GOP's Louie Gohmert said he’d run for Texas attorney general if he could raise $1 million in 10 days. He didn’t get close.

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, promised in November that he would run for attorney general if he could raise $1 million in 10 days. And while he eventually entered the race, claiming he met his goal, a new campaign finance report shows he did not come close.

In fact, he did not even top $1 million in contributions until the final day of the reporting period, at least based on the dates of the contributions reported.

"I'm Louie Gohmert, and it's my honor to let you know that we have reached our initial goal of raising $1 million in order to start a run for Texas attorney general," Gohmert said in a Nov. 23 video.

Gohmert insisted Thursday that he did reach his goal, saying he spent those 10 days securing "both contributions and commitments."

"Getting all of the money in house took more time, but we got it just as we were promised and just as we promised," Gohmert said in a statement.

Gohmert's fundraising haul became public this week, when state candidates filed their campaign finance reports covering the last six months of 2021. In the hotly contested Republican primary race for attorney general, the incumbent, Ken Paxton, and his three challengers, raised over $9 million combined as Paxton was outraised by one of his opponents, Eva Guzman. He still has $7.5 million cash on hand, more than double his closest opponent in that category.

Guzman, a former justice on the Texas Supreme Court, raked in $3.7 million during the latest period, covering July 1 through Dec. 31, and Paxton received $2.8 million, according to reports that were due Tuesday to the Texas Ethics Commission. Another Paxton challenger, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, collected $1.9 million, while Gohmert — who entered the race later than his opponents — reported raising just over $1 million.

Guzman was helped tremendously by support from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the powerful tort reform group; its allied donors; and other top Texas GOP contributors that have backed her from the beginning. About 70%, at or least $2.6 million, of her haul came from TLR, which gave $600,000, plus five individual givers.

The primary is the most closely watched one on the statewide level as Paxton looks to fend off the three challengers who are assailing his integrity and ability to do the job amid a raft of legal problems. Paxton has been indicted on securities fraud charges since months after he took office in 2015, and he has come under FBI investigation over allegations from former top deputies that he abused his office to help a wealthy contributor. He has denied wrongdoing in both instances.

Former President Donald Trump has endorsed Paxton for reelection — and headlined a December fundraiser for him that brought in over $750,000, according to Paxton's team. The campaign filed his most recent report late, citing technical issues, and said it was still working to disclose all contributions from the period. The campaign said that the totals on the report were correct.

Despite the competitive fundraising among the primary candidates, Paxton still enjoys the largest campaign account balance in the primary. While he has $7.5 million saved up, the next closest opponent is Bush, with $3.2 million.

Gohmert announced on Nov. 9 he would enter the primary if he could raise $1 million in the next 10 days. His report shows he only got roughly $27,000 by Nov. 19. Plus, a $100,000 donation that pushed him over $1 million — from a political action committee called Save Texas Now — did not come in until Dec. 31.

Gohmert didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gohmert's top donors were state Rep. Mayes Middleton, the Wallisville Republican who chairs the Texas Freedom Caucus, and another House Republican, state Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth. Middleton gave Gohmert $300,000 personally, and Krause gave $250,000 out of his campaign account. Krause had been running for attorney general as well but dropped out around the time Gohmert got in. Both Krause and Middleton, who had been Krause's top donor, expressed support for Gohmert at the time.

As for Guzman's donors, the top individuals each gave $500,000. They included Richard Weekley, TLR's senior chair; Harlan Crow, a Dallas real estate developer; and Robert Rowling, a Dallas hotelier.

Paxton's largest contributor over the six-month period that was disclosed was Michael Porter, a leading Texas GOP donor from the Hill Country, who gave $100,000.

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

IN OTHER NEWS: Typo-filled Trump voting machine order likely written by one of his 'lunatic friends'

Typo-filled Trump voting machine order likely written by one of his 'lunatic friends' www.youtube.com

Court reverses rebuke against state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt for wearing 'pussyhat,' mocking Gov. Greg Abbott’s disability

A special court of review cleared state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, after the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct rebuked the former Travis County judge for wearing a pink "pussyhat" during a commissioners court meeting and making fun of Gov. Greg Abbott's disability at a Texas Tribune event.

The commission, which investigates judicial misconduct complaints, admonished Eckhardt over the incidents in December 2020, saying she engaged in "willful conduct that cast public discredit upon the judiciary." Eckhardt disputed the commission's jurisdiction, noting that a county judge in Texas has no judicial role, despite the title. Texas county judges operate as the county chief executive and preside over commissioners courts.

The special court of review sided with Eckhardt in an opinion issued Tuesday, writing that Eckhardt was a "'judge' in name only" and that the commission overreached in rebuking her.

"Today, the First Amendment won in Texas," Eckhardt said in a statement celebrating the opinion.

Eckhardt served as Travis County judge from 2015 until she stepped down in 2020 to run for the Senate in a special election.

Eckhardt wore the pink knitted "pussy hat" while presiding over a meeting of the commissioners court in January 2017. At the time, the hat was a symbol of resistance among women to the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump.

Eckhardt made the joke about Abbott at the 2019 Texas Tribune Festival. Discussing the Republican governor's support for a law restricting local governments from regulating removal of trees on private property, she said Abbott "hates trees because one fell on him," referring to the 1984 accident that left Abbott paralyzed. She later apologized for the joke.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct is made up of 13 members, including six judges appointed by the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court, two lawyers appointed by the State Bar of Texas and five citizens appointed by the governor.

The Special Court of Review that examined the issue consisted of three state appeals court justices. All three were Republicans.

Disclosure: The State Bar of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


Gov. Greg Abbott says critics are "playing politics" over Texas National Guard suicides

For 24/7 mental health support in English or Spanish, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free help line at 800-662-4357. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.

SAN ANTONIO — Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday pushed back against critics of his border security mission and the suicides that have been linked to it, saying the loss of any life is “extraordinarily hurtful” but that his detractors are “just playing politics.”

The group of critics includes his challengers for reelection in both parties, who have been highlighting reports that there have been four suicides, pay delays and other problems among the National Guard troops that Abbott has sent to the border as part of “Operation Lone Star.”

During a campaign stop here, Abbott said the pay issue affected a small portion of the troops and has been resolved. However, when it came to the suicides, Abbott gave an animated answer during which he lamented the deaths but said critics should also be focused on the military suicides that have happened under President Joe Biden.

“If they are saying something about what’s happening to the National Guard in Texas, why are they not at the very same time saying something about President Biden and having lost hundreds of members of the U.S. military … to suicide?” Abbott said. “Why are they silent about that? The answer — they’re just playing politics. The life of a soldier is far more valuable than the words of a politician playing politics.”

The Army Times reported in December that four soldiers tied to Operation Lone Star had died by suspected suicide over two months. The publication reported last week that a fifth solider had accidentally shot and killed himself while off duty and that a sixth had attempted suicide and survived.

Abbott said the suicides are being investigated and thinks it will come out that not all “actually occurred during Operation Lone Star.” One of the soldiers was denied a hardship release and died by suicide a few days later, the Army Times reported. Another was on temporary hardship waiver when he died, according to the publication.

The Army Times’ initial story about Operation Lone Star raised a number of questions about the mission related to its focus, morale and troops’ pay. The Texas Military Department has acknowledged it was a “hurdle” to add so many soldiers to the state payroll system in a surge last fall that bumped troops on the mission from about 1,200 in June to 10,000 in November.

Abbott said Tuesday that he knew of only 84 soldiers out of 10,000 that “had a paycheck challenge.” He said the issues largely had to do with troops getting their paycheck at the end of the month instead of the start of the month, “and they just had to go through the paperwork process to get it done.”

“All paycheck issues have been addressed,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s numbers regarding paycheck issues are different from those that the Texas Military Department provided last month. At the time, the department told a Houston TV station that there were “approximately 150 service members experiencing pay issues.”

Before blasting his critics, Abbott said the suicides needed to be considered in the “larger context” of the military. He said there were 476 suicides in the military over the first nine months of 2021, noting they came “under the Biden administration.” It was not immediately clear where he got that number from. Quarterly reports released by the U.S. Department of Defense show it tallied 380 suicides during those nine months.

Annual reports say there were 580 suicides in the military in 2020, 498 in 2019 and 541 in 2018.

Abbott said it is “offensive for any of these people raising the issues [with Operation Lone Star] to politicize the issue of a military member losing their life.”

The critics have included Abbott’s likely Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, who has said the National Guard troops should not be used as “political pawns.”

“Abbott is shrugging off the deaths of five Guardsmen as he continues to denigrate the service of all Guard members by asking them to perform as the backdrop for his political photo ops,” O’Rourke said in a statement Tuesday in response to Abbott’s comments. “He hasn’t paid them on time, he’s slashed their earned benefits, he has many living without necessities as basic as bathrooms, and he’s left them without any leadership from the governor. This is a mess of Abbott’s making.”

Abbott has also faced heat from GOP primary challengers, including former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West, who held a news conference about the issues with Operation Lone Star last week.

“The only person playing politics is Governor Abbott with the lives of our [Texas National Guard] troops,” West said in a statement after Abbott’s remarks Tuesday. “Instead of politicized photo ops and press conferences, Abbott should visit with the troops his failed Operation Lone Star is harming.”

West is a former Army lieutenant colonel who retired from the military after he was investigated in 2003 for using improper methods to force information out of an Iraqi detainee.

Another Abbott primary challenger, Don Huffines, said Sunday that what is happening with the National Guard is “embarrassing and infuriating.”

James Barragán contributed to this report.

GOP candidate Shelley Luther says Chinese students should be banned from Texas universities

Shelley Luther, a Republican candidate for Texas House and hairdresser who became a hero of the anti-lockdown movement during the coronavirus pandemic, recently said in a since-deleted tweet that Chinese students should not be allowed to attend Texas colleges.

“Chinese students should be BANNED from attending all Texas universities,” Luther said in the Wednesday tweet. “No more Communists!”

In a follow-up tweet that is still online, Luther said the state's taxpayers "should not be subsidizing the next generation of CCP leaders," referring to the Chinese Communist Party. In a subsequent tweet, she said it is "common sense" that CCP members "should not have access to our schools."

On Friday, state Rep. Gene Wu, a Democrat from Houston who is Chinese-American, condemned Luther's comments and asked her to publicly apologize.

"Luther’s statements are ignorant, hateful, and incite violence against not only Chinese Americans, but all Asian Americans," Wu said in a statement. "To casually conflate all Chinese students in America with actual registered members of the ruling party in the People’s Republic of China is not only ignorance of an extreme nature, it is also the type of rhetoric that drives anti-Asian hate crimes."

Asked for comment Friday, Luther declined to apologize and attacked Wu, who was among the House Democrats who broke quorum and went to Washington, D.C., last year in protest of Republicans' priority elections bill.

"It doesn’t surprise me that a socialist Democrat who doesn’t even know how to show up to work thinks the position that communist Chinese citizens should not access taxpayer funded state institutions is racist," Luther said in a statement to the Tribune.

Luther's comments came as anti-Asian hate crimes have been on the rise. They increased by more than 73% in 2020, according to recent FBI data, far outpacing all hate crimes, which increased 13%.

Luther is challenging state Rep. Reggie Smith, R-Sherman, in the March primary. The district favors Republicans, so whoever wins between Smith and Luther is set to hold the seat after November.

Luther became nationally known at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 when she refused to shut down her Dallas salon in defiance of emergency orders. She was sentenced to a week in jail but was released after only a few days, via a motion granted by the Texas Supreme Court.

She became a vocal critic of Gov. Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican, and ran unsuccesfully for a state Senate seat in a special election later that year.


This Texas congressman voted to investigate the Jan. 6 riot. Now fellow Republicans are trying to unseat him

A year after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, one Texas Republican congressman is facing a spirited primary fueled by anger from his right over his vote to investigate the insurrection.

U.S. Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, has attracted a group of March primary challengers who are running on his support for a bipartisan independent commission to probe that deadly day, when supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in protest of his reelection loss.

Taylor was one of two Texas Republicans who voted for the commission, though the other, Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio, has not drawn as crowded of a primary. The proposed commission never made it through the Senate, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., later formed a select committee to investigate the Capitol attack.

Taylor voted against that committee and says it was exactly the scenario he was trying to prevent by supporting the independent commission — handing the probe over to Pelosi — but his opponents are unswayed. They argue the commission still would have enabled Democrats to hound Republicans for months and politically damage them in the midterms.

Taylor’s vote for the commission “is a huge issue,” said one of the challengers, former Collin County Judge Keith Self. “It is the red line for many people in their vote against Van Taylor.”

The contested primary is something of a political whiplash for Taylor, a former state lawmaker with a staunchly conservative record who got to Congress in 2018 and became a target of national Democrats in 2020. He won comfortably, airing TV ads that touted himself as “Mr. Bipartisan,” and now finds himself in a district that was redrawn this fall to be redder — and more fertile territory for primary opposition.

Zach Barrett, president of the Collin County Conservative Republicans, said it remains to be seen whether the commission vote alone is enough to sink Taylor. The local GOP group plans to endorse in the primary but has not made a decision yet.

“For us in the little bubble of grassroots, [the commission vote] is a big thing, but I don’t know in the grand scheme of things, when it comes to the average — even Republican — voter” how much it matters, said Barrett. “He’s voting right when it comes to the policies for the most part … but he does piss people off with the Jan. 6 commission.”

The insurrection on Jan. 6 came as lawmakers in the Capitol were meeting to certify the 2020 presidential election results. It followed weeks of Trump and other high-profile Republicans using false or misleading information to cast doubt on whether Joe Biden was the legitimate winner, even though there is no evidence of fraud on the level that would have affected the result. Trump supporters stormed the Capitol doors, damaging property and forcing lawmakers from both parties to take cover. Five people were killed in the melee. Hundreds have been criminally charged.

Since then, many conservative politicians have sought to downplay it. Just 35 House Republicans voted in favor of the commission. Two of them, U.S. Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, now serve on a select committee looking into the events and have faced severe backlash from members of their own party — and the former president himself.

Taylor’s opponents have also largely sought to downplay the Jan. 6 attack, arguing it was not as dangerous as Democrats and the media have portrayed it to be.

“If that was an insurrection, we don’t know how to throw insurrections anymore,” Self said in a tongue-in-cheek comment.

Taylor was among only five Texas Republicans who voted that day to accept the 2020 election results, saying it would have set a dangerous precedent. He said the events of the day “will haunt our nation for years to come” and that the attack was “destructive to the democracy I fought to defend” as a Marine.

Still, he later joined most House Republicans in opposing Trump’s impeachment over his role in inciting the riot.

In addition to Self, Taylor’s primary foes include Suzanne Harp, a Dallas businesswoman whose son is chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C. Two lesser-known Republicans, Rickey Williams and Jeremy Ivanovskis, are also running against Taylor.

Self’s campaign website says Taylor “went Washington” by supporting the commission. Harp launched her campaign saying Taylor “abandoned” Trump with the vote. And Williams lists the vote as a top issue to “can Van.”

Self was endorsed last month by a daughter of Taylor’s predecessor in the seat, the late Sam Johnson, who said her dad’s seat “has been compromised.”

Taylor is still the favorite in the primary for the 3rd Congressional District, which covers fast-growing Collin County in suburban Dallas. He ended 2021 with over $1.2 million cash on hand, according to his campaign — his opponents have not had to disclose their fundraising yet — and he has assembled a list of conservative endorsements topped by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

While Trump has sought revenge against some Republicans who have criticized him over Jan. 6, he has stayed out of Taylor’s primary so far. Among Taylor’s endorsements is one of Trump’s staunchest allies in the House, Rep. Ronny Jackson of Amarillo, the president’s former doctor.

Regardless, no other race in Texas this year seems to more reflect the debate within the GOP over the fallout from Jan. 6.

Harp said a bigger issue is the treatment of those who have been arrested in connection with the riot, which includes a number of North Texans.

“What hits us all at the end of the day is that we really care about due process,” she said. “It’s not really a Democratic or Republican thing.”

Neither appears particularly concerned with investigating the attack. Asked how Congress should have responded to Jan. 6 if not with the commission that Taylor supported, Harp countered that Congress should have been more responsive to the “summer of love,” a derisive reference to the racial justice protests in 2020 that turned violent in some cases.

The commission that Taylor voted for would have been equally split between five Democrats and five Republicans. He cited that in explaining his vote at the time, saying he wanted to make sure Republicans would have a seat at the table and that they would not cede the probe to Democrats.

Taylor memorably defended the vote in an interview with Mark Davis, a prominent conservative radio host in Dallas, who expressed skepticism of Taylor’s reasoning throughout.

“Everybody that voted for you is pissed off at you today, Van,” Davis said, telling Taylor that he loves him but that it was a “bad, bad vote.”

While the commission was never created, Pelosi’s select committee has been up and running since July — and making plenty of headlines as it scrutinizes how much of a role Trump and his allies played in the Capitol attack. Taylor opposed the creation of the committee, which he emphasized in a statement for this story.

“The continued partisan attacks and unprecedented power grabs from Speaker Pelosi underscore why I voted against her January 6 select committee every time it came up for a vote,” Taylor said. “In fact, I supported the independent commission, which died in the Senate and was never formed, because it would have been structured with equal Republicans and Democrats so Republicans could block Nancy Pelosi from politicizing the commission in the same way she is doing now.”

Self said the distinction between the commission that Taylor supported and the committee that is currently working “does not occur” to voters. In any case, he said, Taylor was “naive because once Nancy Pelosi got a hold of that commission, she was going to — and they are going to — harass Republicans until November this year.”

Whether the commission vote alone is enough to sink Taylor remains to be seen. His primary challengers are also attacking him on other fronts, including being one of five Texas Republicans to vote to remove all Confederate statues from public display at the U.S. Capitol.

36 more Texans added to death toll from 2021 winter storm when Ted Cruz fled to Cancun

Texas has added 36 more deaths to the official death toll from the February snow and ice storm, bringing the total to 246 in what was one of the worst natural disasters in the state's history.

The Department of State Health Services disclosed the new total in a report on the storm that was released Friday and described as the "final report" in an analysis by the department's Disaster Mortality Surveillance Unit. The deaths occurred between Feb. 11 and June 4. The figure includes people who were injured in the storm but did not die until later, and also people whose bodies were found after the storm, including during repairs of damaged homes.

The 246 deaths spanned 77 counties and included victims ranging from less than 1 year old to 102 years old, according to the report. Close to two-thirds of the deaths were due to hypothermia. Of the deaths, the report classified 148 as "direct," 92 as "indirect" and six as "possible," using criteria developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DSHS previously pegged the death toll at 210 in July. The agency said in the report that it identifies deaths through "mortality surveillance forms, death certificates, and verification of informally reported deaths."

Experts say it may be impossible ever to account for every death related to the storm given its far-reaching impact. In May, BuzzFeed reported that the true death total was “likely four or five times what the state has acknowledged so far.” At the time, the tally was 151.

The February freeze overwhelmed Texas' power grid and left millions freezing in the dark. Gov. Greg Abbott has insisted that the grid is ready for this winter. But some experts are less optimistic, citing the grid's continuing vulnerabilities and a lack of preparedness in cities, among other factors.

Gov. Greg Abbott sticks with hands-off approach to COVID-19 as omicron spreads

As other states are mobilizing to respond to the rapidly spreading omicron variant, Gov. Greg Abbott is not budging on his hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic that was cemented months ago.

In March, Abbott ended the statewide mask mandate, marking the beginning of a sharp shift toward preaching “personal responsibility” and an outright rejection of any government mandate — whether state or local — to curb the pandemic. That philosophy carried the state through the delta variant this fall, even as hospitals were overrun and deaths climbed. Now as the state stares down the latest variant, Abbott remains unmoved, continuing to rule out any mask or vaccine mandates and business shutdowns.

“We’re moving forward with life as we know it,” Abbott said Tuesday in a radio interview when asked about omicron.

Abbott’s insistence on the status quo comes as the state begins to see a rise in some key pandemic metrics, including daily new cases and the positivity rate, or the ratio of cases to tests. That rate hit 14.6% on Tuesday, part of a swift trajectory upward and above 10%, the threshold that Abbott has previously identified as worrisome. Hospitals have not yet seen a notable increase in cases, however, medical officials say they’re bracing for a possible post-holiday surge.

Asked Tuesday what the state is doing to address omicron, Abbott’s spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement that the governor recently got a briefing on the state response to the variant by John Hellerstedt, the commissioner of the Department of State Health Services, and Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management. Eze otherwise gave no indication the state was doing anything differently, saying it was continuing to respond to the pandemic by “setting up therapeutic infusion centers, ramping up COVID vaccination efforts, and providing surge staffing and medical equipment to hospitals and nursing homes.”

Eze ended by calling vaccination the “best defense” against COVID-19 and encouraging Texans to get immunized.

Even as Abbott’s office says it’s prioritizing vaccines as the best defense against COVID-19, the state’s vaccination rate lags nationally. As of Monday, 56% of Texans were fully vaccinated, placing Texas in the back half of the 50 states when ranked by vaccination rates.

Abbott got vaccinated on camera late last year and has encouraged Texans to get the shot. But he does not go out of his way to promote vaccinations and he has expended much more energy in recent months fighting vaccine requirements by local and federal officials.

Abbott has been virtually silent on the booster, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month every qualifying adult should receive. The word “booster” has never appeared on Abbott’s personal Twitter account, and a spokesperson did not respond when asked whether the governor has received a booster.

As of Monday, 14.4% of Texans had gotten boosters.

State Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, acknowledged Abbott has encouraged vaccines on some occasions but said he needs to do so “more often and more loudly.”

“If Gov. Abbott spent half the time promoting vaccines and boosters as he spends fighting local governments and businesses when they’re trying to protect their constituents or employees or students,” Turner said, “I think we’d be in a much better place.”

The Department of State Health Services has been more active in encouraging vaccination, as well as boosters. On social media, it has shared video testimonials from people who were initially reluctant to get the vaccine but ultimately received it.

“With the holidays around the corner and Omicron spreading, DSHS recommends getting fully vaccinated and a booster shot,” the agency said in a tweet last week.

Meanwhile, the federal government and some other states have sprung into action as the new variant has cropped up. President Joe Biden announced Tuesday the federal government would buy a half a billion at-home rapid tests to distribute for free to Americans. A number of states have extended or declared a state of emergency. And several major cities have announced plans to require vaccination proof to enter indoor spaces.

There has been no comparable mobilization by Abbott, who has not held a news conference on COVID-19 since March and has been prioritizing other issues in the public recently, like border security. On Saturday, Abbott traveled to Rio Grande City to debut the beginning of a state-built border wall.

Texas’ COVID cases are trending upward after the state reported an average of more than 6,000 confirmed cases every day in the last week.

“The case data suggests that we have entered another COVID surge much like we’re seeing around the world with the emergence of omicron,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “We’re not yet seeing hospitalizations coming up, but that could follow shortly behind.”

Meyers said there is still “a lot of uncertainty” about how omicron will play out in Texas, particularly when it comes to how severe cases will be. But given the rising case numbers, she added, “if ever there was a time to err on the side of caution, now is the time.”

As the cases rise in Texas, a familiar tension is reemerging between local officials and Abbott, who has restricted them from doing things like requiring masks, mandating vaccines and scaling back business openings.

“I think the answer is very simple,” said KP George, the judge in Fort Bend County in suburban Houston, where cases have increased by more than 300% in the last two weeks. “As the governor and his party have said in the past, let the local government do their job. Texas is a large state and something important in Fort Bend County may not be important in the Panhandle or some other place.”

Speaking Wednesday afternoon, George said there was not a specific virus-fighting tool that he wanted the state to allow local officials to use again “because we are still analyzing numbers” and learning more about omicron. He said it is “not at all” a priority for him to shut down business or issue mandates generally, but “moving forward, I will do anything possible I need to save life.”

Hours after George spoke to a reporter, George announced he had tested positive for COVID-19. He said he is fully vaccinated and was not experiencing any symptoms.

There is at least one preliminary sign that omicron poses a unique challenge to the pandemic playbook that Abbott has clung to. While Abbott has championed monoclonal antibody treatments for COVID-19 patients, some hospitals in Houston have temporarily suspended them because they believe they are ineffective against the latest variant.

One health system, Memorial Hermann, said it expected to receive doses of a different monoclonal antibody therapy this week and hoped to start administering it “as soon as possible.”

“This MCA treatment has been shown to be more effective against the omicron variant, which is now the dominant strain in our region and across the country, accounting for more than 80 percent of cases locally,” the health system said in a statement.

Pandemic politics

Politically, Abbott is in a somewhat different situation than the last time Texas dealt with a rise in cases. He now has a serious Democratic challenger in Beto O’Rourke, who announced his campaign in November and has focused on the pandemic in his first stops — meeting with the Hidalgo County health authority in his first weeks as a candidate.

O’Rourke has offered a black-and-white contrast with Abbott: He has said he would allow schools and businesses to require masks and vaccines. At the same time, he has suggested he understands those resistant to the vaccine, saying they should not be judged because it “pushes them into a corner.”

Still, O’Rourke sees a lack of leadership from Abbott when it comes to the pandemic.

“First Abbott flip-flopped on public health guidelines and then he stopped schools, local governments and businesses from protecting our fellow Texans,” O’Rourke said in a statement for this story, alluding to Abbott’s reversal on letting private employers require vaccines for their workers. “The least he can do is get out of the way and allow those who are focused on preventing more Covid hospitalizations and deaths to do their jobs.”

On his right, Abbott continues to face pressure to not bow to demands to be more aggressive in fighting the pandemic. In fact, when it comes to vaccine requirements, dozens of Republican state lawmakers believe he has not done enough to outlaw them and want him to call a special session to codify his executive order.

“Of course I’m considering it, but people need to go through the legal analysis here,” Abbott told a radio interviewer Tuesday. He explained that the issue of federal vaccine mandates is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court and if the court upholds them, a state law passed during a special session would be unable to overrule the court. If the court strikes down the mandates, he said, then his executive order is the law of the land and no special session is necessary.

Abbott’s primary challengers agree that government should stay out of Texans’ lives with regard to the pandemic. One of them, Don Huffines, is openly against the vaccine, repeatedly boasting on Twitter that he has “never had the vaccine” and is “not taking the vaccine.”

Allen West, the former Texas GOP chair who is running against Abbott, became infected with COVID-19 in the fall while unvaccinated, and he recovered with the aid of monoclonal antibody therapy.

“Texans have options and should not be relegated to politicized mandates and dictated remedies for their own bodies,” West said in a statement.


Beto O’Rourke targets Gov. Greg Abbott for vetoing bill to improve internet access in rural Texas

As he campaigns in rural Texas, Beto O’Rourke is accusing Gov. Greg Abbott of stifling efforts to improve broadband internet access there, even after Abbott prioritized the issue in the regular legislative session earlier this year.

O’Rourke, a Democrat who announced in November he is running for governor, has started criticizing the Republican governor for vetoing a bill in June that would have helped replenish the Universal Service Fund, which supports telecommunications and internet services for more than 1 million rural Texas households. Abbott argued the bill “would have imposed a new fee on millions of Texans.”

The bipartisan supporters of the legislation say it was badly needed to help shore up revenue for the fund, which relies on a surcharge on in-state voice calls and has been bleeding money for years. The less revenue the fund has, the less money it has to reimburse providers, making service harder to maintain and more costly to provide in far-flung areas of the state.

“It’s another example of how Greg Abbott is causing inflation, especially for rural communities in Texas that are already struggling with higher prescription drug prices, higher gasoline prices,” O’Rourke said while campaigning last week in Lubbock. “Greg Abbott is really hurting these rural communities.”

On Tuesday, O'Rourke published a newspaper op-ed on the issue, saying it is "part of a broader trend of state leaders turning their backs on rural communities."

Abbott’s campaign responded to O’Rourke by touting the progress made on expanding broadband access after the governor made it an emergency item at the start of the regular session. Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement that the governor “signed 6 broadband reform bills, including appropriating more than $500 million, to significantly expand broadband access throughout Texas, especially in rural areas.”

The main piece of legislation to pass was House Bill 5, which set up a state broadband office to identify areas of need and coordinate funding for them.

But those bills that Abbott championed are a separate issue from the Universal Service Fund, according to industry experts and the GOP author of the bill that Abbott vetoed.

“While [House Bill 5] was important … it is a different subject entirely from universal service,” said Mark Seale, executive director of the Texas Telephone Association.

The funding from House Bill 5 can support upgrades or expansions, but the Universal Service Fund maintains the current telecommunications infrastructure, Seale said.

Texas has long maintained the Universal Service Fund to subsidize network phone service in rural areas where it is harder to provide. To do so, it charges a 3.3% assessment, or tax, on voice calls made within the state, landline and cell, that providers pay and then pass on to consumers. However, the fund has depleted as Texans make fewer voice calls and wireless companies change their billing methods, allocating more charges toward data and away from voice. That has led to an estimated $10 million shortfall in the fund per month starting last January, according to providers.

While the fund does not directly subsidize broadband, the internet service often runs on the same phone service network.

The bill vetoed by Abbott sought to modernize the fund by redefining a “high-cost rural area,” a definition that supporters say has become outdated and covers places that are no longer rural. The bill also would have expanded the fee to include Voice Over Internet Protocol — calls made online via programs like Skype or FaceTime. Seale said VOIP calls make up less than 10% of total connections in Texas, but applying the fee to them would mark progress in generating more revenue for the fund.

Abbott balked at the latter part, saying in his veto message that the “only meaningful change” would have been “to expand the number of people paying fees.”

“I think the veto was unfortunate because it provided another opportunity for the Universal Service Fund to catch up, and certainly it’s a very important issue in rural Texas,” said the bill’s author, Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo. “But it’s not one of those situations that I think is beyond help.”

Smithee and other rural lawmakers have maintained that the Public Utility Commission has the power to modernize the fund if it wants to, though it so far has declined to act. That is despite a 2020 recommendation by PUC staff to raise the surcharge.

Smithee expressed hope that the utility commission would reconsider lawmakers’ pleas now that it has new membership, a result of the fallout from the February power-grid crisis.

The PUC’s inaction is the target of a lawsuit that a group of Texas phone companies and co-ops filed earlier this year. A state appeals court heard oral arguments in the case earlier this month.

In the meantime, O’Rourke wants to make Abbott take responsibility for the veto.

O’Rourke has long talked about making rural areas more connected to the rest of the state, but his focus on the bill that Abbott vetoed represents a more targeted message as he seeks to keep Abbott in the hot seat. In his first weeks as a gubernatorial candidate, O’Rourke has been running a campaign much more focused on the incumbent than he did against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.

The issue also gives O’Rourke a fresh way to appeal to rural voters, whom Texas Democrats say they desperately need to do better with to win statewide.

Politically, allowing the Universal Service Fund bill to become law could have opened up Abbott to attacks that he was imposing a tax on more Texans, a dangerous charge especially in a Republican primary. And sure enough, one of Abbott’s primary challengers — former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas — has been a vocal opponent of the Universal Service Fund.

Huffines introduced a bill in 2017 that would have phased out the USF tax over five years.

“To be perfectly clear, residents of Dallas and our surrounding communities are being taxed to provide hard-line phone service to rural Texans,” Huffines wrote to constituents at the time. “While everyone should probably have access to some kind of basic phone service, this tax and redistribution of wealth is the wrong way!”

A spokesperson for Huffines’ gubernatorial campaign said that remains his position on the fund.

GOP's Dan Crenshaw ignites furious uproar after warning of grifters and liars inside his own party

U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, is facing an uproar from some in his party after warning about "grifters" and liars among fellow conservatives, including in the House Freedom Caucus.

Crenshaw, one of the most visible members of the Texas congressional delegation, sought Thursday to clarify his comments, which came at a Houston-area GOP gathering over the weekend.

“When I said grifters and liars, I wasn’t talking about the Freedom Caucus," Crenshaw told the GOP podcast "Ruthless." "I was talking about a general group of people that exists on our side."The Freedom Caucus is a group of House conservatives who hold considerable sway within the GOP minority. It includes at least a few Republicans from Texas, like Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler, Ronny Jackson of Amarillo and Chip Roy of Austin.

Crenshaw made the original comments at an event Sunday in Cypress for the Texas Liberty Alliance PAC, and a clip of them went viral later after being tweeted by Ron Filipkowski, a Florida lawyer and former Republican. Crenshaw was introducing two congressional candidates he is supporting and sought to differentiate them from "performance artists" in Congress who he said say what conservative voters want to hear. He then sought to make the point by arguing that U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger — a prominent GOP critic of former President Donald Trump — actually voted more in line with Trump's agenda during his first two years in office than did "everybody in the Freedom Caucus — all of them."

"We have grifters in our midst," Crenshaw said in the clip. "I mean in the conservative movement. Lie after lie after lie. Because they know something psychologically about the conservative heart. We’re worried about what people are gonna do to us, what they’re gonna infringe upon us."

The comments drew denunciations from Freedom Caucus defenders and even from a key supporter of Crenshaw in his 2018 underdog run for Congress — Houston radio host Michael Berry.

"No, I do not support [Crenshaw]," Berry tweeted Tuesday. "I am embarrassed I helped him win."

Discussing the Freedom Caucus on the podcast Thursday, Crenshaw said there are "definitely some in there I don't like, obviously, but for the most part, no," he said he was not referring to the caucus with his weekend remarks. He offered praise for Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the current vice chair of the caucus, and went on to say he was mostly referring to people who "messaged knowingly falsely about" recent legislation to improve the sharing of data nationally about vaccinations.

In the full video of Crenshaw's remarks Sunday, he indeed went on to cite the immunization bill, which passed with the support of Crenshaw and 79 other House Republicans. Crenshaw said the proposal would decrease and "put guardrails on" funding for existing vaccine databases that do not track Americans individually. Some GOP opponents of the bill claimed it would create a new vaccine database.

"So you've got less money for it and more guardrails that requires you in the law to make the data anonymous," Crenshaw said. "So the real question is why did so many Republicans vote against that and then lie to you about it? Grifters."

One of the Freedom Caucus members from Texas, Roy, brushed off the uproar surrounding Crenshaw, saying the media "wants to focus on palace intrigue rather than the issues hammering everyday Americans."

"Dan is a good friend, and we can agree to disagree on some things," Roy said in a statement. "I am confident in standing behind my record and the record of the Freedom Caucus of successfully fighting for the people we represent — including this last week protecting against drafting our daughters, preventing our service members from dishonorable discharge, and fighting a dangerous [Department of Defense] office of extremism, among other things."

Crenshaw made the original comments while seated alongside Wesley Hunt and Morgan Luttrell, two Houston-area congressional candidates and fellow veterans that Crenshaw is backing. Hunt is running for Texas' new 38th District, where he has been the frontrunner, while Luttrell is vying in a crowded primary to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands.

Luttrell's race is particularly relevant to the Freedom Caucus controversy. One of his competitors is Christian Collins, who has committed to joining the caucus and has already received over a quarter-million dollars in support from a caucus-aligned super PAC.

Beto O’Rourke targets South Texas in bid to win back Democratic voters he’ll need to beat Gov. Greg Abbott in 2022


"Beto O'Rourke targets South Texas in bid to win back Democratic voters he'll need to beat Gov. Greg Abbott in 2022" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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MCALLEN — In the first days of his campaign for governor, Beto O'Rourke made a beeline to this southernmost corner of the state, saying it was no mistake he was choosing to start his run in a part of Texas where Democrats have their work cut out for them after the 2020 election.

His supporters know it, too.

“We are being attacked at all ends," Amanda Elise Salas said as she introduced him here Wednesday night. “This is a Democratic area, and there is no way we are gonna let Republicans come in here and take over."

“They're knocking at our door," Mario Saenz, a Democratic precinct chair from Brownsville, said afterward. “We cannot let them in."

A lot of Democratic hopes are riding on O'Rourke this election cycle, but few may be more consequential to the party's future in Texas than his ability to stave off a strong GOP offensive in South Texas. Emboldened by President Joe Biden's underwhelming performance throughout the predominantly Hispanic region last year, Republicans have been pushing hard to make new inroads there, and O'Rourke faces an incumbent in Gov. Greg Abbott who has been working for years to win Hispanic voters.

But it is not just about halting the GOP's post-2020 march in South Texas. O'Rourke, who is facing an uphill battle in the governor's race, has ground to make up after his own less-than-stellar performance with voters there in 2018 when he ran for U.S. Senate — and turning out more Latino voters has long been key to Democratic hopes statewide.

O'Rourke has been candid about the problem. Days after the 2020 election, which cemented Republican dominance across Texas, he told supporters that the fact that the border region “has been ignored for years by the national party, and even many statewide Democratic candidates, hurt us badly." Last week, he began his campaign for governor with a swing through the region, calling the early itinerary “very intentional" and vowing to return frequently.

“If the great sin committed by Republicans historically has been to disenfranchise voters, including those in the Rio Grande Valley, then that committed by Democrats has been to take those same voters for granted in the past," O'Rourke told reporters in San Antonio, before heading south to Laredo and the Valley.

O'Rourke got a wake-up call in South Texas during the 2018 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, losing many counties in the region to a little-known and little-funded opponent, Sema Hernandez. While it was not the first time a candidate with a Hispanic surname beat expectations in a statewide Democratic primary, O'Rourke acknowledged afterward that he needed to do more outreach.

Months later, in the general election, O'Rourke failed to make significant gains in South Texas compared to his party's 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, which would have been key to defeating U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. In the largest South Texas county outside San Antonio — Hidalgo — O'Rourke barely improved on Clinton's vote share there, getting 68.8% after she got 68.5%.

Then came 2020, when Biden carried South Texas — and the Rio Grande Valley in particular — by a much narrower margin than Clinton did. He outright lost Zapata County, a longtime Democratic stronghold just north of the Valley.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto OíRourke speaks at a rally in downtown McAllen on Nov. 17, 2021. OíRourke has decided to stop at the Rio Grande Valley on his first week of announcing his gubernatorial run.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto OíRourke speaks at a rally in downtown McAllen on Nov. 17, 2021. OíRourke has decided to stop at the Rio Grande Valley on his first week of announcing his gubernatorial run. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Supporters of democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke attend a rally in downtown McAllen on Nov. 17, 2021.

Supporters of democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke attend a rally in downtown McAllen on Nov. 17, 2021. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

First: This election cycle, a lot of Democratic hopes are riding on O'Rourke, who recently spoke at a McAllen event. Last: Texans listened to O'Rourke on the campaign trail in South Texas, where the Democrat is trying to stave off a strong GOP offensive. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Republicans charged into this election cycle determined to make further gains, and they have already had success. They flipped a state House seat on the South Side of San Antonio earlier this month, and on the same day that O'Rourke announced his campaign for governor, state Rep. Ryan Guillen, who has represented Rio Grande City as a Democrat since 2003, announced he was joining the GOP.

Abbott's top political adviser, Dave Carney, said the governor's campaign has “a lot of plans" for South Texas this election cycle and that Abbott is “gonna be there a lot." Carney said he was not worried about new Latino voters turning out next year.

“I want every Hispanic voter to turn out," Carney said. “That helps us."

Democrats say O'Rourke needs to keep his word and return often to South Texas, giving it the kind of attention that the Biden campaign did not last year. And while border communities are about “so much more than immigration" — as O'Rourke said at multiple stops last week — he will have to grapple with how to talk about an issue that is No. 1 for Abbott and a political liability for Democrats in Texas right now.

Republicans scoff at the idea that O'Rourke can rescue his party in South Texas. Monica De La Cruz, a GOP candidate to flip a congressional seat anchored in the Valley, said O'Rourke is “not the answer," and his positions on law enforcement, gun rights and border security are out of step with South Texas voters.

“I don't think it changes the landscape," De La Cruz said. “I think that South Texans have conservative values of faith, family and freedom, and I don't think Beto O'Rourke changes that at all."

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke holds a press conference after holding a COVID-19 roundtable in Mission on Nov. 17, 2021.

Beto O'Rourke spoke at a press conference after holding a COVID-19 roundtable in Mission last week. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

The border

Taking on South Texas means O'Rourke will not be able to avoid tough questions about border security and immigration — issues with which Democrats have struggled in the past year to find a unified position under Biden.

Texas Republicans are largely narrowing in on border security as a winning issue for the party. And Abbott has taken sweeping — and at times unprecedented — action to fortify the border since Biden took office, charging migrants as criminal trespassers in state court and announcing the construction of a state-funded border wall.

While there is not necessarily broad support for everything Abbott has done on the border, Texas voters agree they do not like Biden's approach. The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey found that only 22% of voters approved of how Biden has handled immigration and border security, compared with 63% who disapprove.

In one of his first interviews as a gubernatorial candidate, O'Rourke criticized Biden's handling of the border, saying it is clear Biden “could be doing a better job at the border" and that it is “not enough of a priority for his administration." In that interview and other comments to reporters last week, O'Rourke called for “predictability," “order" and “rule of law" on the border. He also spoke frankly about the need for asylum-seekers to come to the country through ports of entry, not in between them, present their asylum claim and, if it is denied, face deportation.

It is the kind of rhetoric that would have been surprising to hear in O'Rourke's past campaigns. While it may appeal to voters looking for a harder line on the border, it could turn off Democrats hoping for a bold contrast with the GOP.

“He's taking up these right-wing talking points instead of pushing for a more humane approach to immigration, which is what he was doing back in 2017," said Denisce Palacios, a Democratic organizer from the Valley who volunteered for O'Rourke's 2018 campaign. “It looks like he's kind of moved more to the center in terms of messaging. That's kind of frustrating."

At the same time, O'Rourke said Biden needs to end Title 42, a policy that allows the administration to quickly turn away undocumented immigrants at the border, citing a public health crisis — the coronavirus pandemic. O'Rourke said that is fueling disorder at the border because those who are rejected are simply returning again and again.

It remains to be seen how much O'Rourke actively campaigns on border issues.

His announcement video did not mention the border. He prioritized other issues in interviews around the announcement. And he did not mention the border during his first public campaign event Tuesday morning in San Antonio. But hours later in Laredo, he was back in familiar form, extolling immigrants' value to the country and praising Laredoans for having “stood up" to city leaders to stop a border wall, a major rallying cry in his 2018 campaign.

Chants of “No more wall!" almost instantly broke out. Minutes earlier, the chair of the Webb County Democratic Party, Sylvia Bruni, had said while introducing O'Rourke that she was “so, so thrilled, I want to cry."

Dani Marrero Hi, a spokesperson for LUPE Votes, said now is not the time for O'Rourke to downplay immigration as an issue in South Texas. She pointed out that Abbott “talks about immigration all the time," and while she strongly disagrees with his policies and rhetoric, he is at least talking about it.

“When there's a space and Democrats don't talk about it with an alternative vision, it leaves room for Abbott and Trump … to come in and write the whole narrative about what the border is," she said.

Supporters of democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke attend a rally in downtown McAllen on Nov. 17, 2021.

Supporters of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke at a McAllen rally last week. O'Rourke has ground to make up with South Texas voters after an underwhelming performance there when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2018. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Showing up

Beyond any issue, though, South Texas Democrats say O'Rourke needs to show up, especially after a presidential election that left them wanting. Biden never visited Texas, let alone anywhere in South Texas, during the general election, and his running mate, Kamala Harris, visited McAllen only in the final days of the race.

To that end, South Texas Democrats are not particularly concerned about O'Rourke, who is known for his relentless campaigning. He toured all 254 counties during his 2018 race, which included a bus tour specifically focused on the border.

“We're the poorest region of Texas, maybe one of the poorest regions in the nation, and you know, it was a huge letdown that Kamala and Biden didn't make a prolonged appearance here in the Valley, but Beto, you know, he's been recurringly focusing his presence here, especially in his past campaigns," said Sebastian Bonilla, a 25-year-old from the Valley who came to see O'Rourke speak in McAllen.

Abbott has put an emphasis on South Texas since his first gubernatorial campaign in 2014, and he has been increasingly traveling there in recent months, both in his official capacity and for political appearances. Carney said it will become “crystal clear" after the holidays that Abbott will be traveling to South Texas frequently.

Carney said Abbott's campaign has “already modeled a million Democrat voters who do not support Beto, the vast majority south of San Antonio." The voters say they support a Democrat in a generic gubernatorial ballot — an unnamed Democrat versus an unnamed Republican — but when asked about O'Rourke versus Abbott, they are undecided or pick Abbott.

“That's just such a hole to come out of," Carney said.

Bruni said she is optimistic that O'Rourke will not meet the same fate as Biden in South Texas because he will spend meaningful time there and Democrats will campaign in person, unlike in 2020, when they largely went virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.

She said that allowed Republicans to campaign in person unchecked — and they “scared the Dickens" out of voters in places like Zapata County with claims that Biden would eliminate their oil-and-gas jobs and take away their guns.

“The only way we can resolve that [next year] … is by being out there and telling the right story," Bruni said. “That's the only way. We did not do that in 2020."

To the extent that anxieties about oil-and-gas jobs and gun rights fueled GOP gains in South Texas last year, O'Rourke entered the gubernatorial race prepared. He has been talking about a Texas AFL-CIO plan to generate 1 million energy jobs that would supplement — not replace, he emphasizes — existing jobs in the oil-and-gas industry. And while he has not backed away from his 2020 campaign pledge to “take" people's assault weapons, he has sought to reframe it in the context of Texas having a “long, proud tradition of responsible gun ownership."

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke sits in a COVID-19-focused roundtable with, from left, Dr. Ivan Melendez, the Hidalgo County health authority, Richard Fleming, a McAllen doctor, and Carlos Sanchez, a former journalist from the area who now works for the county, in Mission on Nov. 17, 2021.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke sits in a COVID-19-focused roundtable with, from left, Dr. Ivan Melendez, the Hidalgo County health authority, Richard Fleming, a McAllen doctor, and Carlos Sanchez, a former journalist from the area who now works for the county, in Mission on Nov. 17, 2021. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke, right, holds a press conference in Brownsville with Mayor Trey Mendez on Nov. 18, 2021.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke, right, holds a press conference in Brownsville with Mayor Trey Mendez on Nov. 18, 2021. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

First: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke at a COVID-19 roundtable with, from left, Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez, McAllen doctor Richard Fleming and former journalist Carlos Sanchez. Last: Beto O'Rourke, right, held a press conference in Brownsville with Mayor Trey Mendez last week. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

O'Rourke touched on several other issues during his inaugural trip to the Valley as a gubernatorial candidate. He discussed COVID-19 with school board members in McAllen and with Hidalgo County Health Authority Ivan Melendez in Mission. The two spoke at length about how the region has been uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic, with its poverty and uninsured population, and they exchanged ideas on how to convince vaccine skeptics to get immunized.

Speaking with reporters after his McAllen rally, O'Rourke ticked through the unique issues that had come up in his conversations with South Texas leaders recently. O'Rourke said he spoke with Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez about expanding broadband internet, he spoke with Jim Hogg County Judge Juan Carlos Guerra about improving water quality and he talked with Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez about combating food insecurity, especially among children.

After the McAllen event, Ivan Duran Puente, a 22-year-old graduate school student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said he was taking the GOP threat in South Texas seriously but was hopeful Democrats have increased their numbers since 2018. At the same time, he acknowledged Republicans have a “major voice here, especially with our older conservative demographic."

“I don't want to give it power, but it's always something you have to be cautious about," he said. “We just need to put more faith in the campaign of Beto than give power to the voice of conservatives because that's how they are gonna win at the end of the day."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/11/24/beto-orourke-2022-south-texas/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Beto O’Rourke targets South Texas in bid to win back Democratic voters he’ll need to beat Gov. Greg Abbott in 2022

In the first days of his campaign for governor, Beto O'Rourke made a beeline to this southernmost corner of the state, saying it was no mistake he was choosing to start his run in a part of Texas where Democrats have their work cut out for them after the 2020 election.

His supporters know it, too.

"We are being attacked at all ends," Amanda Elise Salas said as she introduced him here Wednesday night. "This is a Democratic area, and there is no way we are gonna let Republicans come in here and take over."

"They're knocking at our door," Mario Saenz, a Democratic precinct chair from Brownsville, said afterward. "We cannot let them in."

A lot of Democratic hopes are riding on O'Rourke this election cycle, but few may be more consequential to the party's future in Texas than his ability to stave off a strong GOP offensive in South Texas. Emboldened by President Joe Biden's underwhelming performance throughout the predominantly Hispanic region last year, Republicans have been pushing hard to make new inroads there, and O'Rourke faces an incumbent in Gov. Greg Abbott who been working for years to win Hispanic voters.

But it is not just about halting the GOP's post-2020 march in South Texas. O'Rourke, who is facing an uphill battle in the governor's race, has ground to make up after his own less-than-stellar performance with voters there in 2018 when he ran for U.S. Senate — and turning out more Latino voters has long been key to Democratic hopes statewide.

O'Rourke has been candid about the problem. Days after the 2020 election, which cemented Republican dominance across Texas, he told supporters that the fact that the border region "has been ignored for years by the national party, and even many statewide Democratic candidates, hurt us badly." Last week, he began his campaign for governor with a swing through the region, calling the early itinerary "very intentional" and vowing to return frequently.

"If the great sin committed by Republicans historically has been to disenfranchise voters, including those in the Rio Grande Valley, then that committed by Democrats has been to take those same voters for granted in the past," O'Rourke told reporters in San Antonio, before heading south to Laredo and the Valley.

O'Rourke got a wake-up call in South Texas during the 2018 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, losing many counties in the region to a little-known and little-funded opponent, Sema Hernandez. While it was not the first time a candidate with a Hispanic surname beat expectations in a statewide Democratic primary, O'Rourke acknowledged afterward that he needed to do more outreach.

Months later, in the general election, O'Rourke failed to make significant gains in South Texas compared to his party's 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, which would have been key to defeating U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. In the largest South Texas county outside San Antonio — Hidalgo — O'Rourke barely improved on Clinton's vote share there, getting 68.8% after she got 68.5%.

Then came 2020, when Biden carried South Texas — and the Rio Grande Valley in particular — by a much narrower margin than Clinton did. He outright lost Zapata County, a longtime Democratic stronghold just north of the Valley.

Republicans charged into this election cycle determined to make further gains, and they have already had success. They flipped a state House seat on the South Side of San Antonio earlier this month, and on the same day that O'Rourke announced his campaign for governor, state Rep. Ryan Guillen, who has represented Rio Grande City as a Democrat since 2003, announced he was joining the GOP.

Abbott's top political adviser, Dave Carney, said the governor's campaign has "a lot of plans" for South Texas this election cycle and that Abbott is "gonna be there a lot." Carney said he was not worried about new Latino voters turning out next year.

"I want every Hispanic voter to turn out," Carney said. "That helps us."

Democrats say O'Rourke needs to keep his word and return often to South Texas, giving it the kind of attention that the Biden campaign did not last year. And while border communities are about "so much more than immigration" — as O'Rourke said at multiple stops last week — he will have to grapple with how to talk about an issue that is No. 1 for Abbott and a political liability for Democrats in Texas right now.

Republicans scoff at the idea that O'Rourke can rescue his party in South Texas. Monica De La Cruz, a GOP candidate to flip a congressional seat anchored in the Valley, said O'Rourke is "not the answer," and his positions on law enforcement, gun rights and border security are out of step with South Texas voters.

"I don't think it changes the landscape," De La Cruz said. "I think that South Texans have conservative values of faith, family and freedom, and I don't think Beto O'Rourke changes that at all."

The border

Taking on South Texas means O'Rourke will not be able to avoid tough questions about border security and immigration — issues with which Democrats have struggled in the past year to find a unified position under Biden.

Texas Republicans are largely narrowing in on border security as a winning issue for the party. And Abbott has taken sweeping — and at times unprecedented — action to fortify the border since Biden took office, charging migrants as criminal trespassers in state court and announcing the construction of a state-funded border wall.

While there is not necessarily broad support for everything Abbott has done on the border, Texas voters agree they do not like Biden's approach. The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey found that only 22% of voters approved of how Biden has handled immigration and border security, compared with 63% who disapprove.

In one of his first interviews as a gubernatorial candidate, O'Rourke criticized Biden's handling of the border, saying it is clear Biden "could be doing a better job at the border" and that it is "not enough of a priority for his administration." In that interview and other comments to reporters last week, O'Rourke called for "predictability," "order" and "rule of law" on the border. He also spoke frankly about the need for asylum-seekers to come to the country through ports of entry, not in between them, present their asylum claim and, if it is denied, face deportation.

It is the kind of rhetoric that would have been surprising to hear in O'Rourke's past campaigns. While it may appeal to voters looking for a harder line on the border, it could turn off Democrats hoping for a bold contrast with the GOP.

"He's taking up these right-wing talking points instead of pushing for a more humane approach to immigration, which is what he was doing back in 2017," said Denisce Palacios, a Democratic organizer from the Valley who volunteered for O'Rourke's 2018 campaign. "It looks like he's kind of moved more to the center in terms of messaging. That's kind of frustrating."

At the same time, O'Rourke said Biden needs to end Title 42, a policy that allows the administration to quickly turn away undocumented immigrants at the border, citing a public health crisis — the coronavirus pandemic. O'Rourke said that is fueling disorder at the border because those who are rejected are simply returning again and again.

It remains to be seen how much O'Rourke actively campaigns on border issues.

His announcement video did not mention the border. He prioritized other issues in interviews around the announcement. And he did not mention the border during his first public campaign event Tuesday morning in San Antonio. But hours later in Laredo, he was back in familiar form, extolling immigrants' value to the country and praising Laredoans for having "stood up" to city leaders to stop a border wall, a major rallying cry in his 2018 campaign.

Chants of "No more wall!" almost instantly broke out. Minutes earlier, the chair of the Webb County Democratic Party, Sylvia Bruni, had said while introducing O'Rourke that she was "so, so thrilled, I want to cry."

Dani Marrero Hi, a spokesperson for LUPE Votes, said now is not the time for O'Rourke to downplay immigration as an issue in South Texas. She pointed out that Abbott "talks about immigration all the time," and while she strongly disagrees with his policies and rhetoric, he is at least talking about it.

"When there's a space and Democrats don't talk about it with an alternative vision, it leaves room for Abbott and Trump … to come in and write the whole narrative about what the border is," she said.

Showing up

Beyond any issue, though, South Texas Democrats say O'Rourke needs to show up, especially after a presidential election that left them wanting. Biden never visited Texas, let alone anywhere in South Texas, during the general election, and his running mate, Kamala Harris, visited McAllen only in the final days of the race.

To that end, South Texas Democrats are not particularly concerned about O'Rourke, who is known for his relentless campaigning. He toured all 254 counties during his 2018 race, which included a bus tour specifically focused on the border.

"We're the poorest region of Texas, maybe one of the poorest regions in the nation, and you know, it was a huge letdown that Kamala and Biden didn't make a prolonged appearance here in the Valley, but Beto, you know, he's been recurringly focusing his presence here, especially in his past campaigns," said Sebastian Bonilla, a 25-year-old from the Valley who came to see O'Rourke speak in McAllen.

Abbott has put an emphasis on South Texas since his first gubernatorial campaign in 2014, and he has been increasingly traveling there in recent months, both in his official capacity and for political appearances. Carney said it will become "crystal clear" after the holidays that Abbott will be traveling to South Texas frequently.

Carney said Abbott's campaign has "already modeled a million Democrat voters who do not support Beto, the vast majority south of San Antonio." The voters say they support a Democrat in a generic gubernatorial ballot — an unnamed Democrat versus an unnamed Republican — but when asked about O'Rourke versus Abbott, they are undecided or pick Abbott.

"That's just such a hole to come out of," Carney said.

Bruni said she is optimistic that O'Rourke will not meet the same fate as Biden in South Texas because he will spend meaningful time there and Democrats will campaign in person, unlike in 2020, when they largely went virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.

She said that allowed Republicans to campaign in person unchecked — and they "scared the Dickens" out of voters in places like Zapata County with claims that Biden would eliminate their oil-and-gas jobs and take away their guns.

"The only way we can resolve that [next year] … is by being out there and telling the right story," Bruni said. "That's the only way. We did not do that in 2020."

To the extent that anxieties about oil-and-gas jobs and gun rights fueled GOP gains in South Texas last year, O'Rourke entered the gubernatorial race prepared. He has been talking about a Texas AFL-CIO plan to generate 1 million energy jobs that would supplement — not replace, he emphasizes — existing jobs in the oil-and-gas industry. And while he has not backed away from his 2020 campaign pledge to "take" people's assault weapons, he has sought to reframe it in the context of Texas having a "long, proud tradition of responsible gun ownership."

O'Rourke touched on several other issues during his inaugural trip to the Valley as a gubernatorial candidate. He discussed COVID-19 with school board members in McAllen and with Hidalgo County Health Authority Ivan Melendez in Mission. The two spoke at length about how the region has been uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic, with its poverty and uninsured population, and they exchanged ideas on how to convince vaccine skeptics to get immunized.

Speaking with reporters after his McAllen rally, O'Rourke ticked through the unique issues that had come up in his conversations with South Texas leaders recently. O'Rourke said he spoke with Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez about expanding broadband internet, he spoke with Jim Hogg County Judge Juan Carlos Guerra about improving water quality and he talked with Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez about combating food insecurity, especially among children.

After the McAllen event, Ivan Duran Puente, a 22-year-old graduate school student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said he was taking the GOP threat in South Texas seriously but was hopeful Democrats have increased their numbers since 2018. At the same time, he acknowledged Republicans have a "major voice here, especially with our older conservative demographic."

"I don't want to give it power, but it's always something you have to be cautious about," he said. "We just need to put more faith in the campaign of Beto than give power to the voice of conservatives because that's how they are gonna win at the end of the day."


US. Rep. Louie Gohmert joins Texas Republicans running against Attorney General Ken Paxton

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, announced Monday he is running for attorney general, challenging fellow Republican Ken Paxton, in the already crowded primary.

"Texas I am officially running to be your next Attorney General and will enforce the rule of law," Gohmert tweeted after announcing his campaign on Newsmax.

Gohmert announced earlier this month that he would join the GOP lineup against Paxton if he could raise $1 million in 10 days. The 10th day was Friday. Gohmert said in an announcement video that he has "reached our initial goal of raising $1 million in order to start a run for" attorney general, though he did not confirm whether he was able to collect it in 10 days.

Gohmert is at least the fourth primary opponent that Paxton has drawn. The others include Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and state Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth. At least three Democrats are also running for the job.

The race has attracted intense interest due to Paxton's legal problems, which include a 2015 securities fraud indictment that remains pending. Paxton has also come under FBI investigation over claims that he abused his office to help a wealthy donor. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases. Gohmert has latched on to those legal issues, warning they could cause Paxton to lose the general election.

Gohmert was originally scheduled to announce his decision Friday on Mark Davis' radio show in Dallas, but he never called in and the show went off air without hearing from him.


Beto O'Rourke raises $2 million in first 24 hours of launching gubernatorial campaign

Beto O'Rourke raised $2 million in the first 24 hours of his run for governor, his campaign tells The Texas Tribune.

His campaign called it a record "for any Democratic gubernatorial candidate for the first 24 hours" of a campaign. They also said it was the most raised in the "first 24 hours of any campaign in 2021."

O'Rourke is a fundraising powerhouse, though he faces an even more formidable fundraiser in Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. He had $55 million cash on hand at the end of June.

O'Rourke's fundraising total for his first 24 hours was $2,015,885, his campaign said. The haul came from "about" 31,000 donors, according to a campaign spokesperson, Abhi Rahman.

O'Rourke has been on the road since launching his campaign Monday morning, making stops in Fort Stockton, San Antonio and Laredo. He is scheduled to visit the Rio Grande Valley on Wednesday.

Beto O’Rourke uses opening days of challenge against Gov. Greg Abbott to recalibrate

After stopping here Monday morning for the first public event of his gubernatorial campaign, Beto O'Rourke faced a reporter who asked him about the perception that he is "a two-time loser, you're a Democrat in a red state, you have no chance of winning."

A few supporters gathered behind O'Rourke quickly registered their disapproval with the line of questioning.

"Can't win if you don't run!" shouted one woman waving a "Beto for Texas" sign.

In his latest run for a Texas office, O'Rourke is again running against the odds — and the first two days of his campaign showed he is recalibrating to deal with his own potential weaknesses. He hit the campaign trail with a pitch narrowly focused on several issues that are largely popular with voters, leaving behind the more incendiary rhetoric from his presidential campaign and trying to separate himself from President Joe Biden on at least one major issue: the border.

"It's clear that President Biden could be doing a better job at the border. It is not enough of a priority for his administration," O'Rourke told the CBS affiliate in Dallas, calling for "predictability, order and the rule of law."

O'Rourke has previously criticized Biden's handling of the border, but to say it is not compassionate enough. His knock on Biden comes as the president's approval rating in Texas continues to tank, especially on his handling of the border.

Gov. Greg Abbott's campaign says it's unsurprising that O'Rourke is trying to turn away from his presidential campaign, when he was trying to stand out in a crowded Democratic primary and prove his progressive credentials. During that contest, O'Rourke said he supported tearing down the existing border wall and famously backed a mandatory federal assault rifle buyback plan.

"The reinvention campaign has begun," Abbott campaign spokesperson Mark Miner said Tuesday. "Day 2 of the campaign, and he's already flip-flopping. Now he can add a third issue — he has a credibility problem."

O'Rourke's stump speech Tuesday clocked in at just over 15 minutes, and it was tightly centered on a handful of specific issues.

He criticized Abbott for backing the state's new laws allowing permitless carry of handguns and banning most abortions. The permitless carry law has been unpopular in polling, and while Texas voters tend to be polarized on abortion in general, the new law's provision that gives private citizens the power to enforce it is more clearly disliked.

O'Rourke said the law "places a bounty on the heads of every woman in this state who wants to make her own decisions about her own body and for her own future."

In the San Antonio speech, O'Rourke praised law enforcement and said they were "pleading" with Abbott not to sign the permitless carry bill, setting up a contrast to Abbott's portrayal of him as hostile to law enforcement because of his support in 2020 for the "defund the police" movement.

When it came to his own proposals, O'Rourke spoke most emphatically about two of them: expanding Medicaid and legalizing marijuana. He called them "commonsense things that all of us agree on." Both are easily popular in Texas, with clear majorities of voters telling pollsters they back Medicaid expansion and legalizing possession of at least small amounts of pot.

O'Rourke's made no mention of his proposal for a mandatory buyback of assault weapons that he forcefully advocated for during his White House bid. He famously proclaimed during one debate that "Hell yes," he wanted to take away people's AR-15s and AK-47s.

In interviews around his launch, O'Rourke said he was not backing away from that idea, while providing a broader answer acknowledging Texas' gun culture, discussing his own upbringing around firearms and promising to protect Second Amendment rights while working to prevent senseless violence. He also used Abbott's support for the unpopular permitless carry to blunt questions about his past comments on guns.

O'Rourke's supporters are mindful of the impact of his "Hell yes" comment, if only as a rallying cry for the opposition.

"His Senate campaign was really hitting all the right notes. I think his presidential campaign hit some maybe not-so-quite-right notes for Texas," said Josh Robbins, a 42-year-old English professor from San Antonio who attended Tuesday's event. "He's got a little bit of work to do as far as messaging for guns in particular, but I think, absolutely, he can do that. He's an incredible communicator."

O'Rourke also came out of the gate with a counterargument to GOP attacks that he will destroy the oil and gas industry that is vital to the Texas economy. Both on the stage and to reporters, O'Rourke touted a Texas AFL-CIO plan that he said would strike an important balance.

When it comes to climate change, "we've got to make sure that … we're creating the jobs that meet that challenge," O'Rourke told reporters. "The AFL-CIO has a plan to create more than a million high-wage, high-value, high-skilled jobs right here in Texas that add to — do not replace, add to — oil and gas jobs in this state."

O'Rourke's praise of the AFL-CIO was notable. The statewide labor group initially declined to endorse him in the 2018 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, after he missed its convention and amid questions about his positions on trade.

On the stage in San Antonio, O'Rourke said he had just spoken with the president of the Texas AFL-CIO, Rick Levy, and told him he wants to be his "partner" in the campaign.

"I trust the men and women of labor, and I'm gonna work with them," said O'Rourke, speaking outside the local chapter of the Communication Workers of America.

In an apparent attempt to flip the script on Republicans campaigning on lower taxes, O'Rourke framed Abbott's positions on some issues as ones that are costing Texans more money. Addressing supporters in San Antonio, he argued Medicaid expansion would, "for any of you who are sick and tired of your property tax bill, bring those bills down as we ease the pressure by bringing in federal money."

Also, since announcing, O'Rourke has referred to the surcharges that Texas ratepayers are facing after the electric grid failure during February's freeze as the "Abbott tax."

O'Rourke has a short window to change minds and tamp down potential vulnerabilities. His entrance into the race Monday came just under a year before the election, and just under a month before the candidate filing deadline for the March primary.

"I know we've just gotten started, but we have less than a year left to us," he told supporters in San Antonio, imploring them to immediately get to work for his campaign.

After San Antonio, he headed to Laredo as part of an opening swing through the state that is taking him deep into South Texas. It is a significant choice — both after Biden underperformed there in 2020 and after O'Rourke's own struggles in the region in the 2018 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

"If the great sin committed by Republicans historically has been to disenfranchise voters, including those in the Rio Grande Valley, then that committed by Democrats has been to take those same voters for granted in the past," O'Rourke told reporters in San Antonio.

The event was a festive affair, with San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg swinging by to speak briefly and a mariachi band taking over the stage after O'Rourke spoke, leading chants of, "Go, Beto, go!" O'Rourke stuck around for a photo line that stretched the length of the parking lot where he spoke.

Waiting toward the back of the line was Maria Cervantes, a 62-year-old homemaker from San Antonio who missed O'Rourke's speech but was still hoping for a photo. She said she likes "everything" about O'Rourke — "just 100%" — and believes the difference between him and Abbott is "day and night." She said she especially disagreed with Abbott on the permitless carry law and called his approach to the pandemic "the worst thing," citing his bans on mask and vaccine mandates.

"This time, he's gonna win, for sure," Cervantes said of O'Rourke. "I heard a lot of people talking about Beto [in 2018], and we were upset last time that he didn't win, but now I think everybody's getting together, and that's why I think he's going to win."

While O'Rourke did not mention the border at the event, Abbott's campaign did its best to force the issue, dispatching people to hand out fake "Beto bucks" stamped with the label "BETO BIDEN BORDER CRISIS." They were for $450,000, the maximum amount that was reportedly discussed as an option for the Biden administration to compensate migrants separated from family members at the border. Biden has since said such compensation is "not going to happen."


Beto O’Rourke says he’s running for Texas governor

Beto O'Rourke is running for governor, challenging Republican Greg Abbott in a clash of two of Texas' biggest politicians.

“I'm running to serve the people of Texas, and I want to make sure that we have a governor that serves everyone, helps to bring this state together to do the really big things before us and get past the small, divisive politics and policies of Greg Abbott," O'Rourke said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “It is time for change."

The former El Paso congressman, 2018 U.S. Senate nominee and 2020 presidential contender said he was running for governor to improve public schools, health care and jobs in Texas. But O'Rourke also took sharp aim at Abbott's record, citing new laws he backed this year that ban most abortions in Texas, tighten voting rules and allow permitless carry of handguns. He also criticized Abbott over the February power grid failure that left most of the state without electricity in subfreezing temperatures and his response to the coronavirus pandemic that has recently been focused on fighting vaccine and mask mandates.

In a video announcing his campaign Monday morning, O'Rourke focuses heavily on the grid failure, saying Texans were "abandoned by those who were elected to serve and look out for them." O'Rourke said in the interview that Abbott “has stopped listening to and trusting the people of Texas."

“He doesn't trust women to make their health care decisions, doesn't trust police chiefs when they tell him not to sign the permitless carry bill into law, he doesn't trust voters so he changes the rules of our elections, and he doesn't trust local communities," O'Rourke said, referring to Abbott's policies preventing local officials from making their own pandemic rules.

O'Rourke's decision to enter the race ends months of speculation and gives Democrats a formidable campaigner at the top of the ticket — someone who transformed Texas politics with his blockbuster campaign against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. The clock has been ticking, with the candidate filing deadline for the March 2022 primary less than a month away.

Abbott has already been campaigning against O'Rourke as too liberal for Texas, branding him “Wrong Way O'Rourke" and seizing on multiple positions he has taken since last running statewide. At the top of the list is O'Rourke's proposal to require buybacks of assault weapons during his presidential campaign. That led to a memorable moment on the debate stage in which O'Rourke proclaimed that, “Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47."

O'Rourke said he was not backing away from that proposal in his latest campaign.

“I think most Texans can agree — maybe all Texans can agree — that we should not see our friends, our family members, our neighbors, shot up with weapons that were originally designed for use on a battlefield," said O'Rourke, whose hometown of El Paso was the site of an anti-Latino mass shooting in 2019 by a gunman who killed 23 people.

The gubernatorial race marks O'Rourke's third campaign in as many election cycles — and it is unfolding in a much different context than his first statewide run three years ago. He is now well-known to Texas voters, and polls show more voters have a negative opinion of him than a positive one. The national environment is also working against him this time, with President Joe Biden, a fellow Democrat, deeply unpopular in Texas.

While Abbott's approval rating has sunk to its lowest levels since he first became governor in 2014, O'Rourke starts as an underdog. The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found O'Rourke trailing Abbott by 9 percentage points.

Asked how he was approaching this campaign compared to the 2018 one, O'Rourke said he would be taking his cues from Texans.

“A big lesson that I take from anything I've been a part of that's been successful is you gotta keep the focus on people," O'Rourke said. “And if this becomes about a single candidate or political party instead of the people of Texas, it's just not gonna work."

But O'Rourke is changing up at least a couple of tactics for the race.

This time he said he plans to run ads that draw a contrast with Abbott, something he did not do against Cruz until the final weeks of the race. O'Rourke also suggested he is open to using polling — which he eschewed in 2018 — to “make informed decisions about where we deploy resources," while insisting he would never use polling to tailor his message.

Unlike when O'Rourke ran for U.S. Senate and was subject to federal campaign finance laws, O'Rourke faces no contribution limits at the state level. He has long crusaded against the big money in politics, making his refusal to accept political action committee money a cornerstone of his campaigns. But he confirmed he would accept unlimited donations as allowed under state law, saying he did not want to “run this campaign with a hand tied behind our backs."

“Having said that, you will not see anything like what Greg Abbott has done in terms of coming very close to the line of open corruption," O'Rourke said, pointing to the $1 million donation that Abbott got from Dallas pipeline mogul Kelcy Warren in the months following the grid failure that his company profited from.

As for Biden, O'Rourke did not express any concerns when asked about the impact of the president's unpopularity on the gubernatorial contest. O'Rourke said he was grateful for things the president has gotten done that benefit Texas, like the latest portion of federal COVID-19 recovery funds and the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that Biden is set to sign into law Monday.

“I will partner with anyone, anywhere, anytime — regardless of political party or position of power they may hold — to make sure that we make progress here in Texas," O'Rourke said.

At least two other Democrats are running for governor. They include Michael Cooper, the president of the Beaumont NAACP who ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, and Deirdre Gilbert, an educator from the Houston area.

Abbott is navigating his own spirited primary as he pursues a third term, facing at least three challengers from his right. They are former Dallas state Sen. Don Huffines, conservative commentator Chad Prather and former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West.

O'Rourke burst on to the statewide political scene in 2018 with his star-making challenge to Cruz. He toured all of Texas' 254 counties and smashed fundraising records, gained national attention and ultimately finished 3 percentage points behind Cruz.

Months later, O'Rourke jumped into the presidential contest, joining a crowded primary for the chance to take on then-President Donald Trump. His campaign struggled to break out of the back of the pack for most of his time running.

The El Paso shooting reinvigorated O'Rourke and brought a new urgency to his campaign, but it was not enough. He dropped out of the race weeks later as he was running low on money and grappling with potentially missing the cut for an upcoming debate.

O'Rourke wasted little time reengaging in state politics. He resisted encouragement to pivot to challenging U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and instead formed a political action committee, Powered by People, to help Texas Democrats in the 2020 election.

O'Rourke popped up in the presidential primary again that March, endorsing Biden at a Dallas rally on the eve of the state's nominating contest. Biden ended up winning the Texas primary as part of a sweep of the Super Tuesday states that propelled him on a path to the nomination.

For the rest of the 2020 election cycle, O'Rourke and his group focused mainly on Democrats' fight to capture the state House majority. They came up woefully short, failing to net a single seat.

O'Rourke was back in the public spotlight in February, amid the winter weather crisis that left millions of Texans without power and hundreds dead. He used his platform to fundraise for relief efforts and traveled the state volunteering for the recovery.

Over the summer, O'Rourke became a leading figure in Texas Democrats' push for federal voting rights legislation. While Democrats in the Texas House broke quorum over Abbott's priority elections bill and went to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress for help, O'Rourke crisscrossed Texas to build public pressure for federal legislation.

However, Democrats were not successful on either the state or federal levels. The state House Democrats eventually returned to Austin to allow Republicans to pass their restrictive elections legislation, while Congress still has not sent a voting rights bill to Biden's desk.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/11/15/beto-orourke-texas-governor-2022/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.