Gov. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.
A few months ago, the wind appeared to be at O’Rourke’s back, as he fought to make that happen, to become the first Democratic governor of the state since Ann Richards over a quarter century ago.
He was gaining ground on the incumbent, Greg Abbott, following the mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and the Supreme Court’s decision striking down the constitutional right to an abortion.
But now the winds seem to have shifted. A new Spectrum News/Siena Poll shows Abbott widening his lead over O’Rourke. According to the poll, that lead now stands at 7 percentage points, a little more than 40 days until Election Day.
Abbott reversed his fortunes by leaning into demonization and cruelty: He focused on immigration and bused immigrants to faraway sanctuary cities run by Democrats, part of a larger program he called Operation Lone Star.
The first immigrants were bused to Chicago in August, with Abbott saying at the time: “To continue providing much-needed relief to our small, overrun border towns, Chicago will join fellow sanctuary cities Washington, D.C., and New York City as an additional drop-off location.”
It was a callous and politically calculated stunt. But it is apparently paying off. Not only is Abbott up in the polls, a slight majority of Texans — 52% — agree with the busing.
On Friday, I spoke at length to O’Rourke by phone, to get a sense of how he views the state of the race, his own challenges, Abbott’s cynicism and the voters of Texas.
We talked about how Democrats run against a politician, his or her policies and the Republican Party as a whole, while Republicans create enemies of classes of people: women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people, immigrants. This time it’s immigrants and immigration, a charged issue in Texas.
O’Rourke said that Abbott’s plan to bus immigrants to liberal cities was obviously an attempt to distract from his failure to shore up the state’s fragile electrical grids, prevent school violence and reduce inflation, but he also framed it as “an effort to incite fear and hatred and connect with people at a very base, emotional level,” an “effort to dehumanize people,” and that is precisely what it is. Abbott is not only trying to dehumanize immigrants, but to strip them of their individuality and create an ominous class.
In that way, immigrants can be converted from throngs of individuals with individual lives, stories and feelings into an amorphous wave, overwhelming and unrelenting, crashing into the country.
Abbott is using these human beings as a weapon and a tool for the shallow purpose of retaining power. For O’Rourke, this is obscene. As he put it:
“There is no way that I would ever, in a million years, resort to that kind of fear mongering and demagogy, and vilifying, demonizing people, because as an El Pasoan I saw exactly what that results in: Twenty-three of my neighbors were murdered in a matter of minutes there.”
O’Rourke is referring to a mass shooting in which a white racist, targeting Hispanics, killed 23 people in an El Paso Walmart in 2019. He left a 2,300-word manifesto reeking of white replacement anxiety, one that spoke of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and detailed a plan to separate America into territories by race.
As repugnant — and dangerous! — as Abbott’s stunt is, it earned him a lot of free media attention, which gets people talking. Media coverage — what is called “earned media” — even negative and mocking coverage, is sometimes more powerful than paid ads. Look no further than Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.
O’Rourke is running a different race. He understands the potency of the immigration issue in his state. As he put it: “I think what you may see reflected in that poll is the deep frustration that all of us, including myself, feel about the fact that the last time we had any real major progress on immigration, Ronald Reagan was the president.”
But he believes he is seeing something that hasn’t showed up properly in the polls: a shadow army of angry voters animated by the overturning of Roe.
“The Dobbs decision, of course, is galvanizing for turnout everywhere,” he said.
He also believes that many of the people who are energized to vote will be turning out not just because of abortion, but also because of Abbott’s lack of movement on gun control.
One analysis by political data and polling firm TargetSmart found that thousands upon thousands of voters had registered in the state since the Dobbs ruling, and they were “younger and more Democratic than before the June ruling,” according to The Houston Chronicle. O’Rourke believes these voters are going to help make the difference for him and produce an upset.
He is counting on them. He is counting on the people of Texas. As he put it: “In Greg Abbott’s Texas, it’s ‘you or me,’ right. And in our Texas, it’s ‘you and me.’ Which of those visions is going to win out? My faith is in the people of this state.”