The Memo: Could O'Rourke beat Abbott to become governor of Texas?

Democrats in Texas have received a blast of good news after being stung by several recent defeats.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) is considering entering the gubernatorial race, hoping to oust Gov. Greg AbbottGreg AbbottMore than 40 Texas hospitals face ICU bed shortages Southwest drops plan to put unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave Trump-backed bills on election audits, illegal voting penalties expected to die in Texas legislature MORE (R) next year.

The possible O’Rourke run was first reported by Axios, and The New York Times later detailed that he had begun talking to people about joining his campaign team.

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An O’Rourke run is clearly a serious possibility. But could he win?

Advocates point to his race against Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE (R-Texas) in 2018, when O’Rourke kindled enormous enthusiasm from Democrats nationwide — and raised huge sums of money. In total, O’Rourke banked $80 million for that race, the largest sum ever recorded by a candidate in a Senate campaign.

The Beto boosters point out that Abbott is vulnerable too, with declining poll numbers amid the COVID-19 pandemic and other problems.

But it’s not quite as simple as that. First, for all the energy of O’Rourke’s Senate campaign against Cruz, he still lost — and by more than 200,000 votes.

O’Rourke’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 is perhaps best forgotten.

The former congressman struggled to get traction and, even worse, aggravated some in the party with what they saw as an air of entitlement. The most infamous example was an April 2019 cover of Vanity Fair, featuring the quote, “I want to be in it. Man, I’m just born to be in it.”

The voters disagreed. His campaign lasted about eight months. He pulled out well before the first contest, the Iowa caucuses.

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A gubernatorial victory would be an astonishing comeback. And Democrats think now might be the time for O’Rourke to strike.

Abbott is “certainly more vulnerable than at any previous point in his political career,” Texas Democratic strategist Keir Murray told this column.

Murray ascribed Abbott’s relative weakness to three things.

The governor has resisted mask and vaccine mandates, even as the delta variant of COVID-19 has exacted a grave toll on Texas.

Voters have also not forgotten the catastrophic failure of the Texas power grid, which saw almost 5 million homes lose power in February. Estimates of the death toll range from 200 to 700, according to Texas Monthly.

Then there is the Texas Legislature, which has propelled itself into the national spotlight with massively controversial measures on voting rights and abortion.

A poll conducted last month by the University of Texas-Texas Politics Project found Abbott with the worst approval ratings in the six years that the survey has been conducted.

Fifty percent of Texans in the poll disapproved of Abbott’s performance, while just 41 percent approved. Democrats and Republicans split along predictable lines, but 52 percent of independents gave Abbott the thumbs-down and just 30 percent approved.

Another poll, released on Sunday from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler, found that Abbott’s approval rating had fallen to 45 percent, from a high of 59 percent in March 2020.

Still, if Democrats can take heart from the fact that Abbott is clearly vulnerable, they also know the taste of disappointment.

Democrats have hoped for years that Texas would become a truly competitive state, especially because of its growing Hispanic population.

But that hasn’t really happened — or certainly not at the pace some Democrats once hoped.

Election Day 2020 was a sizable disappointment for the party. Then-President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE coasted to victory by more than 5 percentage points. More worryingly for many Democrats, the party did not gain a single House seat in the state. A notably unimpressive performance among Hispanic voters in the Rio Grande Valley was among the biggest problems.

“This remains a state in the midst of becoming more competitive — but in stops and starts, and certainly that is not happening as quickly or to the extent that Democrats had been promising for years,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Looking ahead to next year’s gubernatorial race, Henson cited the relative organizational weakness of the Texas Democratic Party, set against its GOP counterpart.

“The structural context is not very good for the Democrats, despite Abbott being in a weaker position,” he said.

There is also the question of whether O’Rourke’s presidential bid cost him more than just time and money.

During his 2020 quest, he staked out more emphatically progressive positions than he had during his 2018 run against Cruz. Most famously, when asked during a September 2019 Democratic debate about his proposed mandatory buy-back of guns, O’Rourke replied, “Hell, yes. We’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

That rhetoric delights the Democratic grassroots, but how it would play in a statewide Texas race is a lot more questionable.

Matt Mackowiak, the GOP chairman in Travis County, Texas, called the idea of O’Rourke entering the gubernatorial race “a stunning miscalculation.”

“I don’t see how he is electable statewide,” Mackowiak said. “His national ambitions have made it impossible for him to get elected statewide in Texas, because he has committed himself to positions outside the state mainstream.”

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Mackowiak characterized O’Rourke as the only candidate Democrats had to offer.

Other, more neutral observers agree the former congressman likely gives the Democrats their only real shot at the governor’s mansion.

But, as with so much else in next year’s race, even that is up for debate.

Sunday’s Dallas Morning News poll tested two Democratic candidates in hypothetical match-ups against Abbott.

One was O’Rourke. He lost by 5 points.

Abbott was defeated by 9 points by the other name tested — actor Matthew McConaughey.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.