The Memo: Abbott vs. O'Rourke contest will echo nationwide

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) decision to enter the Texas gubernatorial race creates one of the biggest marquee match-ups of the 2022 election cycle — and it’s one with national implications.

O’Rourke, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 but fell flat, announced on Monday that he is challenging incumbent Gov. Greg AbbottGreg AbbottO'Rourke 'not interested' in campaign help from politicians outside Texas Gerrymandering is putting US in Mad Max territory On immigration, President Biden needs a re-set MORE (R). Abbott is widely perceived to have presidential ambitions of his own in 2024, especially if former President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE does not run.

Any such ambitions on Abbott’s part would be derailed if he lost to O’Rourke.

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But there is also the question of how many more defeats O’Rourke’s career can endure.

O’Rourke became a soaring Democratic star during his 2018 bid to unseat incumbent Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzPoll: Trump leads 2024 Republican field with DeSantis in distant second The politics of 'mind control' Juan Williams: It's Trump vs. McConnell for the GOP's future MORE (R-Texas). But, despite enormous media attention and unprecedented fundraising prowess, O’Rourke came up short in that race. 

Then there was the sputtering presidential run, which ended with O’Rourke dropping out in advance of the Iowa caucuses.

A third loss would be tough to take.

“It’s either a ‘third time’s a charm’ or it's the end of his political career,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. “He can be extremely influential behind the scenes in Democratic politics but it won’t be the same for him, personally, if he loses.”

Yet it’s not just Abbott and O’Rourke who have a lot on the line in the 2022 race.

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The same is true of President BidenJoe BidenFox News reporter says Biden called him after 'son of a b----' remark Peloton responds after another TV character has a heart attack on one of its bikes Defense & National Security — Pentagon puts 8,500 troops on high alert MORE — and his predecessor.

Texas experts across the political spectrum say that O’Rourke faces significant odds — and they point to Biden as a major drag on his chances.

“It’s not exactly the most favorable political climate for Democrats,” Democratic strategist Keir Murray said ruefully, an apparent allusion to Biden’s low approval numbers both nationwide and in Texas.

The latest Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll, released earlier this month, showed that just 35 percent of Texans approved of Biden’s job performance while 55 percent disapproved. The finding marked a precipitous slide from six months previously, when the same survey showed the Lone Star State’s voters split almost evenly on Biden.

“That may change a year from now but it is still a tall order for anyone to win,” said Murray, who noted that he considered O’Rourke’s chances “as good as any Democrat making the race.”

Then there is Trump to consider.

The former president is unwilling to leave the political stage, for good or for bad. Abbott is generally seen as loath to alienate Trump’s supporters, either in the gubernatorial race or as he mulls his possible presidential ambitions.

Just last month, Abbott appointed as Texas’s secretary of State John Scott, who was among the attorneys who represented Trump as the former president tried to get the 2020 election results overturned. Scott worked on a team focused on challenging the results in Pennsylvania.

Earlier in October, Trump released a statement pushing for an “audit” of votes in Texas — despite the fact that he carried the state by six points over Biden last November. Within hours, the secretary of state’s office — which was then vacant, prior to Scott’s appointment — had released a statement noting that there was indeed a “full and comprehensive audit” underway in four large counties.

Abbott may also be sticking to pro-Trump positions in part because he is facing primary challenges from the right, including from businessman Don Huffines.

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.

“Trump is a wild card,” said Richard Murray, a senior research fellow at the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. “He is very popular with Texas Republicans but not very much with Texas independents.” 

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This as well as Trump’s tendency to be a “world-class meddler” could cause turbulence for Abbott, Murray suggested. Other commentators note that Trump’s infamous capacity to turn off suburban voters could be a problem.

There are, of course, state-specific issues at play in the race.

In particular, there was the devastating winter storm in February that caused about 700 deaths, left millions without power and resulted in extortionately high utility bills for many Texans. Democrats, in particular, think that episode was such a seismic shock that it will be an enduring liability for Abbott.

But there is a whole raft of national issues that will be motivating voters too.

One question is whether COVID-19 will still be a salient political issue one year from now. Abbott has been at the forefront of conservative resistance to mandates, along with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisBiden administration limits use of two monoclonal antibody treatments Poll: Trump leads 2024 Republican field with DeSantis in distant second The Hill's Morning Report - US warns Kremlin, weighs more troops to Europe MORE (R). Right now, no one knows exactly how that plays out.

Abbott has also been notably hawkish on immigration and border security. And he welcomed the massively controversial abortion bill in the state that in effect banned terminations after as little as six weeks of pregnancy. Signing the bill into law, Abbott praised it for its potential to save unborn children from “the ravages of abortion.”

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For now, there is no question Abbott is the favorite to retain the governorship.

Of O’Rourke, GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser predicted that “the trends for 2022 are against him and he is less popular now than he was in 2018.”

But one thing everyone seems to agree on is the broader implications of the race.

Rottinghaus, the University of Houston professor, said the contest was sure to be “nationalized.”

“It won’t be only Abbott versus O’Rourke,” he added. “It will be Trump versus Biden.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.