EAGLE PASS — Beto O’Rourke entered the race for Texas governor on Monday, criticizing what he described as the ultraconservative policies and anti-immigrant rhetoric of Gov. Greg Abbott. It is a long-shot bid to win an office Democrats last occupied in 1995.

In a video announcing his run and in an interview Monday, O’Rourke, a former El Paso congressman and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, presented his campaign as a corrective to what he said were the “extremist policies” of the state’s Republican leadership, including Abbott, who has overseen a sharp turn to the right in Texas.

“I want to make sure we get past the smallness and the divisiveness of Greg Abbott,” he said in a telephone interview as he drove from his home in El Paso for his first campaign swing.

O’Rourke’s entrance into the race gave a boost to Democrats in Texas and around the country after losses or near-defeats on political ground they used to control, including in Virginia, New Jersey and San Antonio. Apart from giving them a shot at the governor’s mansion, Democrats are hoping that O’Rourke’s presence at the top of the ticket will increase turnout and help Democratic candidates in down-ballot races across Texas.

The 2022 contest for Texas governor is expected to be among the most expensive ever in the state, given O’Rourke’s ability to raise money from small donors nationwide, his willingness to take large contributions this time and Abbott’s nearly $60 million campaign war chest.

In the interview, O’Rourke said that Abbott had “abandoned” ordinary Texans during and after the failure of the Texas grid in February, a blackout that killed hundreds of people and left millions without power in frigid conditions. He said that afterward, Republicans focused instead on passing laws limiting abortion and allowing Texans to carry handguns without a permit.

He said Abbott bore some responsibility for the mass shooting in El Paso in 2019 that killed 23 people. The gunman in that attack, at a border-city Walmart, faces federal hate-crime charges; prosecutors said he targeted Hispanics. O’Rourke cited a fundraising letter sent by the Abbott campaign a day before the shooting. The letter urged supporters to “defend Texas” against a surge of immigrants entering the U.S. illegally at the border and to “take matters into our own hands.”

“Within days, somebody did just that,” O’Rourke said. “Having learned nothing from that, he is using the language of invasion,” he added, referring to Abbott’s more recent comments about the border. The continued use of anti-immigrant rhetoric and the easier access to guns, he said, will “very likely cause other attacks like we saw in El Paso.”

Abbott later expressed some regret about the letter, saying that “mistakes were made.”

The Abbott campaign responded to O’Rourke’s entrance into the race Monday by tying him to President Joe Biden visually — in a slowly morphing image of their two faces — and in a statement that attacked O’Rourke for supporting the Biden administration’s “pro-open-border policies.”

“The last thing Texans need is President Biden’s radical liberal agenda coming to Texas under the guise of Beto O’Rourke,” a campaign spokesperson, Mark Miner, said in the statement.

O’Rourke has been a darling of Texas Democrats and party activists since his run against Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. His narrow loss gave hope to Democrats that the state was on the cusp of turning their way. His campaign hopes to rekindle that enthusiasm as it tries to unseat Abbott, who is seeking reelection to a third term.

But O’Rourke has lost some of the luster of that first run. He followed it up with a presidential campaign that ended in disappointment and saw him take liberal positions on guns and the border that he will now have to explain to Texas voters. One recent public poll found O’Rourke nearly tied with Abbott in a hypothetical matchup, while another showed him losing by 9 percentage points.

Still, the arrival of O’Rourke set the stage for a pitched political showdown next November over the future of Texas at a time when the state — with its expanding cities and diversifying population — has appeared increasingly up for grabs.

Democrats have seen their story of political change in Texas grow increasingly complicated since the 2020 election.

Last month in San Antonio, a Republican flipped a Democratic seat in the Texas House of Representatives during a special election. And on Monday, Ryan Guillen, a longtime Democrat who has represented a majority-Latino district in the Rio Grande Valley, announced that he was becoming a Republican.

Former President Donald Trump carried the state by nearly 6 points in 2020 and gained ground for Republicans among Hispanic voters in the Rio Grande Valley, a Democratic stronghold along the Mexican border. Republicans also held on to control of the Texas Legislature despite a concerted effort by Democrats to flip it. And Republicans have had an electoral lock on the governor’s mansion that has stretched for nearly three decades. The last Democrat to serve as governor was Ann Richards, who won election in November 1990 and was in office from January 1991 to January 1995.

After his failed presidential run, O’Rourke faces the challenge of demonstrating to Texas voters that he is focused on the state’s issues and not on the national spotlight. His advisers appeared to be aware of the need to remind voters of the actions O’Rourke has taken in Texas, particularly after the storm in February. O’Rourke solicited donations for storm victims, organized wellness checks for seniors and delivered water from his pickup.

His organization, Powered by People, has also helped to register voters — nearly 200,000 since late 2019, according to the campaign — and O’Rourke raised around $700,000 to support Democrats in the Texas House after many fled to Washington to block a restrictive voting measure that ultimately passed.

Democrats had been urging O’Rourke to jump into the race for months, and he had begun to strongly consider doing so by late summer as he called around to Democratic leaders in the state. With the election a little less than a year away, no other major Democrat has entered, leaving Abbott’s advisers to consider a range of messages to attack O’Rourke as too extreme for Texas. They are likely to focus on comments he made about guns and the border wall during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

“Republicans didn’t need a lot of reason to turn out and have intensity, but this is going to juice it,” said Matt Mackowiak, an Austin political consultant who is the chairman of the Republican Party in Travis County, referring to O’Rourke’s entering the race. “It’s going to be kryptonite for Democrats in suburban areas, and it’s going to be rocket fuel for Republicans in rural areas.”

Well before O’Rourke’s announcement, the governor’s campaign began releasing digital ads featuring montages of those statements, including one from a 2019 debate that has come to define what some Texas political observers see as O’Rourke’s uphill battle.

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said, to applause from the crowd.

At the time, his presidential campaign promoted a shirt with those words. His Texas campaign is likely to take a different tack, however.

“We’re a proud, responsible gun-owning people,” O’Rourke said Monday. “We’re going to protect the Second Amendment.” But, he added, “most Texans agree” that they don’t want to see their friends or family killed by weapons “originally designed for the battlefield.”

Despite having never won statewide in Texas — no Democrat has since 1994 — he has remained one of the few Democrats with enough fundraising prowess and statewide campaigning ability to take on Abbott, a former Texas attorney general. One potential rival for O’Rourke is actor Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey has said coyly that he is “measuring” entering the race but has yet to make any announcement.

For his part, Abbott has recently highlighted his efforts to restrict how race and gender are taught in schools, an apparent nod to the unexpected success of Republicans in Virginia, where the governor-elect, Glenn Youngkin, won with a similar focus. Abbott has also regularly drawn attention to his push to expand the presence of law enforcement and state National Guard troops on the border.

Indeed, the governor’s race was likely to play out on two terrains in the state: along the border with Mexico and in its rapidly expanding suburbs, particularly on the outskirts of Austin, Houston and Dallas.

O’Rourke’s campaign planned aggressive on-the-ground organizing, going door-to-door in places like South Texas where a lack of in-person campaigning appeared to have hurt Democrats in 2020. O’Rourke’s first campaign swing will make several stops in South Texas and along the border.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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