DALLAS — As Texans prepare to elect their next governor, Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke have similar campaign messages: The other guy would be terrible for Texas.
The closing arguments Abbott and O’Rourke brought to North Texas in the final week of the campaign are the same ones they’ve offered throughout the $200 million governor’s race, the most expensive in Texas history: fear and dread mixed with some hope and aspiration.
Abbott, the Republican incumbent, says he’ll continue a conservative philosophy that will keep Texas, well, Texas. He says O’Rourke, his Democratic Party challenger, is too liberal and would usher in an era of socialism and wreck the state’s economic success.
The former El Paso congressman says Texas’ economy is thriving in spite of Abbott, who’s failed the state by allowing property taxes to soar, not fortifying the state’s power grid, doing nothing to curb mass shootings, and signing an abortion ban without exceptions for victims of rape and incest.
The next governor will set the agenda for two legislative sessions and serve as the executive for numerous agencies that operate under the $248 billion two-year budget passed last year.
A Democrat hasn’t won a statewide race since 1994, and the last to win a governor’s race was Ann Richards in 1990. If Abbott wins, Republicans will continue their statewide dominance. If O’Rourke pulls off a stunner and the Legislature remains under GOP control as expected, state government will be divided.
North Texas connection
Whatever the scenario, the direction of Texas is in the hands of voters, and North Texas will play a pivotal role. To have a chance, O’Rourke needs high turnout in Democratic strongholds like Dallas County and to build on gains in Tarrant County in 2018 and 2020. Abbott needs to keep GOP voters in the fold in traditionally Republican suburban Collin and Denton counties.
Both candidates have made multiple stops in North Texas during the two-week early voting period, with more to come. According to his campaign, Abbott on Sunday was set to attend a service at The Potter’s House in Dallas. He was also scheduled speak at the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour welcome event at Addison Airport. O’Rourke campaigned in Denton.
O’Rourke acknowledged the region’s importance Thursday night after a rally at Sue Ellen’s, an Oak Lawn lesbian bar.
“North Texas could very well decide the outcome of this election,” he said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “This could be the ballgame, up here.”
Abbott, who did not conduct an interview with The News, held a rally in Fort Worth on Tuesday and has been closing his campaign with the message that O’Rourke as governor is a dangerous proposition.
“We’re just going to show the contrast between the conservative policies that have made Texas No. 1, versus the radical, leftist ideology promoted by the Democrats and Beto O’Rourke that would destroy the state of Texas,” the governor told a large crowd at Cafe Republic. “We will not let that happen.”
Polls and political analysts say Abbott has the advantage, particularly with the GOP’s voter majority in Texas and with O’Rourke facing headwinds from the national climate and President Joe Biden’s unpopularity in Texas.
“Beto made it a more competitive race than what Abbott faced in 2014 and in 2018,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, who has studied the contest and polled Texas voters. “But the combination of his tilt to the left in his 2020 presidential race and the Biden-inspired headwinds have really prevented him from closing the gap beyond 7 or 8 points.”
Abbott, who has served as attorney general and on the Texas Supreme Court, hasn’t had a smooth second term, punctuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, several mass shootings, the 2021 winter storm and other challenges.
Still, he says voters should grant him a third term for his stewardship of the Texas economy and because he’ll develop conservative solutions to continue to produce jobs, while protecting Lone Star values.
At a September campaign stop in Fairview, Abbott signed a compact pledging to advocate for Texas seniors. He’s also promised to fight for parental rights, a nod to the raging debate over what input parents should have in their children’s education. And he says he’ll continue to fortify the power grid and preserve energy jobs.
“Texas has the No. 1 economy of all the states in the United States of America,” Abbott said Tuesday in Fort Worth. “All of this is at risk because of the policies that Beto has been trying to push. They would increase your taxes, increase spending and increase inflation in our state.”
The governor’s latest television ad, called “Demolition Man,” features an actor playing O’Rourke who takes a sledgehammer to a Texas made of cinder blocks.
Abbott has used stances O’Rourke took during and after his 2020 presidential campaign to cast him as too liberal for Texas. The criticism includes O’Rourke’s verbal support of cutting police budgets in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd.
In the final days and television ads of his campaign, O’Rourke has continued ticking off the reasons he says Abbott has failed: Texas leading the nation in school shootings. The governor signing “the most extreme abortion ban in America.” An exodus of teaching talent from public schools. Property taxes that have risen $20 billion during Abbott’s term. A power grid that O’Rourke says “still does not work,” though the state hasn’t repeated the outage that occurred in 2021, when millions of Texas were left without power or water.
“We just can’t afford four more years of this,” O’Rourke said during an interview with The News. “For whatever reason, he’s been unable to make any of these things better, and in fact has made things worse.”
“Whether you voted for him last time, or voted for someone else, or have never voted before. I’m in this for you,” O’Rourke continued. “And I want to make sure that we can turn the page on Greg Abbott and that we can vote for change.”
O’Rourke says the issues he talks about — such as abortion rights, the failure to stop mass shootings and the need to expand Medicaid to improve health care access — will drive voters to the polls.
“They know full well that our governor has not done a damn thing to make it any less likely that any other child meets that fate,” he said. “And they’re not going to accept that as the price of living or dying in the state of Texas.”
The intangibles: What voters care about
The Supreme Court decision to strike down national abortion rights and outrage over the Uvalde school shooting did appear to turn voters toward O’Rourke and Democrats earlier this year.
Polls showed a close governor’s race until Abbott started to pull away at summer’s end.
But more recent surveys show the economy and border security are of primary concern to voters. Republicans also continue to effectively use the issue of crime against Democrats, with Abbott trying to link O’Rourke to efforts in cities like Austin to cut police budgets.
“The economy is the hurricane of issues,” said Austin-based lobbyist and GOP consultant Bill Miller. “These other issues are smaller storms.”
Abbott’s chief political strategist, Dave Carney, said the governor is aligned with Texas voters on these and other critical issues.
“The governor is talking about things that he wants to accomplish, like the property tax reduction,” he said. “These are all things the voters agree with.”
He said voters have an easy choice between Abbott and O’Rourke.
“It’s partly a contrast with the governor’s values. Texas values versus Beto’s values,” he said. “But it’s really securing Texas’ future, whether it’s securing the border, dealing with crime, dealing with the economic situation with jobs and inflation, and energy security.”
Voter turnout key
Even though more Texans vote Republican than Democrat, O’Rourke said he thinks he’ll get the outsized turnout he needs from the anti-Abbott bloc to win.
“I’m so confident that we’re going to win this, regardless of what polls or pundits or prognosticators may say,” he said. “This really comes down to the people of Texas.”
The former congressman said he’s spoken with new, infrequent and disaffected voters who are motivated to help him defeat Abbott, including 475,000 Dallas County voters who didn’t cast ballots in the 2020 presidential election.
“There is something happening in this state, in this country that’s absolutely unprecedented in terms of the stakes of these elections,” he said. “The number of new voters and people that we’ve never heard from before, who are participating, I guarantee you those polls are not picking up those voters.”
O’Rourke has had thousands of volunteers and 200 paid staffers for his campaign, but Abbott also has 200 workers and the best grassroots organization of any Republican.
“We know who we want to vote. We know how to reach them and get them out,” Carney said. “The question is whether Democrats who are not seeing a competitive race will vote. These magic, mysterious 2 million, secret Beto voters just aren’t showing up.”
Early voting was significantly lower this year compared with 2018. Jeff Dalton, a Dallas County-based political consultant, said nearly 29% of the county’s registered voters cast ballots, compared with nearly 40% in 2018. Dalton points out that the 2022 early vote totals are more robust than the 2014 midterms, when only 17.9% voted early.
Heading into its last day, early voting for this year was down compared to 2018, the last midterm election.
“We are optimistic, but we are not taking our foot off the pedal,” Carney added. “We’re full steam ahead.”