The 2022 race for Texas governor is finally under way. But the contours for the contest between Beto O’Rourke and Greg Abbott have been months in the making.
AUSTIN — Assuming they win their respective primaries, the 2022 race for governor will be Abbott vs. O’Rourke. But it might also be Guns vs. the Grid. Or even Biden vs. Trump.
Forecasting the outcome of any contest 11-plus months into the future is dicey. But the contours of the race between Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Democratic former Congressman Beto O’Rourke have been morphing into shape for the better part of the past year. Perhaps even longer.
For starters, the coming Texas governor’s race is the first one at least since 1986 where both major-party candidates enter the race as household names. The 1986 reference applies to Republican former Gov. Bill Clements seeking to avenge his loss four years earlier against sitting Democratic Gov. Mark White. Clements won the rematch.
Abbott, seeking his third term, has been relishing the O’Rourke matchup pretty much ever since the Democrat’s effort to win the 2020 presidential nomination fizzled out. The reason is pretty simple: At least 80% of the opposition research had already been done, starting with the the 2018 U.S. Senate race, which turned out to be one of the nation’s most watched – and definitely one of the most expense campaigns of that midterm cycle.
And O’Rourke himself provided the ammunition (pun absolutely intended) for a major chunk of that research during his presidential bid. Which brings us to the “guns” part. O’Rourke said forcefully on the debate stage in Houston, before a televised audience, that he wanted to “take away” AR-15 and AK-47 assault-style rifles from civilians who have them. Abbott hasn’t passed up many opportunities to remind Texans of that.
Perhaps one of the reasons O’Rourke waited so long to declare his candidacy is because he knew he’d need a sharp counter message on the gun issue that might put Abbott on the defensive. Polling shows Texans are open to an assault weapons buy-back plan and that they have deep misgivings about the Abbott-backed new law allows the unlicensed carrying of handguns.
In a pre-announcement interview with the USA TODAY Network, O’Rourke invoked the August 2019 deadly mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, and several others in Texas. And he cast the gun issue in personal terms.
“I grew up in a household like most people in Texas with firearms, hunted as a kid with with family members,” he said. “My great uncle Raymond was a sheriff’s deputy member of law enforcement here in El Paso. He’s the one who taught me how to shoot and to make sure that I understood the responsibility of owning and using that firearm.
“Greg Abbott has scuttled, rejected the advice of law enforcement and catered to the NRA and made us much less safe as a consequence.”
Abbott, perhaps sensing some vulnerability stemming from the power outages from February’s deadly winter storm in Texas, was bullish when he signed legislation aimed at protecting power plants from extreme weather and tightening state oversight of the electric industry. The governor called them “comprehensive reforms to fix all of the flaws” in the state’s power grid
“Bottom line is that everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Abbott said in June.
Hardly, O’Rourke countered. In his campaign rollout, the Democrat reminded Texans that grid failure that left some 4 million Texans in the dark for several days and contributed to about 150 deaths on the governor’s watch. O’Rourke will likely pass up few chances to repeat that reminder as the campaign progresses.
Other issues highlighting the sharp divide between the incumbent and the challenger are already in play: Among them are abortion rights, voting rights and COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Others undoubtedly will emerge.
But even though midterm elections are confined to the individual states, they are often referendums on the party holding the White House. This no doubt pleases Abbott because Democratic President Joe Biden’s number in Texas are tanking. That’s why you’ll seldom hear him mention O’Rourke’s name without pairing it with the president’s.
O’Rourke, on the other hand, might want to make the race partly about 2024 when former President Trump might try to make a comeback. Trump’s only midterm was good for Texas Democrats, including O’Rourke, who barely lost his 2018 U.S. Senate race. So look for him to cast Abbott as the chief surrogate for a return to Trumpism in two years.
John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.