AUSTIN, Texas -- El Paso's very own Beto O’Rourke is on the road again, trying to build public pressure on Congress to take action on voting rights while his fellow Democrats in the Texas Legislature take the fight to Washington, D.C., after killing Republicans’ priority elections bill in Austin.
Arguably the state’s best-known Democrat, O’Rourke has been crisscrossing the state since June 3 and wrapped up with a large rally Sunday evening at the Texas Capitol, which he hoped would send the loudest message yet to federal legislators. (You can watch it in the video player at the top of this article.)
It has been the most statewide travel for a political cause that O’Rourke has done since his blockbuster 2018 U.S. Senate campaign when he narrowly lost to Sen. Ted Cruz.
“I can’t get it out of my system,” O’Rourke said during the first stop of the tour in Midland. “I want to see the state again. I want to be with people.”
Buzz about a potential 2022 gubernatorial campaign has followed O’Rourke everywhere he has gone, but he has deferred a decision on the race until after the current battle over voting rights.
By the time of Sunday's Texas Capitol rally, he had visited at least 19 cities on his statewide tour, which he has titled “For the People: The Texas Drive for Democracy.” And the stops have not just been in the major Democratic cities but also places like Wichita Falls and Brenham, reminiscent of the go-anywhere spirit of his Senate campaign.
Like the state House Democrats who defeated the GOP voting bill by walking out of the chamber late last month, O’Rourke is using the national spotlight on Texas to urge Congress to pass the For the People Act, a far-reaching elections overhaul that would expand voter registration, end partisan gerrymandering and restore voting rights to felons who have finished their sentences. O’Rourke also supports passage of the narrower John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would require many changes to state election laws to go through “pre-clearance,” or federal approval.
O’Rourke said the two elections proposals in Congress are “mutually reinforcing” and “you need them both.”
The odds are stacked against O’Rourke, both at the state and federal levels. Gov. Greg Abbott plans to revive the state elections bill in a yet-to-be-scheduled special session. Senate Bill 7 would have placed new limits on early voting hours, banned drive-thru voting and tightened vote-by-mail rules.
Meanwhile, the For the People Act remains doomed without GOP support or the elimination of the filibuster, which requires at least 60 votes to advance legislation in the 50-50 chamber. O’Rourke has joined progressives in calling for the end of the filibuster, though the votes are still not there to do so.
O’Rourke is still hopeful things can change in Washington.
“I think Texas has done about all we can, including the very extraordinary step taken by the Texas state House Democrats who walked out at the 11th hour of the regular session,” O’Rourke said in an interview. “We’re gonna all do our best to stop whatever voter suppression bill comes through in a special session, but at this point, we really need the federal government.”
That is expected to be the main message of Sunday’s rally, which will also feature Julián Castro, the former 2020 presidential candidate, U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor, as well as several of the state Democrats from the walkout. The rally starts at 5:30 p.m. Central/4:30 p.m. Mountain time on the south steps of the Texas Capitol.
O’Rourke said he would like to use the event to give Democrats in Washington, D.C., an “extra push” as they prepare to vote next week on the For the People Act.
O’Rourke’s re-emergence has given Texas Republicans fodder to further make a boogeyman out of him ahead of a potential 2022 campaign. Since O’Rourke’s road trip started, U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Amarillo, has emailed supporters multiple times mocking what he calls O’Rourke’s “Texas Drive For Voter Fraud” tour.
“Beto O’Rourke is traveling across Texas pushing Leftist talking points that run counter to what Texas is all about,” U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin said in a fundraising email. “He’s laying the groundwork for an all-out push to flip Texas blue next year.”
Amid the 2022 buzz, O’Rourke has sought to keep the focus on voting issues for now, and he said he was heartened by two developments in recent weeks. The first was state GOP lawmakers walking back two of the most controversial provisions in Senate Bill 7, a sign that Texans’ voices are getting through to the Republicans, O’Rourke said. The lawmakers said they will tweak parts of the proposal that had to do with the Sunday early voting window and overturning elections.
O’Rourke also pointed to the floating of a potential compromise earlier this week by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has been the sole Democratic holdout on the For the People Act. O’Rourke argued that was due “in no small part” to the state lawmakers who visited Washington, D.C., this week to lobby members of Congress — including Manchin — for federal voting legislation before meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris.
O’Rourke praised the job that President Joe Biden has done so far in elevating voting rights as an issue, citing Biden’s recent speech in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the statement he issued in opposition to Senate Bill 7 a day before the walkout. Biden used the Tulsa speech to say he will “fight like heck” against GOP efforts to restrict voting, and he said in the statement on SB 7 that it was “part of an assault on democracy.”
But O’Rourke said Biden could do more to show how the debate has roots in former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 elections was stolen and the events that came after that, including the U.S. Capitol insurrection.
“I would like to see him go further, and I would like to see him bring this country together around this issue and connect the dots for all of us,” O’Rourke said.
While O’Rourke was thrilled to see the walkout by state House Democrats last month, he was deferential to the lawmakers on how they should try to stop the elections bill in the forthcoming special session. O’Rourke said they are “leading right now, and the last thing they need is advice from me or anyone else.”
“They have done so much so far,” he said, “and I’m confident they’re gonna do whatever it takes in any special session” to stop the legislation.
State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, told CNN that breaking quorum again is on the table, saying “it’s no secret that that’s something that has been effective in the past.”
In addition to the voting rights fight, O’Rourke’s political future has been an open topic of discussion during the road trip, with audience members raising it as part of their questions to him, sometimes multiple times in one city. Elected officials have also brought it up along the way.
“This is truly a Democratic state, and we’re gonna make it that,” U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, said during O’Rourke’s visit to her city. “They could gerrymander all they want to, but it will not keep us from getting registered and getting out to vote — and it will not keep us from electing Beto as governor.
“Now, nobody wants to talk about that right now,” she added amid cheers, “but I do.”
In the interview, O’Rourke reiterated what he has told countless interviewers in recent weeks: that he would not consider a 2022 run until he sees through the current battle over voting rights. He said “there’s just nothing more important” at the moment.
At the same time, he said he has “really enjoyed the way I have been serving over the last couple years.” That has included registering new voters and working with volunteers through his Powered by People group. Whether as a candidate or not, he said, he will continue “dedicating myself to public service.”