The next election for Texas governor isn’t until 2022, but a list of potential candidates is starting to form. One name on the list is certain, as current Gov. Greg Abbott is seeking re-election and a third term, according to a 2019 interview with the Austin-American Statesman.
Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has publicly toyed with the idea of running for governor on Twitter as a potential challenge to Abbott.
Dwight Roblyer, a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science, said O’Rourke sees potential to challenge Abbott given the current climate.
“One of the reasons why Beto might be willing to talk about this at this point is because the governor is a bit of a politically wounded official,” Roblyer said. “This is because of the way that many in Gov. Abbott’s party have viewed with a critical eye his actions taken during the pandemic.”
Public perception of Abbott has changed during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic due to certain choices he’s made, Roblyer said.
“Gov. Abbott set up the criteria for lockdowns for businesses, [and] there were a lot of people who think that should’ve been done differently or just not done at all,” Roblyer said. “That has opened him up to a lot of criticism that really wasn’t there a year ago.”
However, Abbott will still be a difficult opponent, political science lecturer Megan Dyer said.
“The governor has been a fundraising juggernaut these last few years and is well prepared for a serious challenger,” Dyer said.
O’Rourke also might have some issues for his potential candidacy for statewide office in Texas due to statements he made during his bid to become the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, Dyer said.
“Specifically, I'm thinking of his support for mandatory buybacks of assault weapons,” Dyer said. “His statement that, ‘Hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15,’ is a negative ad that practically writes itself.”
In Texas, Democrats do best in high interest and high turnout elections, Dyer said.
“Beto O'Rourke's name recognition will certainly help bring voters to the polls in a mid-term year, but a well-organized voter registration and turnout operation will be key to making him competitive,” Dyer said. “The 2020 general election and the U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia show this can be done, but it will still be a political challenge for Democrats.”
However, when you organize your vote and engage voters to get them to turn out, the other side also engages voters and engages in a mobilization strategy, said political science professor Kirby Goidel. Goidel said O’Rourke ran into this problem in 2018 against Ted Cruz during the U.S. Senate election, despite turning out record numbers of voters.
“The challenge with Abbott is that Cruz is sort of uniquely unlikeable … [while] Abbott has never struck me as generating the sort of negative responses that Ted Cruz has because Cruz is very visible and very ideological,” Goidel said. “Abbott is clearly conservative, but he’s much more lowkey in it and that will be a challenge for Beto I think, because I just think Abbott is just a more difficult opponent in some ways to generate excitement about.”
Robyler said even if O’Rourke were to win, he would face some challenges with Republicans in all the other executive positions, with a Republican lieutenant governor. Additionally, the Texas governor doesn’t appoint their own attorney general or lieutenant governor and has no formal control or role in creating the budget until it’s time to approve or veto it, Roblyer said.
“Very arguably, the lieutenant governor is a stronger position than the Texas governor, compared across the other states. Texas has one of the weakest governor positions, not talking about the personality, just the powers of the office,” Roblyer said.
In the first midterm under a new U.S. president, the president’s party tends to lose in gubernatorial elections because the opposition party is very mobilized, a context which doesn’t favor Democrats, Goidel said.
“If I were setting odds, I would make Abbott a favorite but not by a lot, and I wouldn’t discount Beto O’Rourke’s chances,” Goidel said. “He’s got name recognition, he’s got fundraising ability, he’s got charisma, he’s turned out the vote before, he’s got the things you look for in a candidate. The question is, is this the specific race that he can win statewide in Texas, and is this the opponent he can win it against.”