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Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke speaks during the Georgetown to Austin March for Democracy rally on July 31, 2021, in Austin, Texas. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke is preparing to run for governor of Texas in 2022, with an announcement expected later this year, Texas political operatives tell Axios.

Why it matters: O'Rourke's entry would give Democrats a high-profile candidate with a national fundraising network to challenge Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — and give O’Rourke, a former three-term congressman from El Paso and 2020 presidential candidate and voting rights activist, a path to a political comeback.

  • But he would be running in a complicated political environment. Immigration is surging at the southern border and Democrats at the national level are bracing for a brutal midterm election and potentially losing the House of Representatives in 2022.
  • A new poll for the Dallas Morning News shows that O'Rourke has narrowed the gap with Abbott in a hypothetical matchup, down, 37%-42%. In July, O'Rourke faced a 12-point deficit, 33%-45%.
  • Over the summer, Abbot has seen his approval rating sink to 41%, with 50% disapproving, in a separate poll.

Driving the news: O’Rourke has been calling political allies to solicit their advice, leaving them with the impression that he’s made his decision to run in the country’s second-largest state.

  • "No decision has been made," said David Wysong, O'Rourke's former House chief of staff and a longtime adviser. "He has been making and receiving calls with people from all over the state."

The big picture: In addition to deep cultural differences on how to respond to COVID-19, many of the contentious issues dividing the country seem to be bigger in Texas, with raging debates on abortion rights and border security flaring across the state.

  • Abbott championed a law, which the Supreme Court declined to strike down, to criminalize abortions six weeks after conception, enraging progressive activists and potentially suburban women.
  • He has also stoked cultural divides on COVID-19 and used executive action to try and prevent local jurisdictions from imposing mandates for masks or vaccines.
  • On the border, Abbott has called for six points of entry in Texas to be closed and has blamed the Biden administration for the growing humanitarian crisis in Del Rio, where thousands of migrants are seeking shelter underneath a bridge.

What they are saying: “We hope that he’s going to run,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the state chair of the Democratic Party, told Axios. “We think he’ll be our strongest candidate. We think he can beat Abbott, because he’s vulnerable.”

  • "His prohibition against mask and vaccination mandates have not gone over well with Texans," Hinojosa said. "And with the abortion law, Republicans have raised the anger level of Texas women higher than anyone has ever seen before.”

By the numbers: While Democrats insisted that 2020 could be the year that Texas might turn blue and vote for its first Democrat for president since 1976, President Trump won that state with 52%, the same as his 2016 margin.

  • Trump captured 1.2 million more votes in 2020, for a total of 5.8 million.
  • In 2018, O’Rourke lost to Sen. Ted Cruz, 51% to 48%, by a margin of some 215,000 votes.

Go deeper

Justice Department asks Supreme Court to block Texas abortion ban

Abortion rights activists rally at the Texas State Capitol on Sept. 11 in Austin, Texas. Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images

The Justice Department on Monday asked the Supreme Court to temporarily block Texas' near-total ban on abortions while federal courts consider its constitutionality.

The big picture: The court last month allowed the ban to take effect, rejecting an emergency application by abortion-rights groups. The law bars the procedure after cardiac activity is detected, as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

RNC woos Texas Latinos

A pro-Trump protester in Austin, Texas, after Joe Biden's victory. Photo: Sergio Flores/AFP via Getty Images

The Republican National Committee is working to court more conservative Hispanic voters in south Texas, even as the state's GOP majority uses redistricting to blunt demographic changes that should be empowering Hispanic representation and helping Democrats.

Driving the news: The RNC is opening a Hispanic community center in San Antonio on Monday. It's the third such outreach center the party has opened in south Texas this year.

Updated 28 mins ago - World

Mapping repression in China's Xinjiang region

Data: © Mapbox, © OpenStreetMap; Map: Will Chase/Axios

A sweeping new report released today by an Australian research organization reveals new details about how the Chinese Communist Party — and specifically who within the party — is carrying out its campaign of repression in Xinjiang.

Why it matters: Uncovering the actual offices and individuals implementing the Chinese government's genocide and forced labor policies in Xinjiang can bring accountability and help international companies delink supply chains in compliance with U.S. and EU forced labor laws.