AUSTIN, Texas — On a hot June morning a few hours before he was to lead a rally for voting rights on the steps of the Texas Capitol, Beto O’Rourke sat in a modern, yellow adobe-style house doing rounds of press interviews.
He has said he’s not running for anything, yet. But inevitably, every journalist asked the question on everyone’s mind after his two-week cross-state tour that felt like a series of campaign stops he insisted weren’t.
Might he run for governor or another office in 2022?
O’Rourke’s answer remains steadfast and seemingly honest. He’s not deciding anything until after the fight to defend voting rights currently on the table in Texas and the nation has been won, he said.
“There's just about nothing else I'd rather be doing than connecting with people and being in this fight for voting rights,” he said as he sat in a sunlit room wearing his signature blue oxford shirt and jeans, barefoot.
“It feels good,” he said about being on the biggest tour through Texas that he’s been on since his 2018 campaign, when he almost unseated Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and gave new momentum to Texas Democrats.
O’Rourke’s indecision matters to Democrats, who are anxious after the Republican-led state legislature this session passed some of the most conservative laws seen in the Lone Star State in several years.
Gov. Greg Abbott this month signed a ban on abortions after six weeks, known as a “heartbeat” law and a permitless carry law conservatives refer to as “constitutional carry.”
A Republican-led bill on election laws was dramatically defeated by Texas Democrats, who brought the national spotlight on the fight for voting rights to Austin when they staged a late-night walkout from the House floor, essentially killing the bill.
Abbott has called a special session for July 8 to revisit the bill, which Republicans defend as being focused on ensuring election integrity. Civil rights groups said that bill, Senate Bill 7, would be the most restrictive in a state already considered one of the most difficult states in the U.S. to vote.
That makes Texas the next—some say last—big battleground for voting rights. Democrats in Congress failed this month to push through a sweeping federal voting rights bill called the For the People Act.
The voting rights battle gives Democrats even more of a reason to look to an O’Rourke run for governor onto which they could latch their hopes.
O’Rourke’s 2018 close race against Cruz gave huge momentum to Texas Democrats and inspired hope that it would be the year of the “blue wave.” Population growth and demographics have been shifting the electorate left in the state for years, as well. Although O’Rourke lost, voter turnout surged that year, and Democrats took 12 seats in the State House and two U.S. Congressional seats in Texas’ 36-member delegation.
In 2020, O’Rourke ran a brief but failed presidential campaign. Some analysts have said that could diminish O’Rourke’s favorability among voters, who might fear a second loss might mean he can’t win.
But with no other Democrat hinting at challenging Abbott yet, the question remains if an O’Rourke run can once again fuel momentum for the Democrats to gain ground in 2022.
“It’s so hard to become a known quantity in Texas because the state is so big,” said Jason Stanford, a former Democratic consultant who has helped run several statewide campaigns in Texas. “When you’re trying to get people to pay attention to someone who has no star quality, you’re always trying to pretend that our garage band is Elvis.”
Beto has that Elvis factor, Stanford said.
Even if he decides not to run a challenge campaign against Abbott, “he’ll raise money. He’ll get people to register to vote...that’s important stuff,” he said.
Texas has one of the lowest rates of registered voters in the U.S., a fact that Democrats point to as a reason to reject Republican-led bills that civil rights groups said would make it hard to vote.
"The goal is to bring in those who currently aren't participating," O'Rourke said. "What you hve right now is a minority of the minority of the minority deciding the direction of Texas because if the Democrats aren't competitive in statewide elections, then the only election that matters is the Republican primary. And the repibclican primary is the most extreme candidate, the most right wing, the nuttiest candiate that gets eleted."
A Quinnipiac poll released this week showed that 41% of Texas voters surveyed wanted O’Rourke to run for governor in 2022, while 52% said no. Of those who wanted the El Paso native and former U.S. Congressman to run, 77% were Democrats and 45% were independents. Republicans overwhelmingly did not want him to run, with 89% of those surveyed saying no. Only 14% of Democrats surveyed didn’t want O’Rourke to challenge Abbott.
When voters were asked if Abbott deserved to be reelected, 46% said he did and 48% said he did not.
One more name came up in the Quinnipiac poll, which was conducted from June 15 to 21 among Texas voters across the state: Matthew McConaughey, an Oscar-winning actor who has hinted at a political run in this, his native state. While his political affiliation is unknown, 41% of voters surveyed in the poll said they would like to see him run, and 47% say they would not like to see him run.
As O’Rourke remains undecided, the focus on Texas politics is shifting to the upcoming primaries. Republicans have already shown “a lot of energy” ahead of the primaries, something that hasn’t been seen on the Democrats side, said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at UT Austin.
Abbott, who has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, faces at least one confirmed challenger, Don Huffines, a former state senator from Dallas. Allen West, who recently resigned as chairman of the Texas Republican Party, is also mulling a gubernatorial campaign.
The race for attorney general has also drawn several candidates.
“The statewide leadership including government and many legislative incumbents are focused on the 2022 Republican primary in part because they don't expect the 2022 general election to be as challenging to them as the primaries will be,” Henson said. Primary voters tend to be more ideological, more conservative and more engaged in politics than general election voters.
Republican incumbents facing possible primary challengers are focused on self-preservation, he said.
Midterm elections tend to be hard for the party with a president in the White House, which the Republicans will try to take advantage of, Henson said.
It’s too early to say whether or not O’Rourke or the Democrats have a chance to win or pick up State House seats in 2022, Henson said. The Texas Politics Project, which routinely conducts polling in the state, has not polled on the governor’s race yet, Henson said.
Still, while it’s not too late in the game for a Democrat to announce a challenge to Abbott, it’s certainly not too early, Henson said.
Campaigning in Texas is difficult because of the geography and huge population. It’s can also be expensive, with several media markets spread out across the state, Henson said. An early start is important, particularly if a newcomer or unknown candidate wants to get in the race.
O’Rourke has an advantage in that he has already done a statewide campaign, Henson said.
Momentum comes from hard work connecting with voters, O'Rourke said.
"You can have historic turnout, but if you're not campaigning and getting the message across and showing up personally to connect with voters, they can vote for someone else," he said. "But If you do both of them, if you get the turnout and you're talking to voters like we did in 2018, you'll win elections."
O’Rourke and his nonprofit group Powered by People traveled through Texas this month, visiting nearly 20 cities to drum up support for the federal voting rights legislation and the special session on Senate Bill 7. Along the way, O’Rourke said he was encouraged by the conversations he had with people from Lubbock to Carthage to the Fifth Ward of Houston.
“They are passionate about our democracy, and I see that in the number of people who are showing up to these meetings, no matter where we are,” he said.
At the rally at the Texas Capitol on June 20, “Beto for Governor” T-shirts and posters scattered throughout the crowd of more than a thousand people encouraged O’Rourke to run.
Mandy Moore from Marion, just outside of San Antonio, stood in the back of the crowd but still within earshot of the speakers. O’Rourke hadn’t taken the stage yet, but a series of Texas Democratic Party leaders were amping up the crowd.
Moore came to the rally at the state Capitol because with two kids growing up in Texas, she wants to fight to protect their voting rights, she said.
Moore said she’d support O’Rourke if he ran for governor, but what the Democrats needed to focus on was getting more people registered — then to motivate them to the polls.
“We don’t live in a Republican state here in Texas; we live in a non-voting state,” Moore said.
Change that and Texas will change, she said.
A previous version of this story misspelled James Henson's name. It has since been corrected.