As early voting begins, pressure is on for Beto O’Rourke to close the gap with Greg Abbott

O’Rourke has not had the upper hand in any polls, or even come within low single digits, compared to 2018, when he more regularly showed up within the margin of error against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

While O’Rourke has worked to energize Democrats on issues like abortion access and broken fundraising records, he has trailed Abbott by at least mid-single digits in almost every likely-voter poll in recent months, including the latest survey released Friday where the gap widened to 11 points. O’Rourke has shrugged off the deficits, saying polling does not fully capture new voters — and that polling underestimated him in his 2018 race against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz anyway.

But Abbott’s lead has proven more consistent than Cruz’s — one of several differences with the near-miss loss in 2018 that made O’Rourke a star. The national environment continues to favor Republicans, with President Joe Biden deeply unpopular in Texas. And Republicans are motivated to finish off the candidate who has almost single-handedly carried the hopes of Texas Democrats for five years now.

This time, O’Rourke is a different candidate on multiple fronts. He is no longer an outsider to the state’s Democratic Party, campaigning more with fellow candidates and sharing campaign resources. And while he struggled with how hard to go after Cruz toward the end of the 2018 race, he has been unsparing in his criticism of Abbott throughout this race

“I don’t think there’s much reason to think about what’s going on in the rest of the country and think Texas would be exempt from that,” said Jim Henson, the UT pollster, referring to the historic headwinds that Democratic are facing. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any analysis right now that doesn’t show the midterm reverting to the expected mean.”

Gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks to attendees during a Get Out the Vote Rally hosted by the Asian American Democrats of Texas in Asiatown on October 15, 2022.