Three years after becoming the Democrats’ breakout star in Texas and a year after a short-lived presidential run, Beto O’Rourke is weighing a campaign for governor.
But amid considerable noise about the intentions of the actor Matthew McConaughey, whose political affiliations are unknown but whose ambitions are coming into focus, O’Rourke is staying quiet. The former congressman says he hasn’t ruled out anything, but isn’t saying much else.
Texas Democrats are itching for an answer.
“Impatience is not the word for it,” party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said. “But anxious is.”
A top aide to O’Rourke said the 48-year-old has not ruled out challenging the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, in 2022 – but has taken no formal steps.
If O’Rourke jumped in, it would be his third straight election cycle, following his narrow loss for US Senate against Ted Cruz in 2018 and the failed White House run.
A comeback could be complicated by liberal positions taken while seeking the presidency but no other Democrat would enter the governor’s race with the same ability to quickly raise massive campaign funds.
There is no timeline on a decision, according to the aide, who said O’Rourke had recently finished teaching virtual classes at two Texas universities. For one he led a seminar on voting rights – as state lawmakers are set to approve a bill that would restrict polling hours and reduce options to cast a ballot.
Texas is the last big battleground in a Republican campaign for voting restrictions, driven by Donald Trump’s false claims that the presidential election was stolen.
O’Rourke has remained an out-front presence, following the coronavirus pandemic and February’s catastrophic freeze and blackouts that killed more than 150 people in Texas. He hasn’t let up on Abbott, who is expected to seek a third term.
“These jokers can’t even keep the lights on, or the heat on, or the the water on when the temperature drops. Now they want to take away our election?“ O’Rourke told protesters this month at the Texas capitol.
Nonetheless this is a dark moment for Texas Democrats after expectations of a 2020 breakthrough flopped. Republicans responded by muscling through measures over guns, abortion and teaching that Democrats are all but powerless to stop.
Any Democrat running for governor faces long odds against the well-funded Abbott, and perhaps McConaughey. Still, O’Rourke went from virtual unknown to nearly upsetting Cruz in 2018, and relishes the role of underdog.
Hinojosa said he encouraged him to consider running for governor. He said the hole at the top of the ticket is keeping others sidelined.
“I told him that I thought that we needed a strong candidate for governor and he certainly fit that mold, and that, in my opinion, if anybody could beat Abbott, he could beat him,“ Hinojosa said.
Republicans are looking to extend their territory along the Mexico border, a Democratic stronghold that swung heavily to Trump in November. In Webb county, which includes Laredo, Sylvia Bruni, the Democratic chairwoman, said she hoped O’Rourke would run but his presidential bid could hurt his chances.
O’Rourke remade his campaign after a mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso in August 2019 and made a full-throated call on national TV, saying: “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15.”
That kind of comment isn’t forgotten easily in Laredo, which Bruni describes tongue-in-cheek as an area where “your guns are more important than your wife”.
But “no one else has surfaced”, she said. “I haven’t seen anyone out there.”
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