas is not destined to remain in Republican hands.
“No one will come to our rescue, so we shouldn’t expect that,” Mr O’Rourke said in the interview, citing new restrictive abortion and voting laws passed by the state legislature and most recently signed by Mr Abbott. . year. “It’s up to us, and that’s OK,” he added. “Travelling the state renews my confidence that we can do this.”
A former three-term congressman from El Paso, Mr. O’Rourke, 49, entered the race for governor late last fall, causing a shock to a contest many Democrats viewed as invincible: an out-of-year election in favor of the Republicans; a sitting governor with a war coffers of about $60 million; and that decades-long losing streak. No Democrat has won a statewide race in Texas since 1994.
“We can’t choose what the political environment looks like,” said State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who advised Mr O’Rourke during his campaign.
Mr. Martinez Fischer said he did not believe, as some political analysts in Texas do, that Mr. O’Rourke’s run was aimed at bolstering Democratic candidates in local races rather than actually winning. “I don’t think Beto wants to do a suicide mission,” he said.
O’Rourke remains the only Democrat in Texas with a strong campaign organization statewide, including thousands of dedicated volunteers and a fundraising ability that rivals Mr. Abbott, the two-year Republican incumbent who oversaw a hard turn to right in the state government. During the most recent 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 took in $1.4 million, spent $4.5 million and had $62 million left in his account.
Much about the O’Rourke campaign reflects his 2018 race to try to overthrow Senator Ted Cruz, which energized Democrats across Texas and poured in donations from across the country. There are the same black and white “Beto” posters, the speeches he delivers from the center of cringing crowds, and the sense that a disturbance is possible.
But a lot has changed. mr. O’Rourke is no longer a fresh-faced newcomer. A poll last year showed that he was better known among Texans than actor Matthew McConaughey, who himself briefly flirted with running for governor. Most Texans have an opinion about Mr. O’Rourke, and for many it is not favorable. So far, he has followed Mr Abbott in every poll, often in double digits.
Mr O’Rourke has run a more traditional campaign than in 2018, receiving major contributions, conducting polls on issues and going on the early offensive against Mr Abbott, including in a new ad† He has also worked more closely with the state party.
“We’ve already had discussions with him to align the Democratic Party and him,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. “That’s something that didn’t happen in 2018.”
And Mr. O’Rourke isn’t taking advantage of the long runway he had in 2018 as he traveled across the state building his events from tens of people to thousands. As he drives through Texas highlighting the fallout from last year’s power outage, he’s followed by the opposition: members of Mr Abbott’s campaign who have coordinated with protesters at many of the stops.
In Tyler, Mark Miner, the campaign spokesman for Mr. Abbott, rather than Mr. O’Rourke and helped organize an oil and gas industry protest, including a large truck bearing a heroic image of former President Donald J Trump.
“It’s about the Green New Deal versus the energy industry,” State Representative Jay Dean, an East Texas Republican and general manager at Thomas Oilfield Services, said as he stood by the large platform he had helped bring to the protest. “I’m not too 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, still an energetic campaigner who drives himself through Texas, has become more cautious in his comments and wrapped in his presentation while being pulled along on a tight schedule kept by are campaign leaders. And his crowd is full of people Mr. O’Rourke for years, which begs the question of how much he can grow his current base.
During the more than 2,300-mile tour, which concluded Tuesday on the anniversary of the day the lights went out in most of Texas, Mr. O’Rourke made variations on a short speech focused on his proposals to tackle the shaky Texas grid, such as connecting with other states and prosecuting those who reaped huge profits from last year’s failure. He elicits cheers with promises to legalize marijuana and protect voting rights.
“First time voters!” shouted Mr. O’Rourke before posing with a group of young women he met in Waco, after an overnight speech in a park that appeared to have attracted more than 200 people.
The next day, Mr. O’Rourke in Austin visited a nonprofit that helped feed stranded residents during last year’s blackout, and joined them as their workers handed out meals to homeless men and women in a park between the Colorado River and a busy road.
“You stay here?” Mr. O’Rourke asked during a conversation with Josue Garcia, 35.
“Yeah, in the green tent,” Mr. Garcia said, adding that he lived in the park with his wife and an adult stepdaughter, who works at Whataburger.
“I’m Beto and it’s an honor to meet you.”
“I’ll be sure to vote for him,” Mr. Garcia said after Mr. O’Rourke talked 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 Texas AFL-CIO, across from the governor’s mansion.
Mr. Abbott was out of town at the time, but his campaign spokesman, Mr. Miner, a longtime senior Republican communications officer, walked through the crowd of O’Rourke supporters handing out flyers to reporters until he was led away 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!” — trying to interrupt Mr O’Rourke’s late-night speech and call him by his middle name. An ad car showed a black-and-white video of Mr. O’Rourke turning into President Biden, who was paid for by Mr. Abbott’s campaign.
Many of Mr. O’Rourke recalled that they had lost power last year. But their anger at the handling 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” over it. He said he heard Mr O’Rourke speak in 2018 and saw the enthusiasm he brought to Democrats.
“I wanted to be a part of it,” said Mr. Tripoli. “Again.”