For Beto O’Rourke, Talk of Gun Control Has Become Both a Political Risk and Reward

“He is frustrated just like me, just like everyone else,” said State Senator Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde and who made his own interruption at another Abbott news conference, urging the governor to call for a special session of the Texas Legislature to pass gun-control legislation.

Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign for governor is an uphill battle that some say remains all but impossible in Texas, where Republicans have a solid grip on state power.

No Democrat has won a statewide race in Texas since November 1994 and no Democrat has occupied the governor’s mansion since January 1995, the last day of Gov. Ann W. Richards’s tenure. Despite years of Democratic promises of a blue wave, Texas keeps passing and enforcing some of the most conservative policies in the country. Democratic organizers continue to grapple with low voter turnout as Republicans have made gains in South Texas border cities. And in the governor’s race, Mr. Abbott has a significant financial advantage — he had nearly $50 million in cash on hand compared to Mr. O’Rourke’s roughly $6.8 million as of Feb. 19, according to the latest Texas Ethics Commission filings.

“Their prospects are bleak,” said Cal Jillson, a political analyst and professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “In a good year, they can win some down-ballot offices and even some Texas state legislative seats, but they have not been able to break through statewide, and 2022 is not shaping up to be a good year.”

For the longtime Democratic strategists and activists who have been working to turn the state blue, recent electoral contests have left them at once optimistic and worried. Mr. O’Rourke’s Senate bid in 2018 re-energized the party and helped sway down-ballot races in favor of Democrats as he came within three percentage points of unseating Senator Ted Cruz.

But Texas Republicans were aided by higher turnout in smaller counties in the 2020 election, and those largely rural areas have been shifting even more to the right. In a Republican primary runoff for attorney general two weeks ago, Ken Paxton, the Trump-backed incumbent, trounced George P. Bush, the state’s land commissioner and the last member of the Bush family still in public office.

Mr. O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman, has cast the race between himself and Mr. Abbott as a choice between old leadership beholden to the gun lobby and his vision for a state where “weapons of war” are removed from civilian life. At the Dallas forum on Wednesday, he said he had rushed the stage to confront the governor in Uvalde because he wished someone had done the same after a mass shooting at a Walmart in his hometown of El Paso in 2019.

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