IRVING, Texas — Democratic candidate for governor Beto O’Rourke is looking for ways to close a persistent gap in the polls with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, backing off his far-left stance on border security, gun ownership and other hot-button issues.
The O’Rourke pivot is a glaring bid to turn out the party’s more moderate base and win over independent voters in the conservative state.
Mr. O’Rourke, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2018 and made a failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination a year later, has been campaigning nearly nonstop to unseat Mr. Abbott after easily winning the Democratic primary on March 1.
Polling shows Mr. O’Rourke consistently lagging behind Mr. Abbott, though only by single digits, leading some analysts to predict a close race.
Since announcing his candidacy in November, Mr. O’Rourke has shifted his position on key issues, including gun rights, border security and school curricula.
The Abbott team says the shift, which appears to be aimed at attracting the state’s more moderate Democrats and independents, is a sign that Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign is struggling.
“He’s been all over the place on all the issues,” said Mark Miner, an Abbott campaign spokesman. “He’s on this extreme Texas makeover tour where every stop he comes up with a new position.”
Democratic strategists say Mr. O’Rourke has not flip-flopped but has refined his positions on some issues, including gun control.
“That’s a lot of bull——,” longtime Texas Democratic strategist George Shipley said when asked whether Mr. O’Rourke is shifting his stances. “Republicans put this out. Abbott consistently misrepresents where Beto has come from. All of this is designed by Abbott’s guys because they don’t want to talk about Abbott’s record.”
Mr. O’Rourke announced in September 2019, after a mass shooting in El Paso, that he favored a mandatory buyback program for certain assault-style guns, including the popular AR-15.
“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said during a Democratic presidential debate. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”
Last month, Mr. O’Rourke told reporters in Tyler that he wanted to defend the Second Amendment and was “not interested in taking anything from anyone.” He criticized Mr. Abbott for signing legislation to eliminate gun carry permits.
He has gone from demanding that the U.S. “tear down” the border wall to criticizing President Biden for not doing enough on border security, and he went from opposing Mr. Abbott’s ban on teaching critical race theory in schools to saying CRT shouldn’t be part of the curriculum.
Mr. Abbott, who is seeking a third term, cruised to victory over his challengers in the Republican primary but has been criticized for his handling of the state’s massive power failure during a February 2021 winter storm. The outage cost the state nearly $200 billion and is estimated to have caused more than 200 deaths.
The governor’s approval rating has hovered in the mid-40s.
Mr. O’Rourke, whose campaign did not respond to multiple requests for interviews, is challenging Mr. Abbott as a governor whose policies are too extreme for Texas.
Mr. Abbott signed a bill banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy and another measure eliminating the need for a license to carry a gun. A Texas judge last week halted Mr. Abbott’s directive requiring state officials to investigate parents who allow their children to undergo gender-switching medical procedures.
In a recent interview at the South by Southwest festival, Mr. O’Rourke called Mr. Abbott “a thug” and “an authoritarian.” He compared Mr. Abbott to a Russian oligarch for accepting millions of dollars from power companies that are charging customers more to help pay for the power grid catastrophe.
Mr. Abbott, however, remains the clear favorite over Mr. O’Rourke, who is running in a state that has not elected a Democrat for governor since 1990.
Mr. Abbott’s team says Mr. O’Rourke is attacking his opponent at every angle because his campaign is failing to gain traction in a year when Democrats are being dragged down by a struggling economy, high inflation and gasoline prices, and President Biden’s low approval ratings.
Republicans say the Republican primary turnout was the biggest in state history while Democratic turnout was lackluster.
David Carney, Mr. Abbott’s chief campaign strategist, said Mr. O’Rourke “has zero chance of winning the race. He goes from issue to issue, and he doesn’t have any consistent message.”
Mr. O’Rourke is also campaigning to improve border security. He accused the Biden administration in November of not doing enough to stem the flow of thousands of illegal immigrants into Texas. Still, Mr. O’Rourke opposes the border wall. In 2019, he called for tearing down the wall and eliminating the detention of illegal immigrants.
Responding to a question at a town hall this month, Mr. O’Rourke said he did not believe critical race theory should be a part of school curriculum.
A month earlier, Mr. O’Rourke said he opposed Mr. Abbott’s bill banning schools from teaching critical race theory, which asserts that America is embedded with systemic racism.
“We should know the full story of Texas and the full story of the United States of America,” Mr. O’Rourke told Yahoo News. “Not only our founding ideals and principles but the way that those ideals and principles were often violated by the people who wrote them or the fact that so much of the wealth and opportunity in this state was actually created by people who had no choice in the deal whatsoever. If we don’t, then we’re trafficking in myths and things that just are not true.”
Mr. O’Rourke’s backers say Texas has no official critical race theory curriculum. They accuse Republicans of making up the flip-flopping charge against Mr. O’Rourke to distract from Mr. Abbott’s weaknesses.
“Beto projects confidence and strength,” said Matt Angle, who runs a Democratic political action committee in the state. “And that contrast helps Beto significantly more than other people who have challenged Abbott. Abbott has never had a competent, capable, strong challenger.”