Beto O’Rourke left El Paso Wednesday for the oilfields of Pecos and Midland, the first of many stops on a 49-day campaign road trip that will take him to cities big and small across the state.

O’Rourke’s road trip — his longest one yet in his bid to become Texas’ 49th governor — comes days after he posted the biggest fundraising haul the state has seen in a single reporting period by a candidate running for statewide office. Recent polling numbers of registered voters show him narrowing the gap between Republican Gov. Greg Abbott by 5 to 6 percentage points.

But will that be enough momentum for him to become the first Democratic governor in nearly three decades?

Yes, he told the crowd gathered Tuesday evening at the Lowbrow Palace music venue for the road trip kickoff event — but only as long as Texans vote.

“This is not going to be easy,” O’Rourke said.

“It’s going to be tough and they’re using every lever of power they have to try to stop us. Do you think that if everyone in Texas voted that we would have a ban on abortion, that we would be attacking teachers, that we would have permitless carry, that we couldn’t keep the (power) grid running, that prices would be going through the roof? Absolutely not.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke responds to the crowd of supporters at the kickoff of his “Drive for Texas” campaign in his native El Paso on Tuesday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In the 2020 presidential election, about 66% of the state’s registered voters cast a ballot, up from 53% in the 2018 gubernatorial election when O’Rourke ran for U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz.

Asked Tuesday whether O’Rourke poses a threat, Abbott’s lead campaign consultant adamantly said no.

But his “money is a threat,” David Carney said, referring to campaign donations that could be used to buy ads.

“That’s always a threat, but Beto and his policies — where he’s for Title 42 one day, he’s in a different part of the state and is against it. He flip flops and he’s wishy-washy,” Carney said. “We’re not worried about him. We’re worried about his out-of-state money.”

O’Rourke raised $27.6 million from late February through June, about $2.7 million more than Abbott during that same time. Since O’Rourke announced his gubernatorial bid last November, a larger share of his campaign donations have come from donors outside Texas, according to a Texas Tribune analysis.

A woman records Beto O’Rourke as he speaks to supporters in El Paso at the start of his “Drive for Texas” campaign on Tuesday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Abbott has favored private campaign fundraisers over the public events that have been a signature of O’Rourke’s statewide campaigns. 

During his 2018 campaign for Senate, O’Rourke made headlines for his decision to stump in all 254 Texas counties

“It seems Abbott is building on his name recognition and just attempting to use cash buys to fund his ads,” said Todd Curry, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso. “He really doesn’t have to do a lot of in-person events because he has that natural incumbency advantage.”

Carney said voters can expect to see more of Abbott as it gets closer to the Nov. 8 election. Early voting begins Oct. 24.

“The events that we do are designed for a particular purpose and when voters start to pay close attention is when we start to do more public events,” he said. “We do a lot of media roundtables on particular topics with small businesspeople or law enforcement, stuff like that. We start doing the more, what you might call traditional campaign gatherings, get-out-the-vote type things closer to the election time.”

Curry believes that O’Rourke has “an outside possibility” of winning in November “given recent polling and the policy climate and events that have taken place over the past few months.” 

Those include the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which triggered Texas’ ban on nearly all abortions, and Uvalde, the state’s deadliest school shooting.

“I think if he stays on message, those issues can be electorally valuable and won’t fade in the memory of Texans in the next three months,” Curry said. More Texans, he said, agree with O’Rourke’s policy positions on abortions and guns than they do with Abbott’s.

“It’s pretty clear that Abbott is losing on guns and he’s losing on abortion. But he has one issue in his back pocket that he can pull out and that’s immigration,” Curry said. “He drums that issue anytime he can and the reason is because that issue plays into fear and fear is a good motivator in terms of getting people to the polls.”

One of Abbott’s priorities, Carney said, is “trying to protect Texans as best as possible from the border.” That includes “cracking (down) on fentanyl and human trafficking,” in addition to the “onslaught and flood of illegal immigrants crossing our border illegally.”

The governor’s rhetoric surrounding immigration, particularly his continued use of the word “invasion” to describe the increase in migrants crossing the Texas border, has drawn criticism from El Paso leaders and immigration activists who say that language can incite racially motivated violence like the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting in El Paso.

“We don’t need scare tactics or fearmongering or stunts. We need solutions,” O’Rourke told the crowd Tuesday when he briefly addressed immigration, which is largely a federal issue.

“We need a governor who understands that immigrants are our greatest asset, our source of strength,” he said. “If you want to come here to work, to join your family, to seek asylum, to petition for refuge, there’s got to be a lawful, orderly, safe and quick path for you to be able to do that.”

O’Rourke, however, has struggled to articulate to voters his policy positions on immigration, Curry said.

The Democrat must also contend with the gains Republicans have made with the state’s Hispanic voters, particularly in South Texas where the Republican Party of Texas is investing in field outreach.

Asked Tuesday what his strategy is for reaching undecided Hispanic voters in particular, O’Rourke pointed to his frequent trips across the state.

“There’s nothing better than showing up and being with the people whose votes that you want to win,” he said, highlighting recent visits to Hispanic-majority cities like Uvalde and San Antonio.

“No voter is taken for granted, no vote is written off. I’m going to fight for and earn every single one of them and you see me doing that as we travel the state showing up everywhere for everyone.”

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.