AUSTIN — Days after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott officially launched his campaign for a third term by touting his hardline border policies and gaining the support of law enforcement groups, Democratic frontrunner Beto O'Rourke sought to refocus the race on human issues.
Speaking with reporters on a conference call Thursday, the former El Paso congressman hammered Abbott for his response to the two-year COVID-19 crisis and the continued vulnerabilities of Texas' electricity grid.
"We need a governor who cares about the people of this state, cares about the mayors who are serving the people of the state. I will be that governor," O'Rourke after a separate call with nine Texas mayors that did not include reporters. "I will be that partner for these mayors to make sure that we're all fulfilling our commitments to one another, and achieving our potential and our promise as a state."
Both Abbott, whose first campaign event of the 2022 cycle came Saturday in the traditional Democratic stronghold of South Texas, and O'Rourke appear to be looking past their lesser-known challengers in the March 1 primaries. Of the 10 news releases the Abbott campaign has issued this month, five of them attack O'Rourke by name in the headline.
"Beto’s policies continue to align more with Joe Biden than the people of Texas," said an Abbott campaign news release issued this week.
O'Rourke punched back in kind Thursday, zeroing in on the governor's orders that barred local elected and public health officials from taking such actions as mandating face coverings or limiting public gatherings in the effort to slow the spread of the virus. Tying those officials' hands, O'Rourke said, helped increase caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths.
"The governor turned his back on them," O'Rourke said, referring to local authorities. "They have not heard from the governor unless it is the governor telling them what they are not legally allowed to do."
Since he lifted the face-covering and business-limiting orders he imposed earlier in the pandemic, Abbott repeatedly has said Texans should take personal responsibility for their own health and safety instead of relying on government mandates.
O'Rourke, asked specifically how he would use the governor's office to confront the pandemic, said local authorities are best positioned to set policies for their own communities.
"First of all I would listen to, partner with and follow the lead of these mayors," he said. "They understand better than anyone else how to protect their communities and save the lives of those that they represent and serve.
"I'm going to trust those across Texas who are doing their best in the midst of the deadliest pandemic to save the lives of their fellow Texans," he added. "It's absolutely what we should expect from our governor. And I will deliver that once elected."
Though Abbott has said he “can guarantee the lights will stay on" despite the sustained outages that left millions of Texans without power during last year's winter storm, O'Rourke said the governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature have not adequately addressed grid reliability.
"We had problems with the grid. We were warned," he said. "And yet as a state, and especially our governor and the Legislature, we failed to make the investments or to require the weatherization that would have prevented the grid collapse that we saw in 2021. And now we're asking the ratepayers to clean up the mess."
The challenge for O'Rourke, who narrowly lost the 2018 U.S. Senate race to incumbent Ted Cruz and sputtered in his attempt to capture the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, is to frame the election "as a referendum on the incumbent" by emphasizing relatable issues like the need for a reliable power grid and COVID response, said Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.
"That’s essentially the argument that O’Rourke wants to make," Blank said. "At some point you could almost imagine him getting to the point where he says, ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?’”
A Quinnipiac University poll of registered Texas voters last month found Abbott with agaping 15-point lead over O'Rourke, with 54% saying the Democrat is "too liberal" for the nation's most reliably Republican large state.
Abbott's large lead over Texas' best-known Democrat should give comfort to Republican primary voters. The governor faces six primary challengers, the most active being former state GOP Chairman Allen West and former state Sen. Don Huffines. Both have said the incumbent is insufficiently conservative.
O'Rourke, meanwhile, has four primary opponents, the most active so far being former broadcast journalist Joy Diaz.
The deadline to register to vote in time for the primaries is Jan. 31. Early voting begins Feb. 14.
John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo. Staff writer Madlin Mekelburg contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: Beto O'Rourke seeks to reframe the debate in race for Texas governor