Beto O’Rourke invoked his hometown underdogs Saturday afternoon at his first El Paso campaign event since announcing his run for governor. He spoke of El Paso’s political, civil rights and sports figures who challenged the status quo and won.
“We’re a city of underdogs … and that has never before stopped us,” O’Rourke told those gathered at Downtown’s DeadBeach Brewery, many who have championed him since he got his political start on El Paso City Council.
O’Rourke cast himself as a candidate who will be able to win over Texans across the political spectrum, something he must do if he wants to secure victory in November.
“(Gov. Greg Abbott’s) not listening to us, he does not trust us and so his policies do not reflect us,” O’Rourke told the crowd, referencing Abbott’s support for the six-week abortion ban and permitless handgun carry laws the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature passed during its recent sessions.
“He’s not doing the things that we want him to do — focus on those priorities not of Democrats or Republicans, or only the people of El Paso, but all of us here in Texas.”
Those policies, O’Rourke said, include good jobs, high-quality public schools, Medicaid expansion and infrastructure investment, frequent talking points of his campaign.
Though he came within less than 3 percentage points of ousting Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz during O’Rourke’s last bid for statewide office, his road to victory is far harder this time around than in 2018. Cruz was deeply unpopular even among Republicans, while Abbott is far more liked, said Richard Pineda, who chairs the University of Texas at El Paso’s communication department.
Abbott’s pull to the right, brought on by Republican primary challengers Don Huffines, a former state senator, and former Texas GOP Chair Allen West, has been well received, Pineda said. “That means it’s going to be that much harder for Beto to have sympathetic ears for the arguments he’s laying out,” he added.
O’Rourke told El Paso Matters Saturday he believes his positions on marijuana legalization and stricter gun control will bring moderate Republicans in rather than isolate them.
“It’s hard to find the person in Texas who thinks it makes sense to spend half a billion dollars a year locking up people for possession of a substance that’s legal almost everywhere else in the country, especially when we know that we’re disproportionately locking up Black and brown Texans,” he said.
Asked how Abbott is a different opponent than Cruz, O’Rourke said that whereas Cruz was “one of a hundred in the Senate, Greg Abbott is the person in the highest position of public trust in this land.” O’Rourke said he’s convinced he’s better positioned to beat Abbott.
“(Abbott) owns everything that’s happened in Texas. That reproductive health care ban — he signed that into law. The power grid failure … that we’re all going to pay for on our utility bills, that’s on Greg Abbott.”
An early December 2021 Quinnipiac University poll found O’Rourke trailing Abbott by 15 percentage points.
El Pasoan Peggy Gustafson, 60, considers herself an independent. She said she’ll be voting for O’Rourke in the March 1 Democratic primary, where he faces three largely unknown challengers. She also voted for him in 2018’s Senate campaign.
“I’m actually looking for competence and it seems like so many Republicans have given in to Trumpism, and that definitely makes Democratic candidates more appealing to me,” Gustafson said as she waited for O’Rourke to speak Saturday. Former President Donald Trump has endorsed Abbott for reelection.
“Abbott actually was not a Republican that I disliked until this past term because he’s changed significantly his stance on immigration. … I agree with Beto’s philosophies on immigration — that it’s really good and essential for our economy,” Gustafson said.
Democrat Anne-Michèle Mallory, 43, a recent El Paso transplant from New York, said O’Rourke needs to focus on getting people to vote. Mallory is volunteering with his campaign.
“I’ve always said that Texas is not a red state, it’s a non-voting state,” Mallory said. “I think he’s on the right path with trying to get people registered because there’s a huge population of Texans who haven’t been engaged because they think their voice doesn’t matter.”
O’Rourke will spend Sunday going door-to-door in Northeast El Paso speaking with potential voters.
Pineda believes O’Rourke could unseat the incumbent in a general election matchup if O’Rourke hammers home the message that Abbott has cut away people’s rights, particularly those of minority communities.
“If O’Rourke can really position on that and say to these communities, look if you let them (Republicans) get away with talking about immigration as a threat or you let them get away with saying your ballot boxes are in danger, then it’s very easy to slide down into more draconian or more limited policies,” Pineda said.
That could resonate with moderate Republican women concerned about losing access to women’s health services in the wake of Texas’ new abortion restrictions, he noted.
“It’s got to be laser-like, because the second he talks about taking away your guns, or doing this other stuff, all that’s going to go right by the wayside,” Pineda said.
Cover photo: Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke speaks to supporters at DeadBeach Brewery on Saturday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)