First, there was Beto 1.0. Then there was Beto 2.0, and now Beto 3.0 is hoping to break the losing streak.
The former U.S. Senate candidate and former presidential contender is trying to channel those experiences into a long-shot gubernatorial bid in Texas. To win, he will have to reconcile his passionate swing to the left on issues that animate voters across the deep-red state, including Hispanics.
“Beto’s own worst enemy is Beto 2.0,” said Mark P. Jones, professor of political science at Rice University. “Beto 1.0 would actually be able to give Abbot a run for his money, but Beto 2.0 killed Beto 1.0 in 2020.”
“The worst thing he ever did for his political career was run for president,” Mr. Jones said. “Now he finds himself with the same image as most other partisan Democrats.”
Mr. O’Rourke gave voters their first glimpse of the new Beto on Monday in his announcement video. He signaled his plan to return to a message of togetherness and unity that helped him come within a couple of percentage points of replacing Sen. Ted Cruz three years ago.
The 49-year-old Mr. O’Rourke took a jab at Gov. Greg Abbott by saying the failure of the Texas electrical grid this year shows that public officials have stopped listening to the people of Texas and instead focused on divisive issues.
He said it is long past time to find common ground on local issues — including jobs, education and expanded health care — that cut across partisan lines and bring people together.
“Instead, they’re focusing on the kind of extremist policies around abortion or permitless carry or even in our schools that rely on dividing us and keeping us apart and stopping us from working together on the truly big things we want to achieve for one another,” he said. “It is a really small vision for such a big state.”
Mr. O’Rourke is hoping to rekindle some of the magic from 2018, when he became a cause celeb for Democrats across the country who were eager to send a message to President Trump.
Mr. O’Rourke was known for his eccentric style.
Before entering the race, he livestreamed a bipartisan road trip that he took with Republican Rep. Will Hurd. As a candidate, he posted a video of himself skateboarding through a Whataburger parking lot.
Compared with the conservative firebrand Mr. Cruz, he came off as affable and likable.
He proved to be elusive on the policy front, eschewing partisan labels and conflicts whenever possible.
That approach and the thin record he compiled over six years representing the 16th Congressional District, which encompasses most of El Paso, where he served on City Council, made it easier for him to deflect the Republican charge that he was too liberal for the state.
Mr. O’Rourke is running in a far different political environment this time. Mr. Trump is out of office. President Biden’s approval rating in the state is in the tank and Republicans are bullish about their chances of making significant gains in the midterm elections.
Mr. O’Rourke’s opening message in the gubernatorial campaign represents a U-turn from his presidential bid.
Competing for the support of base voters in a crowded Democratic presidential race, Mr. O’Rourke staked out liberal positions to attract voters in early primary states and big donors from New York and California.
“Prior to that, he really hadn’t said anything,” Dave Carney, a senior adviser to Mr. Abbott, told The Washington Times. “Then he ran for president and he ran so far to the left that he ran off the podium.
“It definitely is different this time,” he said. “He doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt of being this rube congressman, and he is going to have to defend his positions.”
The O’Rourke campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
During the presidential run, Mr. O’Rourke distanced himself from the fossil fuel industry and walked back his support of capital punishment.
In a nationally televised debate, he passionately advocated for a mandatory gun-buyback program of assault-style rifles. “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he told moderators.
On immigration, he vowed to stop the construction of walls and fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and tear down existing structures.
The message fell flat, and Mr. O’Rourke pulled the plug on his White House bid months before the first nomination contest in Iowa.
Mr. Abbott’s team previewed the coming attacks against Mr. O’Rourke in a series of online ads this year. They feature footage of Mr. O’Rourke embracing the Black Lives Matter protests, the Green New Deal, his gun buy-back vision and a “wealth tax.”
“By November of next year, every Texan who owns a TV or computer will know about Beto’s position on taking peoples’ AK-47 and AR-15s,” Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Abbott told reporters it is clear Mr. O’Rourke is a bad fit for the state.
“If you look at issue after issue after issue that Beto campaigned on for the presidency of the United States, they weren’t just at odds with Texans; they were hostile to Texans,” Mr. Abbott said this week.
Mr. O’Rourke said in an interview with Spectrum News1 this week that he wants to move the state away from the “small politics” of Mr. Abbott. He also stuck by his comments on guns.
“No, I think most of us in Texas agree that we shouldn’t have to worry about family members or friends or neighbors being shot up by a weapon that was originally designed for use on the battlefield,” Mr. O’Rourke said.
He sought to turn the tables on Mr. Abbott by saying the Republican’s “very extreme, radical and dangerous” policies are out of touch.
Mr. O’Rourke will also have to navigate past Mr. Biden’s lackluster approval rating in the state and voter frustration with the administration’s approach to immigration and border security.
The Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, a nonpartisan group, released a poll this week that found more Texans support the five pillars of Mr. Abbott’s border security push than oppose them.
Those policies are: building a wall on the state’s border with Mexico, state and local law enforcement arrests of people who cross the border illegally, deployment of National Guard troops to patrol the border, sending Department of Public Safety officers to patrol the border and spending $1.5 billion every year on border security.
Perhaps more challenging is that a plurality of Hispanic voters surveyed support four of those policies. The exception is building a border wall.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Mr. Abbott‘s first name.