(CN) — After months of speculation, former El Paso congressman and 2020 presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke made it official: he will seek to challenge Texas Governor Greg Abbott in next year’s gubernatorial election.
“I am running for governor to serve ALL of the people of Texas,” O’Rourke said in a statement Monday. “I believe that the only way we are going to achieve great things for this state is by looking out for each other and moving forward together.”
A three-term Democratic congressman who grew up along the Texas-Mexico border, O’Rourke, 49, made the long-anticipated announcement after months of speculation and the urging of Democratic leaders who see him as their best option to mount a serious challenge to Abbott, a Republican seeking a third term.
He enters the race with long odds. Texas hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1990 when Ann Richards won her election, and early polls show him lagging behind Abbott and actor Matthew McConaughey, who has toyed with the idea of a run but made no serious moves as of yet.
O'Rourke has remained critical of Abbott on a range of issues, from February’s deadly winter storm and power grid collapse to Abbott's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and situation at the border. O’Rourke has also repeatedly slammed the governor for supporting new laws including the state’s near-total ban on abortion, restrictions on voting and permitless carry of handguns.
“The fringe policies and incompetence that we see in Texas today — on masks, on abortion, on guns, on schools, on the electricity grid — are symptoms of a larger problem. Our leaders have stopped listening to the people they were elected to serve,” O’Rourke said.
Abbott has already targeted O’Rourke in a campaign add released last month, dubbed “Wrong Way O’Rourke,” and has seized on his multiple positions as too liberal for Texas.
O’Rourke exploded onto the national stage in his blockbuster 2018 Senate campaign, where he gained an enthusiastic following of supporters and came within 3 percentage points of unseating incumbent Republican Ted Cruz. He famously leapt through all of Texas’ 254 counties while livestreaming his travels and dining at Whataburger restaurants along the way.
Speculation surrounding O’Rourke’s next political move has been building since he ended his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination after eight months of struggling to break through to a national audience amid a large field of contenders.
Born Robert Francis, O’Rourke was depicted by Cruz and other opponents as “too liberal for Texas” and mocked for his nickname, Beto, which his Senate campaign said he has used since childhood as a derivative of Robert.
During that campaign, O’Rourke was forced to defend his 1998 DWI arrest when he was 26 as “a serious mistake for which there is no excuse.” The DWI episode, which was a topic during one of his debates with Cruz, did not come up until the final months of the campaign.
O’Rourke said on Monday that his campaign for governor would focus on improving public schools, health care and creating jobs in Texas.
“We could be leading the world in creating the next generation of energy jobs instead of praying the electricity grid won’t collapse again this winter,” he said. “We could expand Medicaid and ensure that every one of us is healthy enough to pursue our education and career instead of leading the nation in the number of people unable to see a doctor.”
While O’Rourke isn’t expected to face any major Democratic challenger, Abbott, who has amassed a campaign war chest of over $55 million, is being challenged by three well-known conservative candidates: former Texas GOP Chair Allen West, former state Senator Don Huffines of Dallas and conservative radio host Chad Prather.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.