After the recent upheaval, the Texas governor’s race is heating up

SUGAR LAND, Texas – One of the deadliest school shootings in US history. The reactivation of the 1920s abortion ban. The country’s worst migrant death toll in recent memory. And a power grid, which failed during the cold, is now stretched under increasing heat.

The relentless succession of deaths and hardships facing Texans over the past two months has soured the state’s leadership, hurting Gov. Greg Abbott and making the gubernatorial race perhaps the most competitive since Democrats they last held this position in the 1990s.

Polls have shown a single-digit contest between Mr. Abbott, the two-term incumbent, and his ubiquitous Democratic rival, former congressman Beto O’Rourke. Mr. O’Rourke is now raising more campaign cash than Mr. Abbott ($27.6 million to $24.9 million as of last filing), in what is likely to be one of the most expensive races of 2022.

Suddenly, improbably, perhaps unwisely, Texas Democrats are again daring to think, as they have in many recent election years, that maybe this could be the year.

“It seems like some of the worst things going on in this country have their roots in Texas,” said James Talarico, D-North Austin. “We’re seeing a renewed fighting spirit.”

At the same time, the winds of national discontent are whipping hard in the other direction, against the Democrats. Texans, like many Americans, have felt the strain of rising inflation and have a low opinion of President Biden. Unlike four years ago, when Mr. O’Rourke challenged Sen. Ted Cruz and nearly won in a midterm referendum on President Donald J. Trump that roused Democrats, now it’s Republicans who are buoyed for the spirit towards the White House and are ready to make gains. in the state races.

But in recent weeks there has been a noticeable shift in Texas, as recorded in several public polls and some internal campaign polls, following the school shooting in Uvalde that killed 19 children and two teachers and the sentencing of the US Supreme Court on abortion, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which reinstated a 1925 law banning all abortions except when the woman’s life is at risk.

“Dobbs on the fringes has hurt Republicans in Texas. Uvalde on the fringes has hurt Republicans in Texas. The network has hurt Republicans in Texas,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University who helped take a recent survey. “Biden and inflation have been his saving grace.”

And the issue of gun control was a major concern of another group that Republicans have been fighting hard to win over to Democrats: Hispanic women.

An independent poll, conducted by the University of Texas at Austin and released this month, showed 59 percent of respondents thought Texas was on the “wrong track,” the highest number in more than a decade of asking that question . Another, from Quinnipiac University, found Mr. O’Rourke within 5 percentage points of the governor.

As the new polls showed that Mr. O’Rourke improve, the campaign of Mr. Abbott called a conference call with reporters this month.

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“We’re right on track, where we want to be,” said Dave Carney, the governor’s campaign strategist, adding that his strategy was still to tie Mr. O’Rourke to Mr. Biden and remind 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 running for president and all the things he said,” Carney said. “Believe me, he liked to talk and it’s all on video and it’s all against what the values ​​are and what the vast majority of Texans believe.”

This approach has been part of the message of Mr. Abbott from the start, especially on the gun issue. In one of the first attacks on Mr. O’Rourke, Abbott’s campaign highlighted his vote during the presidential campaign to take away AR-15 rifles.

The moment, which infuriated many Republicans, seemed at the same time to have emboldened Democrats who, like Mr. Talarico, have been eager to see a statewide flag-bearer aggressive. “He was showing all of us who believe in democracy in the broad sense of the term how to respond,” said Mr. Talarico

In Uvalde, a majority Hispanic town where hunting is a common pastime, the political mood has been shifting since the massacre at Robb Elementary. Many now support stricter gun laws. “Everybody here has guns,” said Vincent Salazar, who lost a granddaughter in the shooting. “But this is different. Nobody needs AR-15s. We have to ban them.”

In a march organized by the families of the victims this month, Mr. O’Rourke addressed the meeting and appeared to receive a hearty greeting. “Vote them!” chanted some of the crowd.

Mr. Carney, in his call with reporters, admitted that the school shooting and the state’s new restrictions on abortion had helped Mr. O’Rourke. “Honestly, the upside of all of this for Beto has been online fundraising,” he said.

Mr. O’Rourke has eclipsed Mr. Abbott in small-dollar donations, raising more than three times as much cash in donations of $200 or less, according to a Texas Tribune analysis. And he’s started cashing big checks, too: $1 million from billionaire George Soros, perennial backer of Democratic candidates, and $2 million from Simone and Tench Coxe, recent transplants to Austin from California.

Even so, Mr. Abbott, a prolific fund-raiser, has more campaign cash in the bank (nearly $46 million compared to about $24 million for Mr. O’Rourke) and the ability to quickly draw on a large network of wealthy donors Mr. Abbott received 62 donations of $100,000 or more during the last fundraising period, compared with six for Mr. O’Rourke.

The governor’s top donors include energy executives such as Midland Energy’s Javaid Anwar ($1.4 million), Energy Transfer’s Kelcy Warren ($1 million) and Falcon Bay Energy’s Gary Martin, who has provided Mr. Abbott air travel worth $680,000. .

The campaign of Mr. Abbott has already set aside $20 million in advertising spending for the fall, which Mr. Carney said he would aggressively target the governor’s voters to keep them engaged and push them out.

“We’re down to less than 10 percent of voters,” he said. He also predicted that Mr. Abbott would win among Texan Hispanics.

Adryana Aldeen, a public policy consultant who has worked with the Texas Republican Party in the past, said both candidates have connections to the Hispanic community, noting Mr. Trump’s fluency in Spanish. O’Rourke and his upbringing in El Paso and the Hispanic majority. Wife of Mr. Abbott, whose family immigrated from Mexico.

“It’s very clear that Latinos are very conservative in their values,” he said, but with room for moderation. On guns, he cited his own view that the state’s permitless carry law, passed in 2021 and signed by Mr Abbott, may have gone too far in removing restrictions.

“I personally own a gun. I have a license to carry that weapon. I had a background check. I think it’s okay to have those things,” he said. “I know many of my fellow Republicans disagree.”

Seeking to capitalize on what his advisers see as momentum, Mr. O’Rourke is back on the road, his political comfort zone, with a 49-day tour of events across Texas.

“If you just look from April to July, the race changed by 5 points,” said Chris Evans, a campaign spokesman. “People are not happy with the direction the state is going and we’re going straight to them and offering them the alternative.”

But it’s unclear how long the effect of recent events on the Texas electorate will last.

Sophia Graves, 50, considered rising consumer costs on a recent afternoon at the First Colony shopping center in Sugar Land, a fast-growing community outside Houston that is among the most diverse in the country.

“Everything is expensive right now,” said Ms. Graves, a real estate agent in the nearby Missouri town, who was shopping with her 17-year-old daughter. “We need relief.”

But he said he still planned to vote for Mr. O’Rourke because “it’s just refreshing” and agreed with him on policies like abortion and the need for tighter gun regulations. He said recent events had made him optimistic he could win. “I’m more hopeful,” he said. “It’s time for a change.”

Inflation was also Ahmad Sadozai’s main concern, threatening the middle-class lifestyle that he said drew 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, works two jobs, as a school bus driver and a home health aide. He had no favorite candidate for governor.

“They need to raise the wages,” he said, pausing to take bites of a banana sundae in a rolled waffle. “Other than that, I love it. Look what I eat!” he said with a smile.

Edgar Sandoval contributed to the report.

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