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SHERMAN, Texas — At an April town hall meeting, Beto O’Rourke was asked about AR-15s, the popular semi-automatic rifle he pledged to confiscate in 2019 during his run for president.
Grayson County retiree Jan Fletcher held her right hand on her chin and braced for the answer.
“I like what he has to offer, but I’m still scared of what Republicans are going to do to him after his comment in the presidential debates,” she said. “I’m very terrified for him.”
“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” has followed O’Rourke since he said it during a Democratic presidential debate, drawing applause from the Houston crowd and jeers from many gun owners throughout the Lone Star State.
The comment came about a month after the mass shooting that killed 23 people and injured dozens more in El Paso, O’Rourke’s hometown. He told The Dallas Morning News the shooting rampage “just crushed me.”
It marked his evolution from a U.S. Senate candidate with somewhat moderate views to a progressive Democrat trying to carve out space in a crowded presidential field. In the 2018 race against Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, he called for a ban on the manufacture of assault-style weapons, but assured owners they could keep them.
O’Rourke says he still doesn’t believe Americans should own military-style weapons, but in the race for Texas governor, he has abandoned talk of confiscating those rifles in favor of gun control proposals with broader support: universal background checks, red flag laws and raising the age to buy weapons like the AR-15 from 18 to 21.
It hasn’t stopped Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott from using O’Rourke’s 2020 policy proposals against him. Abbott, whose lead slightly increased in recent polls, has been pounding O’Rourke for past comments on guns, police funding, the environment and immigration.
His onslaught comes as O’Rourke has changed the way he campaigns, becoming a more disciplined candidate who learned lessons from the Senate race and his ill-fated presidential bid, political observers say. Not only does he avoid talking about issues that would hurt his crossover appeal, he sticks to a script to make his case to voters.
“He’s focused intently on what he needs to do to connect with voters,” said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic research group. “He has learned from his previous campaigns and put a lot of things in his rearview mirror. I don’t agree with everything he does and everything he says, but what I do appreciate is that he is earnest and honest and is really working hard to connect with voters on a personal level.”
Jeremy Bradford, a GOP consultant and former executive director of the Tarrant County Republican Party, said the new O’Rourke will be exposed.
“The ghosts of his presidential election will certainly come back to haunt him,” he said. “The positions he took during that campaign will go over like a lead balloon in Texas. A lot of that stuff is still in the minds of Texans. If they don’t remember it, I’m sure they will be reminded of it as we get closer to the election.”
In previous campaigns, O’Rourke would opine on almost any issue he was asked about, including NFL players kneeling to protest police violence during the national anthem. That earned him praise from NBA star LeBron James, but boos in Texas.
Ed Espinoza, executive director of the liberal group Progress Texas, said O’Rourke would get off message.
“You risk the coverage being about those other things,” he said. “We saw that in 2018 for the national anthem. I thought what he had to say was very compelling, but it wasn’t what the race was about.”
Gone are the days of freewheeling rallies and sprawling gaggles with reporters, or four appearances with four speeches, all varying in style and substance.
“He brings a ton of energy and enthusiasm to his campaign, and the voters respond to it,” Espinoza said. “But he is more disciplined with his message this time.”
O’Rourke keeps the focus on Abbott and issues including abortion and voting rights, the costs passed to Texans after the 2021 winter storm, curbing mass shootings, expanding Medicaid, supporting teachers and unifying the state.
In the 2018 Senate race, O’Rourke rarely called news conferences. In his campaign for governor, he’s gathered reporters to criticize Abbott for problems with child protective services, the state’s abortion ban, rising property taxes and the power grid.
“Those who are closely following state politics or the decisions of this governor might understand that so many of the failures that we’re seeing are due to his failed leadership,” O’Rourke told The News last month in DeSoto.
“I need to make sure that I really point that out and draw the contrast here. The reason the heat didn’t work last winter, and your bills have gone up every month since then, just to keep the lights on. That’s Greg Abbott. Your rising property taxes, the teacher I just talked to who feels under attack and is so underpaid. That is Greg Abbott. And the contrast of that is everything.”
O’Rourke on the issues
Even as he sticks to his positions, O’Rourke has evolved on other issues, such as border security. He’s criticized how President Joe Biden has handled immigration and concedes that Texas law enforcement officials should have a role in protecting the border.
“He’s trying to track a little back to the center, where he used to be when he ran for Senate in 2018,” Rice political scientist Mark Jones said. “But it’s really tough. You can’t really reinvent yourself in the course of two years, especially when you have the Abbott campaign with the ability to spend over $100 million reminding voters of everything you said when you ran for president in 2020.”
Jones said that in the minds of many Texas voters, O’Rourke hasn’t healed the political wounds he inflicted on himself during the presidential run.
“His presidential bid was the worst thing that could have ever happened to his future political aspirations in Texas,” he said.
Case in point: the event in Sherman, where O’Rourke was asked whether he still wants to confiscate some semi-automatic rifles.
He steered the debate toward other issues involving gun control.
“I want to acknowledge that we can see this differently and still come to some common ground on protecting the Second Amendment and making it safer to live in the state of Texas,” O’Rourke said after a long setup about how families of mass shooting victims wonder why average residents use battlefield weapons. “There are people who are here with us right now in this room who own AR-15s and AK-47s. They own them responsibly.”
O’Rourke then asked the audience to consider policies on which owners of semi-automatic rifles and gun control advocates could agree, such as universal background checks, tighter red flag laws, a greater emphasis on safely storing guns and raising the minimum age to buy an assault-style weapon from 18 to 21.
O’Rourke said his position on confiscating semi-automatic weapons became fully formed when he thought about the families shopping at Walmart on the Saturday before school started in El Paso. They were “hunted down because this guy echoing Greg Abbott said he was gonna repel the invasion that was coming to this country of Hispanics who were going to politically take over,” O’Rourke said, adding that he doesn’t think civilians should own AR-15s.
How Abbott has countered
Abbott insists O’Rourke is out of touch with Texans on other issues, too.
In television ads, he tied O’Rourke to “defunding” the police by reminding voters that he once praised efforts to cut police funding. In the aftermath of those ads, Abbott’s lead increased, according to a poll by The News and the University of Texas at Tyler.
“Since 2018, Beto has taken all these radical positions, such as embracing the green New Deal, such as defunding police, such as cashless bail, things that are very dangerous to our communities,” Abbott told The News. “When we remind voters of exactly what he said on the presidential campaign, they are repelled.”
O’Rourke’s stances on energy and the environment also evolved during his presidential campaign.
When he represented El Paso in Congress, O’Rourke worked with Republicans to protect and expand Texas’ energy dominance and independence by voting to lift the 40-year-old oil export ban and speeding up natural gas exports. He also said he helped block efforts that would have stopped additional drilling.
As a presidential candidate, he supported ending coastal oil drilling and tax breaks for fossil fuel companies, which Abbott says would wreck the energy industry in Texas and cost jobs.
Then there’s immigration.
Abbott points out that O’Rourke supports a path to citizenship for those in the country without authorization. O’Rourke also voiced support for allowing those in the country without authorization to have health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
At the same time, O’Rourke has criticized Abbott for politicizing the issue, including busing migrants to Washington, New York and Chicago.
Jones, the political scientist, said O’Rourke has a slight opening because abortion rights and gun violence have emerged as critical issues with voters in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and the Uvalde massacre.
“He’s been provided with two issues that previously would have not been raised at all during this campaign,” Jones said.
Polls show most Texans want some gun control and support exceptions to the state’s abortion law for victims of rape and incest.
“Abortion and gun control have tangentially worked to his advantage because both underscored the fact that the Texas Republican Party held a position on gun control and on abortion that is opposite of a majority of Texans,” Jones said.
Still, Abbott says voters will reject his challenger.
“I can tell you our polls are looking good,” Abbott said in Allen last month. “Once we start pointing out the contrast we have with Beto O’Rourke, Texans will reject him the same way they did the last time he ran in the state of Texas.”
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