NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM/CNN) — With weather and health issues impacting millions in Texas and making news nationwide, former congressman Beto O’Rourke has hit the road again and is been criss-crossing the state, making stops in small towns.

His efforts have been focused on the crises that have gripped the state: Widespread power outages brought on by the failure of the state’s electric grid during last month’s freezing temperatures, and the battle against the coronavirus pandemic — which Republican Gov. Greg Abbott effectively ended this week by dropping the state’s mask mandate and its business restrictions.

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But O’Rourke’s public re-emergence — and with it, the return of his from-the-road livestreams on Facebook, with 35 videos in the last two weeks — has ignited hopes in his supporters and among prominent Democrats in the state that the former congressman will take on Abbott next year. Increasingly, Democrats say they see Abbott as politically wounded and believe the former congressman who reinvigorated a moribund state party with his 2018 Senate run could offer the best chance of winning the governor’s office in more than a quarter-century.

O’Rourke, for his part, says it’s not even on his mind.

“I’m not thinking about it. And you won’t find anyone close to me who says I am,” O’Rourke said during an interview.

Asked whether that meant he’d ruled it out, or just wasn’t considering it yet, he said again: “I’m not thinking about it.”

But O’Rourke has said, including in a late-January radio interview, that running for governor is something he is “going to think about.” And friends in El Paso who have spoken to him said he might run. “I think the freeze really outraged him,” one person close to O’Rourke said.

Gilberto Hinojosa, the Texas Democratic Party chairman, said O’Rourke has been “all over the place” in recent weeks with his political organization Powered by People’s volunteer army, helping those without power or water as a result of the infrastructure failures brought on by the historically cold weather Texas faced in February, and that he’d seen him in the Rio Grande Valley.

He said Abbott has been weakened by his management of the coronavirus pandemic and the state’s power failures, and that he thinks O’Rourke will challenge the Republican who has said he is seeking a third term next year.

“It’s hard to tell because he’s not telling anybody, but he sure looks like a candidate,” Hinojosa said of O’Rourke.

Others close to O’Rourke said they don’t expect him to make a decision about running for governor in the near future, pointing to the classes he is teaching on the struggle for voting rights at the University of Texas and on the state’s politics at Texas State University.

“I don’t think he’s anywhere near there yet,” said Alan Metni, a major Texas Democratic donor. “He’s quite into the whole teaching thing, and very focused on doing that and doing that well. He’s also really enjoying the positive effects he can have with Powered by People.”

Metni, like other long-time allies and supporters of the former congressman, said he hopes O’Rourke runs.

“I think any sane person in Texas right now is looking around at the situation and realizing that the Republicans have made a complete mess of the state and wish that somebody would get in there and straighten things out,” Metni said. “But he’s not there. He’s focused on other things right now.”

Another Statewide Run?

The former congressman from El Paso rocketed to political stardom when he smashed fundraising records and nearly ousted Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, a near-miss that in less than two years turned O’Rourke from a back-bencher to a rising national star.

He then fell back to earth when his 2020 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, which began with comparisons to then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 and launched with a Vanity Fair cover featuring O’Rourke saying he was “born to be in it,” fell flat when his style of go-everywhere, meet-everyone retail politics from Texas failed to translate to the national stage.

Afterward, he created his political organization, Powered by People, which now houses the massive email and volunteer list he built during his Senate and presidential runs, and launched a bid to change the electoral makeup of a state with a huge population of unregistered potential voters, following a mold established by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams’ work in Georgia. But Abrams’ years-long efforts succeeded where O’Rourke’s newer organizing push failed: President Joe Biden narrowly won the Peach State, while former President Donald Trump claimed Texas by more than 5 percentage points — less than the 8 points by which he’d won there in 2016, but still a clear victory.

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The question O’Rourke would face if he attempts another statewide run in Texas is whether his disappointing presidential run, and the positions he took during the campaign, would hurt him.

In the wake of a white supremacist gunman targeting Latinos and killing 23 people at an El Paso Walmart in August 2019, O’Rourke said assault weapons should be outlawed and the government should confiscate those currently legally owned.

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said in a September 2019 presidential debate. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”

But in Texas, where guns are ingrained in the state’s culture and mythology, Republicans say those comments — as well as progressive positions he took on immigration, including saying he would tear down the wall between Mexico and Texas, telling reporters it has failed to make his hometown on the border any safer — would badly damage a future O’Rourke campaign.

“During his failed presidential run, Beto O’Rourke showed who he really is: a far-left apologist willing to turn on his own state for the approval of his party’s most extreme voters,” Republican Governors Association spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez said. “Texans won’t forgive that, and someone like O’Rourke who wants to confiscate their firearms and welcome a free-for-all at the southern border will never be elected to statewide office.”

If O’Rourke does not run for governor, Democrats have a number of other prospective candidates. Among them: Another former presidential contender, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, and his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, as well as a slew of state lawmakers, mayors and county executives who could see an opportunity for the first Democratic win in a governor’s race in Texas since Ann Richards won in 1990.

Taking On Republicans

In live videos and tweets, O’Rourke has hammered Cruz for his trip to Cancun during the winter storm that knocked out power at millions of Texans’ homes, and has tangled with Sen. John Cornyn over the voting rights bill Congress is considering.

But his outrage has largely been focused on Abbott, over the governor’s actions during the winter storm and then Abbott’s decision this week to stop trying to slow the spread of the virus by ending his mask mandate and allowing all businesses to open at full capacity.

“Our governor has checked out of the fight. He’s surrendered to the virus. He’s going to allow it to run rampant in this state,” O’Rourke said in a Facebook Live video Tuesday night from his mother’s house. “We are now on our own. But we are not on our own alone — we are on our own together. And that might be some cold comfort, but let’s take what we’ve got right now and let’s work together.”

Abbott’s decision puts front-line health care workers at greater risk in a way that O’Rourke said is “unconscionable, unforgivable.”

“And yet, we cannot only be angry and remain impotent in the face of it. We’ve got to actually do something,” he said.

He asked viewers to volunteer to knock on doors in 17 of the state’s poorest communities — places with heavily Black, Mexican-American and Native American populations that are “first in line to die after dumb decisions like this one made by our governor” — to help people register to receive a coronavirus vaccine appointment.

He also urged Texans to ignore Abbott and wear masks, saying that doing so protects people who have to work during the pandemic, citing Whataburger drive-thru workers as one example.

“The minimum wage in Texas is $7.25. Don’t subject that person to the COVID virus that you might be carrying with you when you go up and order. Wear that mask,” he said.

“We cannot afford any more death and devastation in this state,” O’Rourke said. “We’ve been through too much. We’ve taken too much.”

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CBSDFW.com Staff