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Beto O’Rourke inches closer to run for Texas governor

The former El Paso congressman and 2020 presidential candidate is expected to launch a third major campaign in as many election cycles, this time to challenge Republican Governor Greg Abbott.

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — Beto O’Rourke still hasn’t officially jumped into the Texas governor’s race, but Democrats and his potential Republican opponents are already salivating in anticipation at the prospect, albeit for different reasons.

Under pressure to make a decision from Democrats who see him as the most viable candidate to challenge Governor Greg Abbott to a third term, O’Rourke finds himself in a familiar spot — fielding calls to run, meeting with voters and fueling the “will he or won’t he” headlines.

“It’s no secret that one of the things I’m thinking through very seriously is a potential run for governor,” O’Rourke said during a recent interview at the Texas Tribune Festival, adding that an announcement would come “sometime in the near future.”

While O’Rourke, who turned 49 on Sunday, would enter the race with long odds in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide since the 1990s, party leaders insist he is their best option to mount a serious challenge to Abbott.

His mix of star power and fundraising ability — he pulled in more than $80 million in donations in his surprisingly close run against Republican Senator Ted Cruz — could also help shore up Democratic enthusiasm to the benefit of down-ballot candidates, so the argument goes.

Republicans on the other hand are eager to exploit O’Rourke’s leftists positions on issues ranging from immigration reform, gun rights and LGBTQ issues as beyond the mainstream in ruby red Texas. Think of the campaign ads.

A three-term congressman who grew up along the Texas/Mexico border, 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 the incumbent. He famously leapt through all of Texas’ 254 counties while livestreaming his travels and dinning 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.

Back in his hometown of El Paso and bolstered by his volunteer organization Powered by People, O’Rourke has emerged as arguably the Lone Star State’s most prominent Democrat in the face of multiple statewide emergencies — from February’s deadly winter storm and power grid collapse, to the Covid-19 pandemic and the situation at the border.

But the many crises have also created a political opening for O’Rourke, who in a flashback to his Senate run, has spent the greater part of the year barnstorming communities across the state, generating support for issues including voting rights, and continuing to throw jabs at what he says is “inept” Republican leadership.

And that means Abbott is an obvious target.

“Given the deep damage and chaos and incompetence that is connected to Greg Abbott — from the winter freeze, the abortion ban, the permitless carry (law), the anti-mask mandate, the terrible toll that Covid has taken on this state — this is what we need to be focused on right now,” O’Rourke said during the Texas Tribune festival interview about winning the governorship.

“It sure looks like he is giving it serious consideration with the idea of running,” said Matt Angle, a Texas-based Democratic strategist and campaign consultant who founded the Lone Star Project. “I hope he does, and I would expect him to at this point.”

Angle said in an interview that while he had no inside knowledge of O’Rourke’s plans, Democrats remain excited about the idea of his possible candidacy, especially “given the disaster that Greg Abbott has reigned down upon us.”

“The veneer has been pulled off of Greg Abbott. The assumption that his flat demeanor somehow reflected an even temperament and competence has been completely stripped away,” Angle said, adding that the governor hasn’t been able “to withstand the pressures of real problems.”

A Quinnipiac University poll out Tuesday shows Abbott’s support has fallen from 48% in June who said he doesn’t deserve to be re-elected, to a slight majority of 51% now. The same poll found 50% of Texas voters said O’Rourke would not make a good governor, while 49% responded that they did not think that actor Matthew McConaughey would make a good governor.

The filing deadline in Texas is Dec. 13, but that date could get pushed back because of redistricting if redrawn district maps are not in place by at least November.

And while no major Democratic candidate has come forward to challenge Abbott, who has already amassed a campaign war chest of over $55 million, the governor is being challenged by two well-known conservative candidates: former Texas GOP Chair Allen West, and former state Senator Don Huffines of Dallas.

But should O’Rourke try to win back the governor's mansion for Democrats, Texas voters are in store for a colossal 2022 election season.

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