Beto O'Rourke is still campaigning. But for what?

click to enlarge Beto O'Rourke recently organized a block walking event in the political battleground of South Texas as people wonder if he'll run for governor in 2022. - Laura Skelding / The Texas Tribune
Laura Skelding / The Texas Tribune
Beto O'Rourke recently organized a block walking event in the political battleground of South Texas as people wonder if he'll run for governor in 2022.
LAREDO — The placid skies and balmy, springtime heat in South Texas made waiting outdoors tolerable on a recent Saturday this April. Around midday, about two dozen masked volunteers mingled outside the Webb County Democratic Party headquarters, pop music blaring in the background.

Most were waiting in a scattered, socially distanced line to greet Beto O’Rourke, the former U.S. Senate candidate who in 2018 gave Texas Democrats their best shot at unseating a statewide Republican official in decades. Each would get an opportunity to pose for a photo with one of the state’s most prominent Democrats, who was wearing his usual blue button-up shirt, before heading out to another shift of block walking.

It had all the appearances of one of the hundreds of rallies O’Rourke held across the state early in his 2018 campaign for U.S. Senate, or during his ill-fated bid for president soon after. But this time, O’Rourke wasn’t campaigning for anything — at least not explicitly. He told The Texas Tribune he mobilized his supporters to simply understand what issues matter to Laredoans and because Sylvia Bruni, the chair of the Webb County Democratic Party, asked O’Rourke in the aftermath of the 2020 elections to help with voter engagement after Republicans performed better than usual in South Texas.

“Sure enough, we called her back and said we'll make a plan to drive down to Laredo, we’ll encourage volunteers to join us and encourage some volunteers to drive down,” he said.

The midterm general election is more than a year away, but for O’Rourke, one of the most prominent Democrats in Texas, the grind of civic engagement never stops. Through his political organization, Powered by People, O’Rourke has been regularly hosting live and virtual events, whether it’s a canvassing event in the political hotbed of South Texas or phone banking sessions on Zoom.

And it’s not just events. O’Rourke has made himself visible during most of the biggest news stories in the state this year, raising questions about whether he’s got his eye on the race for governor in 2022.

In the past few months, Powered by People has hosted “vaccination canvasses” in 17 Texas cities “in some of the hardest-hit zip codes in the state, helping those who might not have access to the internet, or a cell phone or who might not speak English, a shot at getting the shot,” O’Rourke said in an email to supporters. O’Rourke activated his network during February’s winter storm, reportedly raising more than $1 million for recovery efforts and organizing volunteers to knock on doors and conduct wellness checks for seniors. O’Rourke himself delivered water in his pickup truck, broadcasting his efforts on Facebook Live.

And he has been engaged in the current session of the Texas Legislature, specifically pushing back against House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7, two Republican-backed election bills that would beef up voting restrictions, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud. O’Rourke was in Austin a few weeks ago to testify against HB 6 but wasn’t able to after the chair of the committee that would have listened pushed back the hearing. He did testify against the Senate bill, calling it “unjust” and “undemocratic.”

“You realize how important your vote is when someone's trying so hard to take it from you. And they wouldn't be working so hard to stop people from voting if those votes and voters weren't so important,” O’Rourke said in a phone call with the Tribune.

When asked in an interview about his future, the former congressman from El Paso said working in politics and civic engagement “just seems like the most important work that I could ever be a part of.”

But many, of course, see other motives. O’Rourke is frequently asked whether he plans to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott next year. His answer is almost always noncommittal. Earlier this month, he told a TV interviewer that he had “no plans” to run. When that generated a headline in The Dallas Morning News, O’Rourke reached out to the Tribune to clarify that “nothing I said would preclude me from considering a run in the future."

During O’Rourke’s block walk along Alameda Drive in Laredo, one woman answered the door and immediately recognized the tall, slender man before her. She said Texas Democrats need to give Republicans a run for their money and then asked “So I heard you’re running for governor?”

He told her he wasn’t sure.

All his recent political activity begs the question: Is “Betomania” as potent in 2021 as it was when O’Rourke challenged Sen. Ted Cruz a few years ago?

Late in 2018, O’Rourke was attracting tens of thousands of people to some rallies. Even after he lost by less than three percentage points, he was a Democratic star. But then he struggled mightily in the presidential primary, dropping out in November 2019 after languishing in the low single digits in the polls.

A statewide poll released Sunday by the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that just 35% of registered voters view O’Rourke very or somewhat favorably, compared to 37% who viewed him very or somewhat unfavorably. The survey had a margin of error of 2.9%.

In January, Abbott’s political strategist, Dave Carney, told Fox News that “I would certainly love to run against [O’Rourke].”

“The guy couldn’t get elected dog catcher,” he said.

Still, he remains a frequent Republican foil. This month, his vaccine efforts gained the attention of Texas’ Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, whose office penned a letter warning Powered by People that collecting or sharing certain sensitive information while encouraging people to get vaccinated could be illegal. The letter, which Paxton’s office released to the public, gave no indication that Paxton’s office had any evidence that O’Rourke’s group was breaking the law.

“It is essential that organizations like Powered by People follow state and federal law regarding the handling of sensitive and personal information,” the letter stated.

Johnny Ruffier, chief of staff for the El Paso Young Democrats and president of the College Democrats at the University of Texas at El Paso, said there’s still a lot of “goodwill” for O’Rourke.

But he said he doesn’t know "if that same enthusiasm and energy is still there.” El Paso is where O’Rourke cut his teeth in politics and where he ousted the city’s longtime congressman.

“A lot of that excitement that he was a newcomer [in 2018] went away after the presidential primary. He also showed his moderate side, but he did build the infrastructure in Texas,” said Ruffier.

Jen Ramos, a Texas Democratic Party executive committee member, said the party is focused first on identifying the issues that are the most important to voters, and then it will focus on candidates once the 2022 elections begin to heat up, possibly in the summer. She added that the political efforts by O’Rourke’s Powered by People to build up a Democratic infrastructure in Texas are welcomed, whether or not O’Rourke chooses to run.

If O’Rourke does decide to run for governor, not taking him seriously, for whatever reason, would be a fatal electoral mistake for Republicans in battleground districts, according to Tyler Kraus, the chair of the Webb County Republican Party.

“Beto would be formidable opposition,” Kraus said. “You have to take him seriously. The guy has a lot of appeal to a lot of people. And it would be a mistake to write him off."

And it’s clear some enthusiasm remains for an O’Rourke gubernatorial candidacy. A private Facebook group named “Beto O'Rourke For Governor of Texas” was created in mid-February and it has more than 39,000 members.

“Texas is asking Beto O'Rourke to run for Governor of Texas! Please invite your friends and share this page,” the group’s description states. An administrator of the page did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrats are watching closely. Optimism was high for the state party in 2020, with leaders hoping they could flip as many as eight congressional seats, win control of the Texas House and deliver the state for Joe Biden. It ended in disappointment, with President Donald Trump winning the state by six percentage points and Democrats making no net gains in the Texas House or U.S House.

Still, Democratic strategists say they believe their party has an upward trajectory in Texas — Trump won the state by nine points in 2016 and Mitt Romney won it by 16 in 2012. But they need to field strong candidates.

“We're still gaining traction, but it's slow. Sometimes one step forward, one step back or sometimes two steps forward, one step back. It's not a straight line deal,” said Jeff Crosby, an Austin-based campaign consultant who assists Democratic campaigns in the state. “We don't have a weak candidate pool. But we do have some folks that are staring in the face of the reality of not being able to raise enough money to be competitive.”

Democrats also see vulnerability in Abbott, who has had to manage the state through a pandemic and catastrophic winter storm.

“It’s surprising, but the ERCOT stuff might be a bigger threat to Abbott than playing defense on the pandemic,” said James Aldrete, a political communications consultant who once served as deputy press secretary to Ann Richards' campaign for governor.

But there are also many Republicans enthusiastic about running against O’Rourke. They warn that the shine is off him after his bid for the presidency. They gleefully point to his hardline stance against assault-style weapons like the AR-15 as an issue to use in a campaign against him.

During a presidential debate in 2019, O’Rourke famously — or infamously, depending on the observer — proclaimed, “Hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

Was O'Rourke's comment about banning assault-style guns a fatal blow to his future in Texas politics?

“Texas is a pro-Second Amendment state, but I also think it's open for a lot more common-sense regulation,” Aldrete said. “I think as your suburban vote grows, I don't know if that is a stance that disqualifies him at the least. I think the strength of Beto has always been that he is not manufactured. He's out there and you see him for who he is.”

For those who showed up to canvass with him in Laredo, like Abimael Perez and Veronica Martinez, the excitement remains.

“I think he's a very charismatic person and if he runs for governor, I'm gonna vote for him. And I'm gonna support him,” Perez said.

“For me, it's definitely his personality. I saw him with his skateboard at Whataburger and thought ‘Yeah, OK, this dude's cool,’” Martinez added.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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