Beto O'Rourke delivers a concession speech in El Paso on election night on Nov. 6, 2018. O'Rourke had run against Ted Cruz for a Senate seat. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke announced Monday he is running for governor of Texas, ending months of speculation over whether he would seek the nomination and challenge Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

“I don’t know that this state has ever been more divided than it is right now and that has everything to do with the person in the governor’s office. Greg Abbott has pursued these extraordinarily extremist and small, petty, mean, divisive policies,” O’Rourke said in an exclusive interview with El Paso Matters ahead of his official announcement.

“He is just too extreme and too radical for Texas.”

O’Rourke pointed to Abbott’s championing of legislation that bans abortion after six weeks, the nation’s most restrictive law, and permittless carry of handguns, both of which the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature passed during its recent 87th legislative session.

Beto O’Rourke’s announcement video
YouTube video

Even before O’Rourke’s official announcement, Abbott was already taking aim at the Democrat’s views on gun control.

The governor’s reelection campaign released an Oct. 19 attack ad labeling O’Rourke “Wrong Way O’Rourke.” The ad features O’Rourke’s memorable comment from his short-lived 2020 presidential campaign — “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47” — and warns that O’Rourke will “confiscate your guns.”

That comment, made during a presidential debate in Houston, came weeks after 23 people were killed at an El Paso Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019, in the deadliest attack on Latinos in modern U.S. history. The alleged gunman is a white man who authorities say drove from the Dallas-area to ward off an “invasion” of Hispanics.

If elected, O’Rourke said he would still push for a state ban on military-style semiautomatic weapons. He also expressed support for additional firearms restrictions, including universal background checks for gun purchases, extreme risk protection orders and the end of permitless carry.

He cast himself as someone who understands the state’s gun culture, sharing an anecdote about growing up in a home with guns — “guns for self-protection, guns for hunting.” He said he learned how to handle a weapon from his great uncle Raymond O’Rourke, a sheriff’s deputy who was captain of the El Paso County Jail.

There’s common ground among most Texans, he said, on “policies that protect the right to bear arms, to have a firearm and use that firearm responsibility, but also protect the lives of our fellow Texans.”

Abbott tweeted within minutes of O’Rourke’s announcement, outlining themes he’ll continue to press as the campaign unfolds.

A second bid for statewide office

For months, O’Rourke, 49, dodged questions about whether he would challenge Abbott.

He said he waited to announce until his family was ready and his campaign team assembled. His three children range from 11 to 14 years old. The campaign headquarters are still being decided, campaign spokesperson Abhi Rahman said.

Beto O’Rourke and his oldest son Ulysses, left, walk along Delta Drive on Oct. 2 during a march to protest Texas’ new abortion restrictions. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

His candidacy marks his second bid for a statewide office; he came within 3 percentage points of ousting Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, the closest margin for a Democrat in a statewide Texas race in decades. That campaign catapulted him from being a relatively unknown three-term El Paso congressman and former city representative, to a national political celebrity.

O’Rourke said he will repeat a hallmark of his U.S. Senate bid: campaigning in all 254 counties.

“I feel very very strongly that the only way to win, the only way to serve, is to bring everybody in. And the only way you can do that is by going everywhere,” he said.

“You can’t be too small town, too big city, too red, too blue for me. I’m showing up and I’m listening and I’m learning and I’m going to do everything I can to bring you in and make sure that you are part of the solution.”

O’Rourke said he’ll focus on issues that he said Texans of all political stripes will coalesce around, including quality public education, Medicaid expansion and job creation.

Abbott’s “incompetent response” to the coronavirus pandemic is something O’Rourke will try to drive home in his effort to portray Abbott as a danger to Texans. Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in schools is another example of the governor’s “extreme policies,” O’Rourke said.

Immigration is expected to be a central part of the race as Abbott has made building a state-funded border wall a key part of his campaign, something O’Rourke also calls “extremist.”

Abbott’s Oct. 19 ad says under O’Rourke’s leadership, Texas would be “overrun by illegal immigrants” because of O’Rourke’s statement during his presidential campaign that he would tear down the wall.

Greg Abbott campaign video
YouTube video

O’Rourke said Abbott is out of touch with what border communities want. “He doesn’t trust local communities to come up with the solutions to the issues they know best,” he said.

“You ask more El Pasoans, and they’ll say we need to make sure that we have order and predictability at our border, that people follow the law — and that should include our government as well, (that we) follow our asylum laws and make sure that we’re accountable for the laws that are on the books,” he said.

O’Rourke campaign to reject corporate PAC dollars

O’Rourke’s Senate bid also demonstrated his fundraising prowess. He broke Senate campaign fundraising records, pulling in $80 million without taking money from political action committees.

O’Rourke will still eschew contributions from corporate PACs this time around, Rahman said. The campaign is still determining whether it will accept donations from union PACs. O’Rourke will not take money from his own political action committee, Powered By People, Rahman said.

Abbott’s campaign had more than $55 million at the end of June, which staff said was larger “than any other statewide candidate in Texas history.”

Unlike federal races for Congress or the presidency, elections for state offices in Texas have no limits on how much individuals can contribute to candidates.

The incumbent governor, who is seeking a third term, has already drawn three Republican primary challengers: former Texas GOP Party Chair Allen West; former state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas; and Chad Prather, a conservative political commentator. The primary election is in March 2022.

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No other Democrat has announced a bid to unseat Abbott. Actor Matthew McConaughey has said he’s considering running, but it’s unclear if he will run in either party primary or as an independent. The candidate filing period ends Dec. 13.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa told Axios in mid-September that he believed O’Rourke could unseat Abbott because the governor is “vulnerable.” Hinojosa called O’Rourke Democrats’ “strongest candidate.”

Abbott’s approval rating dropped this summer to one of the lowest points since he assumed office as governor in 2015. The Texas Politics Project showed 50% of polled voters disapproved of his performance.

A recent University of Texas at Austin/Texas Tribune poll gives Abbott a significant edge over O’Rourke, with the governor ahead by 9 percentage points in a hypothetical matchup.

But an early November Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation poll showed Abbott and O’Rourke in a dead heat. 

A Democrat hasn’t held the Texas governor’s office since 1994, when Republican George W. Bush defeated incumbent Ann Richards. An El Pasoan has never held a statewide office.

Cover photo: Beto O’Rourke delivers a concession speech in El Paso on election night on Nov. 6, 2018. O’Rourke had run against Ted Cruz for a Senate seat. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.