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Abbott vs. O’Rourke: Expect sharp rhetoric and fierce campaigning from candidates in governor’s race

Gov. Greg Abbott declares a statewide emergency amid new cases of COVID-19 in the state on March 13, 2020 at the state capitol.
Eddie Gaspar
The Texas Tribune
Gov. Greg Abbott speaking at a press conference.

Political analysts say there is no reason for Gov. Greg Abbott to try to make a move toward the middle after the primary election. Meanwhile, Democratic opponent Beto O'Rourke is positioning himself as a candidate with bipartisan appeal — a move experts say may be a tough sell in 2022.

Despite Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott and Democrat Beto O’Rourke facing several challengers in their respective party primaries, both ran their campaigns focused on the November general election. O’Rourke hammered Abbott on the power grid failure during last year’s winter storm while Abbott has pegged O’Rourke as an open-borders candidate in line with President Biden, whose approval rating is well below 50%.

Looking to November, experts also say Gov. Greg Abbott’s embrace of far-right issues — including his border enforcement initiatives and the recent directive that the state investigate families who provide gender-affirming care for their transgender children — is likely to continue.

“He was very successful with that approach,” said Rebecca Deen, an associate professor of political science and Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Arlington, in an interview with The Texas Newsroom. “You saw from really as soon as it was clear he was going to have challengers to his right, that he did everything he needed to do.”

The strategy helped Abbott fend off what were considered his biggest Republican primary challengers in former state Senator Don Huffines, a Dallas-area Republican and Allen West, the former chair of the Texas Republican Party and a one-term Florida congressman.

Deen said that success means there’s no reason he needs to court a more moderate electorate.

“He embraced former President Trump with the effort of getting his supporters to support him. He talked about the border and illegal immigration and immigration generally, pretty incessantly. That's a good tactic to beat the Democrats and especially to beat Mr. O’Rourke,” said Deen.

Abbott showed no signs Tuesday of dialing back from the policies he championed during the primary, telling a crowd in Corpus Christi that O’Rourke wants to confiscate guns, damage the oil-and-gas industry and defund police.

“Texans face a very profound question this election, do we take a left turn that leads to more government and less freedom?” Abbott said. “A path that would destroy jobs, open our borders and endanger our communities. Or do we maintain the course in a secured greater freedom, more jobs and safer communities?”

Jim Henson, a professor in the Department of Government at The University of Texas who directs the Texas Politics project, also told The Texas Newsroom he doesn’t anticipate Abbott changing his message to appear more likeable to moderate voters.

“People have been saying for months, if they've gone this far to the right, doesn't that mean that they're going to be screwed in the general election?” he said. “And I don't see that. I think there's nothing in our polling that shows that. There's nothing about what we know about Texas politics that shows that.”

Meanwhile, Beto O’Rourke will likely continue campaigning as a unifying voice in a divided state, while not shying away from taking his own shots at Abbott.

“We need a change in Texas,” said O’Rourke, speaking to reporters on Tuesday. “We can't have a state where we are pitted against one another, where we are as divided as we've ever been, where we have a governor, whose administration is to have been defined by corruption and incompetence and cruelty against every day El Pasoans,” he said.

O’Rourke gained national attention four years ago during a campaign for United States Senate, when he lost a close race to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. But he enters the general election contest this year following an early exit in the race for U.S. president in 2020. O’Rourke campaigned in 2018 as a candidate who wanted to reach across the aisle to benefit Texans and traveled to the state’s 254 counties to show he wasn’t snubbing traditionally Republican strongholds.

While he's embraced that same message, Deen thinks it could be a harder sell in this campaign.

“The Beto O’Rourke that was challenging Senator Cruz is a very different than the Beto O’Rourke of today, in large part because of his run for the presidency,” she said.

A large part of that has to do with guns. It was during a 2019 debate for the Democratic party’s nomination that O’Rourke, when asked about his goal to require mandatory buybacks of AR-15s and AK-47s — which are legal to own in Texas without a permit — that O’Rourke said “Hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

Abbott has seized on that and said he’ll protect the Constitution from people who’d confiscate weapons.

“Mark my words, freedom itself is on the ballot.” Abbott told supporters Tuesday.

O’Rourke’s comments in 2019 came less than two months after a gunman killed 23 people in El Paso in what authorities have described as a racially motivated shooting. The accused shooter posted a manifesto stating he wanted to stop an “invasion” of Texas by immigrants. It was revealed days later than Abbott sent out a campaign mailer on border security dated the day before the shooting in which he told supporters to “DEFEND” Texas’ borders.

When asked about his current stance on guns, O’Rourke said his message hasn’t changed.

“Like almost every El Pasoan, I understand the deep damage that AK-47s and AR-15s and other weapons that were designed for use on a battlefield to kill people can do in civilian life. We saw that at Walmart on August 3rd, 2019. And my position remains the same,” he said. “Nobody except a soldier on a battlefield should have one of those weapons. As governor, I'm going to make sure that we both protect the Second Amendment and do a better job of protecting the lives of those in our communities. And I know that Republicans and Democrats alike understand that we can do better and want to do better.”

Henson said the gun issue isn’t going to sway a lot of voters because they’ve already made up their minds on where they stand. But he thinks tying O’Rourke to Biden and the national Democrats will be an ongoing theme in Abbott’s campaign.

“For all his intentions, Biden has not been successful in undoing the deep partisanship in attitudes towards political figures,” he said. “There's evidence he hasn't been supportive of that nationally, but he's definitely not been successful at that in Texas.”

Henson added that O’Rourke has been consistent in trying to make his campaign about Texas and not Biden.

“He was demonstrating his independence from Biden within a week of announcing his campaign,” Henson said.

When asked about whether he’d welcome an endorsement from Biden, O’Rourke said he was focused on Texas voters who are the ones who will decide the race.

“We're happy to have help from wherever it comes, but I am focused on the people of Texas. Only those in this state can vote and decide the outcome of this election,” he said. “So, it's the endorsement of the Texas voter that I want most of all.

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.