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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

Updated Dec 23, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Texas parole board withdraws George Floyd pardon recommendation

A mural honoring George Floyd in Houston. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

George Floyd will not be posthumously pardoned for a 2004 Houston drug charge because the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles withdrew its recommendation, the Dallas Morning News first reported Thursday.

Driving the news: The board had recommended a full pardon for Floyd for the charge, for which he served 10 months in prison. A spokesperson for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told the Morning News that recommendation "contained procedural errors" and said there had been a "lack of compliance with Board rules."

2 hours ago - World

Coast Guard searches for 39 people after boat capsizes off Florida coast

A U.S. Coast Guard ship leaving its base in Miami Beach, Florida, in July. Photo: AP/Marta Lavandier

U.S. Coast Guard crews were searching into the night for 39 people whose boat sank off Florida's coast over the weekend after traveling from the Bahamas.

The big picture: A "good Samaritan" contacted the Coast Guard about 8 a.m. Tuesday to say they "rescued a man clinging to a capsized vessel" 45 miles east of Fort Pierce, per a tweet from the agency, which noted it was dealing with "a suspected human smuggling venture."

Scoop: Race to lead NRCC kicks off

Reps. Darin LaHood (left) and Richard Hudson. Photos: Al Drago/Getty Images (LaHood) and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Reps. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) and Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) are both telling colleagues they plan to run for chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee for the 2024 cycle, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Republicans are confident they'll win the House majority back this fall, and the early jockeying to lead the caucus' fundraising apparatus is just another indicator of their optimism.