Beto O’Rourke is back in his natural state: rallying packed crowds, raising piles of cash, and grabbing headlines. But the reason he’s back has nothing to do with getting himself elected to office.
For now, at least.
The former Democratic congressman from El Paso—who won liberal hearts with his near-upset of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in 2018 and lost a few of them during his subsequent bid for the White House—has gone all-in on stopping a push from Texas Republicans to enact legislation that could restrict avenues to the ballot box.
In a conservative stronghold with a thin bench of prominent Democrats, O’Rourke’s national profile—and prolific fundraising ability—have provided a sorely needed boost to the flagging state-level efforts to mount resistance.
Last week provided a big example: O’Rourke’s personal political action committee, Powered By People, cut a $600,000 check to the group of Texas Democratic legislators who fled the state earlier in July in a last-ditch attempt to stall the voting legislation.
But that advocacy has also allowed O’Rourke to put himself in the middle of the fight, at a critical time, on an issue of vital importance to the Democratic Party—and maybe position himself for a comeback in the process.
GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, the architect of the voting crackdown, is up for re-election in 2022, and many Democrats believe that O’Rourke is testing the waters for a challenge with his packed voting rights advocacy schedule.
“He’s basically running,” said one Texas Democrat.
O’Rourke’s former D.C. roommate, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), called his friend’s recent schedule “vintage Beto.”
“I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t run,” Huffman said.
Reached by phone on Tuesday during the eight-hour drive from El Paso to Georgetown, Texas—where he will help lead a multi-day march to the state capitol on Saturday meant to invoke the Selma march for voting rights in 1965—O’Rourke did not rule out running against Abbott, but brushed off any suggestion his voting rights advocacy was laying the groundwork for his own possible campaign.
“This is all in service to securing the right to vote,” O’Rourke told The Daily Beast. “That’s the focus. I want to keep that focus until we see this through.”
That probably means O’Rourke won’t decide until Abbott and the GOP-dominated Texas legislature manage to get some version of their legislation through, likely to happen sometime in the next few months—a timeline that may run close to the December deadline for candidates to file in Texas.
In some corners, there’s increased impatience for the one Texas Democrat who could make the governor’s race instantly competitive to answer that question soon.
“There’s a hope he will run, there’s a real hope,” said Matt Angle, founder of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic PAC. “There would be a lot of people who’d be disappointed if he decided not to run. If he waits too long, people won’t just be disappointed, but a little bit angry.”
O’Rourke claimed he wasn’t aware of any anxiety surrounding his possible entry into the race. “What I’d say to anyone who is—I’ll give you something to be anxious about, that’s the fact that we might lose democracy in this country on our watch,” he said.
The stakes of O’Rourke’s own decision might not be so existential, but they are important. If he runs, it could give Texas Democrats a shot at winning power in Austin after decades of futility. It could also provide the party a model for campaigning against, and under, a wave of new GOP-backed laws aimed at reshaping elections to give them an edge. And it could revive the political career of someone once considered among the national party’s brightest stars—or, perhaps, tank it.
“He is, in many ways, the best-positioned candidate in terms of his own portfolio and his own experience,” said James Henson, who runs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
But he’d face an uphill climb against Abbott, and losing, said Henson, would mean O’Rourke goes “from the hero that almost knocked off Ted Cruz, to a guy that’s lost three straight races—and that’s not a position anyone really wants to be in.”
For a figure who once notably said he was “born to be in it,” there may be no other choice.
“He may be crazy enough to do it,” said Matt Mackowiak, a veteran Republican operative and chairman of the Travis County GOP, in Austin. “I don’t think you do a 30-stop bus tour of a state unless you’re likely to do something like this.”
Plenty in Texas politics agree. However earnest O’Rourke’s motivations might be for standing up a campaign-style apparatus in support of voting rights, there’s no denying that his activities are allowing him to hit the ground running for a high-profile gubernatorial campaign.
Much like he did during his gonzo 2018 campaign against Cruz, during which he visited all of Texas’ 254 counties, O’Rourke has spent this year criss-crossing the state for rallies in cities big and small—such as Brenham, population 15,000—in opposition to the GOP voting push. He’s dubbed the tour “For the People: The Texas Drive for Democracy.” In the process, he’s done plentiful appearances on local media and cable news, and interviews during long car rides around the state. And he’s reprised a role that served him well in 2018: the outsider happy to take on the party.
This time, that means challenging top Democrats, chiefly President Joe Biden, for not doing enough to address threats to voting access and fair elections.
“At a certain point,” O’Rourke told The Daily Beast, “you need real presidential leadership, and it has to come in the form of urging the Senate to reform rules to allow for majority passage for voting rights legislation.”
Perhaps the most critical continuity with O’Rourke’s past efforts is his frenzied fundraising activity. Powered By People has blanketed Facebook with solicitations for donations tied to the GOP bills, and he said that, in recent weeks, the PAC has raised $650,000 from 18,000 people donating an average of $36, with the proceeds going entirely to supporting the Texas legislators, voter registration efforts, and events like the march to the state capitol.
That O’Rourke is leveraging his own considerable grassroots donor network—built after he shattered fundraising records in his 2018 bid—to boost these efforts is deeply appreciated by those involved. He also deployed that network to aid in Texans’ recovery from a winter storm that wiped out the state’s electric grid and killed hundreds, a major embarrassment for Abbott.
“He’s just our biggest cheerleader, biggest supporter, biggest champion,” said state Rep. James Talarico, one of the Texas lawmakers who fled to Washington. And Talarico, who calls O’Rourke a mentor, stressed that he would be involved in this advocacy no matter what his personal political ambitions were. “I don’t get the sense any of this is a vanity exercise,” he said.
Indeed, the Texas Democrat—by virtue of being a Texas Democrat—has had no choice but to engage on issues of voter access for some time now. “I’ve long known that it’s tougher to vote in Texas than it is in any other state,” O’Rourke said. “I got first-hand testimony from people, as I traveled 254 counties.”
Still, it’s hard even for O’Rourke admirers to discount the link between his current activity and a possible campaign—even if they put some spin on it. “I don’t see what he’s done as take advantage of an opportunity,” said Angle, “but give him a chance to demonstrate leadership.”
Texas Republicans, for their part, don’t seem to be sweating what O’Rourke may or may not do. Abbott, who has $50 million in the bank, would be a formidable challenger in a midterm cycle that may favor Republicans, if history is any guide.
Mackowiak said that O’Rourke is a factor if only for his ability to raise serious money, but argued that his ill-fated bid for the White House stripped the luster away—and got him to embrace positions that would give the GOP plenty of fodder in another Texas campaign.
Before flaming out of the primary in November 2019, O’Rourke sought to stand out from the pack by sticking it to conservatives—memorably saying “hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15” at a debate—but failed to garner much voter enthusiasm and fundraising for it.
“He went too far,” said Mackowiak. “He thought he had to go left to get the nomination or be VP. That didn’t happen, and those positions are gonna get stapled to his forehead if he runs in 2022 or in the future.”
Huffman, who still keeps in touch with O’Rourke, said he was one of the few people who advised him not to run for president after nearly beating Cruz, when a stream of lawmakers and pundits came to their D.C. rowhouse to sell O’Rourke on a White House run. “I didn't think the magic was going to translate into a crowded field for president,” he said. “He was sort of impelled into that race because of his extreme celebrity coming out of the Senate race.”
But Huffman sees a Beto 2022 campaign being far more like his first than his second—even if he allowed “he’s going to be portrayed differently this time around” after the positions he took in the presidential primary.
“As you look at the possibility of running against Abbott, some of those dynamics are there” from his 2018 bid, Huffman said. “He also brings some strengths that he didn’t have out of the gate against Ted Cruz. He’ll have an enormous base of support from the beginning.”
Even if O’Rourke claims ignorance of these varying political calculations, he did reflect on his Senate bid when asked what he’s learned from past campaigns—including that failed White House bid—as he tries to lead the voting charge in Texas.
“What made 2018 so magical was the tens of thousands of people who stepped up to volunteer and grabbed a clipboard, started knocking on doors, connected with Texas voters personally,” O’Rourke said.
“It’s something I think is very fundamental to any work I want to be a part of going forward,” he continued, “that it be centered in, on, with, the people most impacted, who want to do the work, versus waiting for an ideal candidate or someone to come and ride to the rescue.”
The subtext of that comment is hard to miss. Many Texas Democrats view O’Rourke as that ideal candidate. But for now, he’s “focused on the fight in front of me.”
And while O’Rourke’s dedication to voting rights issues and packed schedule bears that out, the very next thing he said also hangs over the conversation.
“I’m not ruling anything out,” O’Rourke added.