A series of tragedies and challenges have soured the mood of Texans and made the governor’s race perhaps the most competitive since the 1990s.
SUGAR LAND, Texas — One of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. The revival of a 1920s ban on abortion. The country’s worst episode of migrant death in recent memory. And an electrical grid, which failed during bitter cold, now straining under soaring heat.
The unrelenting succession of death and difficulty facing Texans over the last two months has soured them on the direction of the state, hurting Gov. Greg Abbott and making the race for governor perhaps the most competitive since Democrats last held that office in the 1990s.
Polls have shown a tightening, single-digit contest between Mr. Abbott, the two-term incumbent, and his ubiquitous Democratic challenger, the former congressman Beto O’Rourke. Mr. O’Rourke is now raising more campaign cash than Mr. Abbott — $27.6 million to $24.9 million in the last filing — in a race that is likely to be among the most expensive 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 the worst things that are happening in this country have their roots in Texas,” said qa`, a Democratic state representative from north of 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 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 Senator Ted Cruz and nearly won during a midterm referendum on President Donald J. Trump that lifted Democrats, now it is Republicans who are animated by animus toward the White House and poised to make gains in state races.
But in recent weeks there has been a perceptible shift in Texas, as registered in several public polls and some internal campaign surveys, after the school shooting in Uvalde that killed 19 children and two teachers and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, that brought back into force a 1925 law banning all abortions except when the woman’s life is at risk.
“Dobbs at the margins has hurt Republicans in Texas. Uvalde at the margins has hurt Republicans in Texas. The grid has hurt Republicans in Texas,” said Mark P. Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University who helped conduct one recent poll. “Biden and inflation have been their saving grace.”
Most voters polled did not rank guns or abortion among their top issues in the recent survey, by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, but many of Mr. O’Rourke’s supporters did, suggesting the issues could help to energize his voters, Mr. Jones said.
And the issue of gun control was a top concern among another group that Republicans have been fighting hard to win away from Democrats: Hispanic women.
A separate 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 Mr. O’Rourke’s numbers improving, Mr. Abbott’s campaign convened a conference call with reporters this month.
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“We’re straight on track, where we want to be,” said Dave Carney, the governor’s campaign strategist, adding that their strategy still involved tying Mr. O’Rourke to Mr. Biden and reminding voters of Mr. O’Rourke’s positions on gun control, police reform and the oil industry during his unsuccessful run in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
“He’s going to be reliving the spectacular disaster of running for president and all the things he said,” Mr. Carney said. “Believe me, he liked to talk and it’s all on video and it’s all contrary to what are the values and what the vast majority of Texans believe.”
That approach has been part of Mr. Abbott’s message from the beginning, particularly on the issue of guns. In one of the first attacks on Mr. O’Rourke, the Abbott campaign highlighted his vow during the presidential campaign to take away AR-15 rifles.
Those comments came during a Democratic primary debate in 2019 that occurred soon after a deadly mass shooting at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Mr. O’Rourke’s hometown and where he served as a U.S. congressman.
After the elementary school massacre in Uvalde in May, Mr. O’Rourke responded with a similarly risky political gambit: interrupting a news conference held in Uvalde the day after the shooting to directly challenge Mr. Abbott over his record on guns. “This is on you,” Mr. O’Rourke said.
The moment, which infuriated many Republicans, appeared at the same time to have energized Democrats who, like Mr. Talarico, have been eager to see an aggressive statewide standard-bearer. “He was showing all of us who believe in democracy in the broad sense of the term how to respond,” Mr. Talarico said.
In Uvalde, a Hispanic majority city 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 has guns here,” said Vincent Salazar, who lost a granddaughter in the shooting. “But this is different. Nobody needs AR-15s. We need to ban them.”
At a march organized by victims’ families this month, Mr. O’Rourke addressed the gathering and appeared to be greeted warmly. “Vote them out!” some in the crowd chanted.
Mr. Carney, in his call with reporters, conceded that the school shooting and the state’s new restrictions on abortion had helped Mr. O’Rourke. “Quite honestly the advantage to all this for Beto has been in online fund-raising,” 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 an analysis by the Texas Tribune. And he has begun taking in large checks as well: $1 million from the billionaire George Soros, the perennial backer of Democratic candidates, and $2 million from Simone and Tench Coxe, recent transplants to Austin from California.
Still, Mr. Abbott, a prolific fund-raiser, has more campaign cash in the bank — nearly $46 million compared with about $24 million for Mr. O’Rourke — and the ability to quickly draw on a large network of wealthy donors. Mr. Abbott took in 62 donations of $100,000 or more during the latest fund-raising period, compared with six for Mr. O’Rourke.
Among the governor’s largest donors have been energy executives like Javaid Anwar of Midland Energy (about $1.4 million), Kelcy Warren of Energy Transfer ($1 million) and Gary Martin of Falcon Bay Energy, who has provided Mr. Abbott with $680,000 worth of plane trips.
Mr. Abbott’s campaign has already reserved $20 million in advertising spending for the fall, which Mr. Carney said would be aggressively targeted at the governor’s voters to keep them engaged and turn them out.
“We’re narrowcasting to less than 10 percent of the voters,” he said. He also predicted that Mr. Abbott would win among Hispanic Texans.
Adryana Aldeen, a public policy consultant who has worked with the Republican Party of Texas in the past, said that both candidates have connections to the Hispanic community, pointing out Mr. O’Rourke’s fluency in Spanish and upbringing in Hispanic-majority El Paso and Mr. Abbott’s wife, whose family immigrated from Mexico.
“It is very clear that Latinos are very conservative in their values,” she said, but with room for moderation. On guns, she cited her own view that the state’s permitless carry law, passed in 2021 and signed by Mr. Abbott, may have gone too far in the direction of removing restrictions.
“I personally have a gun. I have a license to carry that gun. I had a background check. I do believe that it’s OK to have those things,” she said. “I know that many of my fellow Republicans do not agree.”
Looking to capitalize on what his advisers see as momentum, Mr. O’Rourke has returned to the road, his political comfort zone, with a 49-day drive to events around Texas.
“If you just look at from April to July, the race changed 5 points,” said Chris Evans, a spokesman for the campaign. “People are not happy with the direction the state is going and we’re going right to them and offering them the alternative.”
But it’s not clear how long the effect of recent events will last on the Texas electorate.
Rising consumer costs were front of mind for Sophia Graves, 50, on a recent afternoon at the First Colony Mall in Sugar Land, a fast-growing community outside of Houston that is among the nation’s most diverse.
“Everything is expensive right now,” said Ms. Graves, a real estate agent from nearby Missouri City, who was shopping with her 17-year-old daughter. “We need relief.”
But she said she still planned to vote for Mr. O’Rourke because “he’s just refreshing” and she agreed with him on policies like abortion and the need for stricter gun regulations. She said recent events had made her optimistic that he could win. “I’m more hopeful,” she 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 and works two jobs, as a school bus driver and a home health aide. He did not have a preferred candidate for governor.
“They need to raise the salaries,” he said, pausing to take bites of a banana sundae in a rolled-up waffle. “Other than that, I love it. Look at what I’m eating!” he said with a smile.
Edgar Sandoval contributed reporting.