December 1, 2021

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Does Beto O’Rourke stand a chance at becoming Texas governor?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke announced Monday that he is running for governor of Texas, aiming to become the first Democrat to lead the state since the early 1990s. Next year’s contest will be the third consecutive election cycle in which he’s pursued a bid for a major office, and could potentially be his third consecutive loss.

O’Rourke represented his hometown of El Paso in the House of Representatives for six years before giving up his seat to run for Senate in 2018. Though he came up short in his quest to unseat incumbent Republican Ted Cruz, the surprisingly close race made O’Rourke one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party. Just five months later, he announced his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. That campaign failed to gain traction in a crowded field, and O’Rourke withdrew from the race in late 2019.

O’Rourke is the clear frontrunner to win his party’s primary to challenge incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is seeking his third term in office. A staunch conservative and ally to former President Donald Trump, Abbott has established a reputation as one of the most assertive promoters of right-wing policies in the U.S. He has aggressively challenged pandemic safety rules like mask and vaccine mandates. Over the past year Abbott has also signed into law strict new voting rules, a significant expansion of gun rights and the nation’s most restrictive abortion law.

Democrats have long considered Texas — the country’s second-most populous state — as a potential game changer that could tip the balance of political power nationwide. But, despite rapidly changing demographics, Republican domination of the state has continued uninterrupted. No Democrat has won a statewide election in Texas since 1994.

Why there’s debate

Most experts agree that O’Rourke faces a steep challenge if he wants to become governor of Texas. There’s some debate, though, over whether he is simply the underdog in the race or if his campaign is essentially a lost cause.

Abbott certainly holds many advantages in the contest, starting with the fact that Texas remains a solidly red state. He also has the power of the incumbency, a massive early fundraising advantage and a new slate of voting laws that experts say most likely will benefit Republicans.

Some local political analysts say it’s unlikely O’Rourke will be able to repeat, let alone surpass, his breakthrough performance in the 2018 Senate campaign. In that race, he was a relative newcomer who benefited from a nationwide blue wave in response to Trump’s presidency. Political trends are expected to help Republicans in 2022. O’Rourke will also have to contend with criticism of some of the left-leaning political stances he took during his presidential run — most notably his strict gun control proposals.

Still, some analysts say O’Rourke has a puncher’s chance in the race. They say he’s a charismatic candidate who has both a national profile and a proven ground game in the state. Abbott may also be more vulnerable than he appears, they argue. His efforts to appeal to the GOP’s right-wing base could turn away suburban swing voters, they say. He may also suffer backlash over his handling of the deadly winter storms that caused Texas’s power grid to collapse earlier this year.

What’s next

There’s one major unknown hanging over the Texas governor’s race that could shift the dynamics dramatically. Oscar-winning actor and Texas native Matthew McConaughey has said he’s considering joining the contest. The self-described “radical centrist” is expected to run as an independent if he does launch a formal bid.

Perspectives

O’Rourke’s campaign is doomed from the start

“If I were Greg Abbott, I’d probably be a little more worried about my Republican primary challengers than about Señor O’Rourke. … The last great Democratic hope in Texas didn’t break 40 percent against Greg Abbott. I wouldn’t be surprised if Beto O’Rourke underperforms that, while doing the Republicans the invaluable service of providing a great gaping black hole into which national Democrats can shovel money.” — Kevin D. Williamson, National Review

Not even the best candidate can change the fundamental nature of Texas politics

“O’Rourke is perhaps the most well-known Texas Democrat, having built up a local and national profile over the course of two campaigns in three years. But Texas is tough for any Democrat to crack. There have been three decades of Republican hegemony in the state, and even the most ideal Democratic candidate would be seen as an underdog.” — Nicole Narea, Vox

The trends that benefited O’Rourke in 2018 will be flipped in 2022

“Most fundamentally, the 2022 political environment will probably help Abbott far more than it will aid O’Rourke. When O’Rourke nearly won his 2018 Senate contest, he benefited from very favorable, Democratic-leaning electoral conditions — namely, there was a Republican president in office who was unpopular. This time around, though, the shoe will likely be on the other foot: Republicans will get to run with a Democrat in the White House and, if current trends continue, an unpopular one at that.” — Geoffrey Skelley, FiveThirtyEight

O’Rourke’s standing in Texas has dipped after two failed campaigns

“​​After O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, presidential campaign and starring role in the 2020 election in Texas — and all the GOP attacks that have accompanied each endeavor — O’Rourke’s image in the state is damaged.” — Patrick Svitek, Texas Tribune

O’Rourke is a strong enough candidate to pull off a shocking upset

“A lesser candidate would have zero chance of success. … But O’Rourke changes everything. An unwinnable race becomes, if not winnable, surely more competitive than it otherwise would have been.” — Mark Davis, Dallas Morning News

Far-right primary challengers could hurt Abbott in the general election

“Abbott may also be sticking to pro-Trump positions in part because he is facing primary challenges from the right. … But the question of whether a pro-Trump position will help Abbott in a general election is a more complicated one than might be expected, even in Texas.” — Niall Stanage, The Hill

Texas’s voter base is gradually shifting toward Democrats

“Texas added 4 million new voters since Greg Abbott was first elected. There are a sizable number of new Texans who don’t know who Greg Abbott is and who are unsure of who Beto O’Rourke is. … I guess that’s what O’Rourke is hoping for: a whole new electorate in Texas who can be persuaded about the correctness of his policies and the problems that Republicans have faced since they’ve been in office for 20-plus years.” — Brandon Rottinghaus, University of Houston political science professor, to Slate

With the right message, O’Rourke can tap into the state’s independent streak

“If the election is about his position on guns, he will lose. But if it is about Texas’s self-image as a big-hearted, can-do and self-reliant state, he might have a shot. In other words, O’Rourke can elevate the values Republicans used to claim as their own.” — Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Veronica G. Cardenas/Reuters, Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images, Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images

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