In Deep Red Texas, Beto O’Rourke Takes on Guns and Abortion

“I can’t win this with Democrats alone,” Mr. O’Rourke said during a 49-day drive across Texas that has included deeply Republican towns.

J. David Goodman is the Houston bureau chief, covering Texas. He has written about government, criminal justice and the role of money in politics for The Times since 2012.

WHITESBORO, Texas — As supporters of Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for Texas governor, emerged from a crowded campaign event in a quaint, conservative bastion north of Dallas, Treva Sanges was there to protest them.

“Murderers!” she called out.

Most walked by her, but Abbi Gregory and a friend, who support abortion rights, stopped and engaged Ms. Sanges in a lengthy debate in the late evening sun. The women quickly realized that while they were political opponents, they were also once neighbors.

“I actually have a few of her art pieces hanging in my house,” Ms. Gregory, 22, said. “And I love her to pieces,” added Ms. Sanges, 58. The women eventually found a thin reed of agreement: abortion bans should allow exceptions for child rape, which Texas law does not provide.

“If a 10-year-old gets raped, by all means, you know, go and get it taken care of,” Ms. Sanges said.

Locked in a race against Gov. Greg Abbott that has grown unexpectedly close, Mr. O’Rourke has been venturing into deeply conservative corners of rural Texas, sparking confrontations and conversations between Democrats and Republicans who may rarely speak with each other about politics, even if they cross paths every day in the local grocery store or at church.

“This is refreshing to see people like me — there’s probably five Democrats in the county,” said John Wade, 73, a retired Methodist elder who came to see Mr. O’Rourke in Bowie, Texas, where nearly 90 percent of voters chose Donald J. Trump in 2020.

At five recent town hall-style gatherings across the deep red rural northeast of Texas, Mr. O’Rourke invited protesters inside for a break from the oppressive heat, answered questions from supporters of Mr. Abbott and took pains to direct his attacks against the governor, not Republicans in general.

Mr. O’Rourke sees such efforts as critically important to his uphill campaign to retake the governor’s mansion for Democrats for the first time since Ann Richards mounted an improbable, come-from-behind victory in 1990.

“I can’t win this with Democrats alone,” Mr. O’Rourke said in an interview after an event in Texarkana, along the Arkansas border. “I hope that that gives more Republicans a greater opportunity to be part of this, without feeling like they are responsible for what Greg Abbott is doing now, because they’re not.”

A former El Paso congressman who made his name with a brash challenge and narrow loss to Senator Ted Cruz in 2018, Mr. O’Rourke has sought to avoid the mistakes of that race, in which his voter turnout efforts also helped Mr. Cruz, and his campaign eschewed big-money supporters. This time, he has taken a few $1 million donations, including from the billionaire George Soros.

“I’m raising the money I need to win this race,” Mr. O’Rourke said.

For years, Democrats have forecast a political shift in Texas, based on the state’s growing and more liberal urban centers. Mr. O’Rourke’s run is the latest attempt to test that prediction, which has yet to come true.

What has changed this time, for him and the state, has been the resurgence of emotional debates over guns and abortion. Those hot-button issues are more relevant than ever in Texas, with a school shooting in Uvalde in May and a clampdown on abortion made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the issue in June. They have invigorated Mr. O’Rourke’s longtime supporters and provided an opening for him to move into conservative strongholds around Texas — like the rural counties north of Dallas — and present his positions as moderate compared with those of Mr. Abbott and other Republican leaders.

While Mr. O’Rourke is hoping to find more votes, he is still likely to lose in these corners of the state by large margins.

“I had my picture with him — if I was running again, I’d lose my campaign,” said L.D. Williamson, 85, the top executive in Red River County who first won office as a Democrat before switching to the Republican Party, joining most of the county’s roughly 12,000 residents. (Mr. Trump won the county 78 percent to 22 percent.)

Mr. O’Rourke packed a restaurant on the main square in Clarksville. In his remarks, he outlined a moderated position on guns from some he had taken in the past — expanded background checks, raising the age to 21 from 18 to buy an AR-15-style rifle and a “red flag” law to take firearms from those deemed a risk.

“You don’t need an AR-15 to defend yourself and your home,” he said. But, he added, “I’m not here to stand on principle. I’m not here to tell you only what my ideal is. I’m here to get something done.”

Still, Mr. O’Rourke has exhibited some raw feelings on the issue: While speaking in Mineral Wells, Texas, he lashed out after a man in a group holding Abbott campaign signs was heard laughing as Mr. O’Rourke spoke about the killing of school children in Uvalde.

“It may be funny to you,” he said, lashing out with an expletive, “but it’s not funny to me.” His supporters cheered. A video of the encounter has been viewed nearly five million times.

Even before that exchange, the Abbott campaign had grown concerned that the presence of the governor’s supporters at Mr. O’Rourke’s events could backfire. An email from an Abbott campaign worker, described by The Texas Tribune, cautioned them not to go into Mr. O’Rourke’s events or talk to him, not because of fears of confrontations, but because of concerns that it could appear in photos as if they had been converted.

Dave Carney, a top campaign strategist for Mr. Abbott, stressed that the campaign welcomed Mr. O’Rourke’s frequent speeches, in which the campaign says he can be seen waffling or pandering to voters of different stripes on gun control, the oil industry and police funding. “He looks at his phone, at what area code he’s in, and he tries to appeal,” Mr. Carney said. “L.B.J. could get away with that, but it doesn’t work today.”

Mr. Abbott agreed this month to a debate, something Mr. Carney had said would happen only if the race were close. Several recent polls have put Mr. O’Rourke around five percentage points behind the governor.

At each of the five campaign stops, Mr. O’Rourke stressed broadly popular positions: expanding Medicaid, canceling statewide school assessment tests, cutting property taxes, legalizing marijuana.

He was repeatedly asked about one past position, taken during the 2020 presidential primary: a vow, after a deadly mass shooting in El Paso, to “take your AR-15.” The issue has been front of mind for his supporters — who have resurrected the issue since the shooting in Uvalde — and for those who have shown up to protest him, openly bearing arms.

The politics of abortion have also appeared to energize Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign. A clear majority of his crowds were women, and the loudest cheers came whenever he discussed his support for abortion rights.

“The reason I came is because he was a premature baby, and I am now considered a high-risk pregnancy,” said Azucena Salinas, 20, a pregnant substitute teacher who stood at the back of Mr. O’Rourke’s event in Pittsburg with her 8-month-old son, Malakai. “I want to have the choice and the right for the doctors to be able to give me an abortion when my life is in danger.”

Apart from courting conservatives, Mr. O’Rourke’s strategy is focused on turning out new voters, recruiting an army of volunteers — his campaign already claims 80,000 — and campaigning across the state. He is currently in the middle of a 49-day drive across Texas that ends next month.

Mr. Carney said Mr. Abbott had also been reaching across party lines to disaffected Democrats, particularly those Hispanic voters who have drifted toward the Republican Party.

At his stop in Whitesboro, Mr. O’Rourke drew hundreds of supporters to a renovated church near a downtown gun store. He also attracted scores of protesters, many with handguns on their hips. One man carried an AR-15-style rifle, and another had a flag depicting the weapon in place of a cannon over the famous slogan from the Texas revolution: “Come and Take It.”

“The race is really, really close,” said Rod Parker, a revivalist preacher with a .40-caliber handgun on his hip who helped organize the protest. If Mr. O’Rourke wins, he said, Texas would “end up being like a California or an Oregon or a Chicago, and we’re not putting up with that garbage in this town.”

Inside the campaign event, Amy Maxey, 46, said she was happy to see the crowd of mostly fellow Democrats gathered there, but she also bemoaned the anger that Mr. O’Rourke’s visit had brought to the surface. She said that as she entered, a protester had told her she was not a Christian because of her support for Mr. O’Rourke.

“Our kids grew up in this town together,” she said. “I’m definitely a Christian. I go to church here.”

After the event, tensions grew. Mr. Parker and a large group waited outside for Mr. O’Rourke to emerge. Some taunted his supporters.

“Baby killers!” they shouted. “Pedophiles!”

Inside, Mr. O’Rourke posed for photos and talked to anyone who wanted to ask a question or share their story, including Trey Ramsey, a former police officer who said he backed Mr. Trump in 2016 and Mr. Abbott in 2018 but had become disillusioned with the Republican Party. His wife is volunteering for Mr. O’Rourke.

Eventually, Mr. Parker grew impatient with waiting outside and, along with several armed supporters, entered the church. Some shouted at Mr. O’Rourke. As they filled the center aisle, a few dozen feet from Mr. O’Rourke, the town’s police chief urged them to “keep cool,” but people were ruffled nonetheless.

“It was a real kind of a shock,” Mr. Ramsey said. “As a former law enforcement officer, my hairs immediately stood up.”

Mr. O’Rourke agreed to speak with Mr. Parker. They shook hands and, for five minutes, engaged in a discussion of guns.

“I bet that we can agree on something like a universal background check,” Mr. O’Rourke said. “We might be able to agree on a red-flag law.”

“No, sir!” shouted a man who had entered with Mr. Parker.

“The reason for the people to have the Second Amendment, OK, was for — so that we could protect ourselves from big government,” Mr. Parker said.

“You think your right to have a gun is so that you can use it against your government?” Mr. O’Rourke responded.

“Not necessarily,” Mr. Parker said. Before walking away, he told Mr. O’Rourke that he was “not welcome in this town.”

“Hey, there were a lot of people who just welcomed us to this town,” Mr. O’Rourke responded. “And we’ll be back, again and again.”

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