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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

Job numbers are up and unemployment is down in Texas

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The Dallas-Fort Worth metro area’s unemployment rate in October dropped slightly from September, according to data released by the Texas Workforce Commission.

Why it matters: Unemployment in North Texas remains below the national and statewide averages.

Rep. Louie Gohmert running for Texas attorney general

Rep. Louie Gohmert at the U.S. Capitol in October. Photo: Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images

Rep. Louie Gohmert announced Monday his bid to become Texas attorney general in 2022 and said he's already raised $1 million in his effort to unseat the incumbent, fellow Republican Ken Paxton.

The big picture: The Texas congressman and Trump loyalist joins a crowded field of candidates challenging Paxton, who is under investigation by the FBI and is facing securities fraud charges.

Updated 21 mins ago - Sports

MLB headed for first lockout since '95 as deal expires

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred (L) and Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark. Photo: Matt King/MLB via Getty Images

Major League Baseball's collective bargaining agreement expired at 11:59 p.m. ET Wednesday without a new deal in place.

Why it matters: With no CBA, the MLB is headed for the first management lockout since a 1994-95 strike led to the cancelation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years.