SUGAR LAND, Texas – One of the deadliest school shootings in US history. The revival of a 1920s abortion ban. The country’s worst episode of migrant deaths in recent memory. And a power grid, which failed in freezing cold, now in searing heat.
The relentless succession of death and hardship facing Texans over the past two months has embittered them over state leadership, hurting Gov. Greg Abbott and making the gubernatorial race perhaps the most competitive ever. since the last time Democrats held that position in the 1990s.
Polls showed tighter single-digit competition between Mr Abbott, the two-term incumbent, and his ever-present Democratic challenger, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Mr. O’Rourke is now raising more campaign money than Mr. Abbott — $27.6 million to $24.9 million when last filed — in a race that is likely to be among the most expensive of 2022.
Suddenly, improbably, perhaps recklessly, Texas Democrats are once again daring to think – as they have in many recent election years – that this might just be the year.
“It seems like some of the worst things happening in this country have their roots in Texas,” said Qa`, a Democratic state representative from North Austin. “We are seeing a renewed fighting spirit.”
At the same time, the winds of national discontent are blowing hard in the other direction, against the Democrats. Texans, like many Americans, have felt the pressure of rising inflation and have a low opinion of President Biden. Unlike four years ago, when Mr. O’Rourke challenged Senator Ted Cruz and nearly won in a midterm referendum on President Donald J. Trump that raised Democrats, it is now the Republicans who are driven by animosity toward the White House and ready to make gains. in state races.
But in recent weeks, there has been a noticeable change in Texas, as evidenced by several public polls and some internal campaign investigations, after the Uvalde school shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers and the court ruling. United States Abortion Supreme Court, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which reinstated a 1925 law banning all abortions except when the woman’s life is in danger.
“Dobbs on the fringe hurt Republicans in Texas. Uvalde on the fringe hurt Republicans in Texas. The grid has hurt Republicans in Texas,” said Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political science professor who helped conduct a recent poll. “Biden and inflation have been their saving grace.”
And the issue of gun control was a major concern of another group that Republicans fought to keep Democrats away from: Hispanic women.
A separate poll, conducted by the University of Texas at Austin and released this month, showed 59% of respondents thought Texas was on the “wrong track,” the highest number in more than a decade to ask this question. Another, from Quinnipiac University, found Mr. O’Rourke within 5 percentage points of the governor.
As new polls showed Mr O’Rourke’s numbers improving, Mr Abbott’s campaign called a conference call with reporters this month.
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“We are on the right track, where we want to be,” said Dave Carney, the governor’s campaign strategist, adding that their strategy still involved linking Mr. O’Rourke to Mr. Biden and reminding voters of the positions of Mr. O’Rourke. on gun control, police reform and the oil industry during his unsuccessful run in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
“He’s going to relive the spectacular disaster of his bid for president and everything he said,” Mr Carney said. “Believe me, he loved to talk and it’s all on video and it’s all contrary to what the values are and what the vast majority of Texans believe.”
This approach has been part of Mr. Abbott’s message from the start, particularly on the issue of guns. In one of the first attacks on Mr. O’Rourke, the Abbott campaign underlined his wish during the presidential campaign to withdraw the AR-15 rifles.
The moment, which infuriated many Republicans, seemed at the same time to have energized Democrats who, like Mr. Talarico, were eager to see an aggressive statewide standard bearer. “He was showing all of us who believe in democracy in the broadest sense how to respond,” Mr Talarico said.
In Uvalde, a predominantly Hispanic town where hunting is a common pastime, the political mood has changed since the Robb Elementary massacre. Many now support tougher gun laws. “Everyone has guns here,” said Vincent Salazar, who lost a granddaughter in the shooting. “But it’s different. Nobody needs AR-15s. We have to ban them.
At a march organized by the families of the victims this month, Mr O’Rourke addressed the congregation and appeared to be warmly welcomed. “Vote for them! some in the crowd chanted.
Mr. Carney, during his call with reporters, acknowledged that the school shooting and new state restrictions on abortion had helped Mr. O’Rourke. “Quite honestly, the benefit of all of this for Beto has been online fundraising,” he said.
Mr O’Rourke eclipsed Mr Abbott in small dollar donations, raising more than three times as much money in donations of $200 or less, according to an analysis from the Texas Tribune. And he also started getting big checks: $1 million from billionaire George Soros, the perennial supporter of the Democratic candidates, and $2 million from Simone and Tench Coxe, recent transplants in Austin from California.
Yet Mr. Abbott, a prolific fundraiser, has more campaign money in the bank – nearly $46m compared to Mr. O’Rourke’s roughly $24m – and the ability to quickly tap into a vast network of wealthy donors. Mr. Abbott received 62 donations of $100,000 or more during the last fundraising period, compared to six for Mr. O’Rourke.
Among the governor’s biggest donors are energy executives like Javaid Anwar of Midland Energy (about $1.4 million), Kelcy Warren of Energy Transfer ($1 million) and Gary Martin of Falcon Bay Energy, who provided Mr. Abbott with $680,000 in air travel. .
Mr. Abbott’s campaign has already earmarked $20 million in ad spending for the fall, which Mr. Carney said would be aggressively targeted at the governor’s voters to keep them engaged and fired.
“We are limiting the broadcast to less than 10% of voters,” he said. He also predicted that Mr. Abbott would win among Hispanic Texans.
Adryana Aldeen, a public policy consultant who has worked with the Texas Republican Party in the past, said both candidates had ties to the Hispanic community, pointing to Mr O’Rourke’s command of Spanish and his upbringing. in predominantly Hispanic El Paso and Mr. Abbott’s wife, whose family immigrated from Mexico.
“It’s very clear that Latinos are very conservative in their values,” she said, but with a margin of restraint. On guns, she cited her own view that the state law on transport without a licensepassed in 2021 and signed by Mr Abbott, may have gone too far in removing restrictions.
“Personally, I have a gun. I have a license to carry this weapon. I had a background check. I think it’s good to have those things,” she said. “I know a lot of my fellow Republicans disagree.”
Seeking to capitalize on what his advisers see as momentum, Mr. O’Rourke returned to the road, his political comfort zone, with a 49-day drive to events around Texas.
“If you just look from April to July, the race has changed by 5 points,” campaign spokesman Chris Evans said. “People are not happy with the direction the state is taking and we are going straight to them and offering them the alternative.”
But it’s unclear how long the effect of recent events will last on the Texas electorate.
Rising consumer costs were a major concern for Sophia Graves, 50, on a recent afternoon at the First Colony Mall in Sugar Land, a fast-growing community outside of Houston that is among the most diverse from the country.
“Everything is expensive right now,” said Ms. Graves, a real estate agent from nearby Missouri, who was shopping with her 17-year-old daughter. “We need help.”
But she said she still planned to vote for Mr O’Rourke because ‘he’s just refreshing’ and she agreed with him on policies like abortion and the need for regulation stricter on firearms. She said recent events have made her optimistic about her possibility of winning. “I have more hope,” she said. “It’s time for a change.”
Inflation was also Ahmad Sadozai’s main concern, threatening the middle-class way of life that he said attracted so many immigrants to the United States. “I love this country,” said Mr. Sadozai, who came to Texas as a refugee from Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago and works two jobs, as a school bus driver and helps with residence. He had no preferred candidate for governor.
“They need to raise wages,” he said, stopping to take bites of a banana sundae in a waffle roll. “Other than that, I love it. Watch what I eat!” he said with a smile.
Edgar Sandoval contributed report.