HOUSTON — Beto O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman who became a darling of Democrats after nearly defeating Senator Ted Cruz in 2018, is inching closer to announcing a run for governor of Texas, according to three people who have spoken with him.
In recent weeks, Mr. O’Rourke has been making calls to Democratic leaders across Texas to inform them that he is seriously considering taking on Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who is up for re-election next year. And he has begun talking to supporters about having them join his campaign staff. A decision could be made in the coming weeks, the three people said, possibly as soon as October.
Democrats in Texas have been urging Mr. O’Rourke to get into the race for governor almost from the moment he dropped out of the 2020 race for president, a quixotic effort that stumbled early and failed to gain traction amid a crowded primary field.
But despite his troubles on the national stage, Mr. O’Rourke has maintained a deep wellspring of support in Texas, where many Democrats still display the black-and-white Beto signs from the 2018 campaign on their lawns and on their cars.
Mr. O’Rourke did not respond to calls or text messages seeking comment.
David Wysong, a longtime adviser to Mr. O’Rourke, cautioned that “no decision has been made” on a run for governor. The three people who discussed their conversations with Mr. O’Rourke are Democratic officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about conversations that were meant to be private.
No Democrat has been elected governor of Texas since Ann Richards in 1990. And no prominent Democrat has emerged to take on Mr. Abbott next year. The governor, who has built up a war chest of more than $55 million, has appeared more concerned with insulating himself from challengers on his right in a Republican primary than worrying about the general election.
But Democrats see a potential opening.
Over the last few months, Texas has bounced from crisis to crisis — including a surge in pandemic deaths and a winter failure of the electric grid — while Republican leaders in Austin have steered the state even farther to the right on issues from guns to elections to abortion. In a survey last month, a majority of Texans told pollsters they thought the state was heading in the wrong direction.
Amid the political turmoil, Mr. O’Rourke has stayed active in the state. “He’s been not just making pronouncements, he’s been out there knocking on doors, leading marches, setting up rallies all over the state,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.
Mr. Hinojosa said the Supreme Court’s decision to let a strict new abortion law passed by the Texas Legislature go into effect had galvanized many Democrats in the state. The new law effectively bans the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy and is structured in such a way as to avoid an immediate court challenge.
“This whole abortion legislation has changed the dynamics incredibly,” he said.
In the 2018 campaign, Mr. O’Rourke showed that he was able to energize Democrats, raise significant sums of money and campaign aggressively across Texas, a large and notoriously difficult place to run a statewide campaign.
Even in defeat, his margin against the incumbent Mr. Cruz — 51 to 48 percent — helped lift Democratic candidates in local races and led to gains in the State Legislature that year. The prospect of a run by Mr. O’Rourke against Mr. Abbott — reported by Axios on Sunday — would present Democrats with the biggest and most direct test yet in their attempts to loosen the Republican grip on power in Texas.
During his failed presidential run, Mr. O’Rourke took positions, including a hard line on confiscating assault weapons, that could make him vulnerable in any new campaign in Texas. “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” Mr. O’Rourke said during a Democratic debate in Houston in 2019, referring to military-style rifles that have been used in mass shootings.
David Carney, a campaign adviser to Mr. Abbott and a longtime Republican political consultant, said that he would not be surprised if Mr. O’Rourke jumped into the race.
“O’Rourke has been planning to run since he got crushed in his presidential flop,” Mr. Carney said. “He is a target-rich environment with positions way, way out of the mainstream.”