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Beto O'Rourke is campaigning against Greg Abbott for Texas governor seat

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Next year, there are 36 races for governor across the country, and one of the most watched will be in Texas. That is, of course, where former congressman Beto O'Rourke has announced that he will run against Republican Governor Greg Abbott. But just like in his unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate back in 2018 and president in 2020, O'Rourke faces an uphill battle in his 2022 bid for governor. Here's KUT's Jill Ament.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Let's do the union clap, union brothers and sisters.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

JILL AMENT, BYLINE: In a parking lot packed with supporters next to the building of the Communications Workers of America union in downtown San Antonio, Beto O'Rourke made his first public campaign appearance on Tuesday.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Beto, Beto, Beto...

BETO O'ROURKE: Buenos dias, San Antonio. How are we feeling?

AMENT: In a speech, the Democratic candidate for Texas governor railed against Abbott's agenda during the state's latest legislative cycle.

O'ROURKE: We're going to get back to the big things again that unite us, that bring us together and get us past the division, the smallness, the meanness of this moment.

AMENT: Abbott signed into law measures creating some of the strictest abortion regulations in the country, limiting transgender youth participation in public school sports, allowing the permitless carry of handguns and restricting voting access. But it was also apparent at O'Rourke's event, he's going to be focused on issues that appeal to more moderate voters.

O'ROURKE: Only way we're going to do big things, create the best jobs in America here in Texas, have world-class public schools, make progress on things like expanding Medicaid is bridging these divides that we've got right now.

AMENT: Nineteen-year-old Sofia Cortez was at O'Rourke's campaign event. She's a student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She considers herself a Beto superfan.

SOFIA CORTEZ: I saw him on the campaign trail against Cruz, and then I saw him on the campaign trail when he was running for president. I'm a very big supporter of him. He's, like, the change that we need for Texas.

AMENT: But in a matchup against O'Rourke, Greg Abbott is pulling ahead by nine percentage points, according to a poll from the University of Texas at Austin.

BRENDAN STEINHAUSER: I think Beto O'Rourke is going to have a harder time this cycle than he did in 2018 for a number of reasons, including the fact that he's been damaged in his presidential campaign.

AMENT: That's Brendan Steinhauser. He's a Republican strategist based in Austin. Comments O'Rourke made about gun control during a 2019 presidential debate will come back to haunt him, Steinhauser says, especially in gun-loving Texas. Steinhauser also thinks Abbott's campaign focus on border security will also play well with the governor's base.

STEINHAUSER: And you're seeing this governor take stronger action than anybody I have seen in the country and anybody I've seen in Texas on that issue.

AMENT: And Steinhauser points to a Republican win in Virginia's gubernatorial race. He thinks that's an indicator there are still suburban voters to be won by the GOP.

STEINHAUSER: You are seeing some suburban voters potentially coming back to the GOP, mostly because of the COVID policies of Democrats.

AMENT: A lot of eyes are also watching a Democratic bastion for decades, South Texas. In 2020, the party actually lost ground in that largely Latino region. Ed Espinoza is the director of a progressive think tank called Progress Texas.

ED ESPINOZA: The old idea that there was a sleeping giant that would one day awaken and vote all the same way - well, it wasn't going to happen by itself, and it wasn't all going to be Democratic.

AMENT: Overall, Espinoza says, Democratic statewide candidates have to face the fact they just haven't won in Texas in 30 years. For NPR News, I'm Jill Ament in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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