In what seems like a flashback to his 2018 Senate campaign or his run in 2019 for the Democratic presidential nomination, Beto O’Rourke is once again on the road.
The former congressman from El Paso, Texas, and one-time rock star among liberals nationwide is crisscrossing the Lone Star State, raising money on behalf of victims of the damaging winter storm that crippled the Texas power grid, delivering water from the back of his pickup truck — all while showcasing the efforts on social media.
And for a politician whose star appeared to have waned after the collapse of his White House run and after GOP victories in Texas in November’s election deflated Democrats high hopes – confirming the Republicans’ continued dominance in the once ruby red state — the increased attention could give a boost of energy to a potential 2022 bid for governor.
“Thank you all for donating more than $1.4 million to ensure we can help with water, food and shelter throughout Texas,” O’Rourke tweeted this week as he and his Powered by the People organization spotlighted their efforts after a deadly winter storm system left millions without power amid subzero temperatures.
O’Rourke acknowledged last month – well before the storm ravaged Texas – that he was considering a Democratic challenge next year against Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who’s running for a third term.
“It’s something I’m going to think about,” O’Rourke said in an interview on an El Paso radio program.
And O’Rourke took to Twitter to highlight, “Whether or not I run, I will do everything in my power to elect a Governor who looks out for everyone, keeps Texans safe, answers to the people instead of the special interests & guarantees that we all have equal opportunity to achieve our best in life.”
Matt Angle, a veteran Texas-based Democratic strategist and campaign consultant, said O’Rourke’s relief effort on behalf of storm victims “helps a lot. .. I think he’s done himself a lot of good.”
And Southern Methodist University political science professor Matthew Wilson highlighted that “the whole weather crisis and the electricity and water crises that followed have given Beto an opening, and other Democrats an opening, to criticize Republican leadership and Republican governance in Texas.”
But he questioned whether the weather and power crisis will still resonate a year from now when the gubernatorial campaign will heat up.
“The biggest issue for him is that the governor’s race is not this year, it’s next. And by the time we get to 2022, the salience of this particular episode is going to have declined somewhat,” Wilson predicted.
For Abbott, who spends Friday crossing the state with President Biden to survey storm damage, the big question is whether he’s suffered any lasting political damage.
Angle argued that Abbott’s “been damaged more than at any other time in his career. He was asleep at the switch.”
“Any Republican running in Texas, especially an incumbent, has an upper hand. There’s no question about that,” Angle acknowledged. “But Greg Abbott is damaged goods and to be reelected he’s going to have to repair himself in some way.”
As Abbott increasingly faces questions about his actions ahead of the storm, O’Rourke on Thursday tweeted “What did Gov. Abbott know? When did he know it? And what did he do with it?”
But veteran GOP consultant David Carney, a top Abbott political adviser, said he wasn’t concerned about any lasting political damage to the governor and emphasized that the key is coming up with “real solutions to get the electrical grid problems fixed…. if solutions are put in place to avoid something like this happening again.”
Looking to 2022, Wilson noted that Abbott “has a huge war chest. He’s one of the nation’s more popular governors. He’s in a state that still leans Republican. He’s not perceived as on the ideological fringes of his party. So all those things should put him in a very strong position for reelection.”
But he said “this is a crisis the governor didn’t need. … I think Greg Abbott is still clearly the favorite to be reelected as governor but this means he’s going to have to run a little harder.”
Carney praised the relief efforts by O’Rourke and other Democrats – including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York – saying “anybody who’s helping out, regardless of their political intentions, is a good thing.”
Carney hopes O’Rourke runs for governor, telling Fox News “the more attention he gets, the better off we are.”
Carney pointed to O’Rourke’s strict position on gun control during his Democratic nomination run – the White House hopeful said during a presidential debate, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47” – and his positions on immigration, drugs and energy, and charged that “there’s a ton of crazy stuff.”
“He would be a target-rich environment. That’s not just bravado,” Carney said. “We know this empirically, he was the number-one reason Republicans were able to keep the House in Texas in 2020, because Beto was the number-one issue used against the Democrats running. He is nitroglycerin to Main Street voters in Texas right now.”
But Wilson sees the current crisis as another chance for O’Rourke to “rehabilitate his image.”
“There was so much Beto-mania surrounding his 2018 Senate run against Ted Cruz. He was clearly a darling of the national media. He certainly raised money from people out of state,” Wilson said. “But his presidential bid crashed and burned so badly that he kind of became the butt of jokes. Now he’s in that image-reconstruction mode, trying to reestablish himself as a credible figure. This gives him an opportunity to start doing that.”