Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman from El Paso, Texas, is hoping a push for tougher gun laws can lift the fortunes of his struggling presidential campaign.
In the wake of the mass shooting in an El Paso Walmart that killed 22 people, he has backed more ambitious gun safety policies than any of his rivals, particularly his call for a mandatory buyback program for military-style assault rifles already in circulation.
But this new ardor on gun regulation hits a still-raw nerve for some of O’Rourke’s critics, who recall his neutrality in a key House race in 2018 that returned a National Rifle Association-approved lawmaker to Congress.
At the time, O’Rourke was engaged in his own high-profile, grassroots-approved run for the Senate against incumbent Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
The race to represent Texas’ 23rd Congressional District pitted Gina Ortiz Jones, a Democrat backed by the Giffords gun safety group, against Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican who had an “A” rating from the NRA. O’Rourke declined to endorse Ortiz Jones, a lesbian Iraq War veteran who would have been the first Filipina-American in Congress. She went on to lose the race to Hurd, who is friends with O’Rourke, by a mere 926 votes.
Although it is impossible to know for sure what O’Rourke’s endorsement would have done for Ortiz Jones, he racked up bigger vote totals than she did in a number of the 23rd District’s rural counties that November, which suggests his blessing could have made a difference. The district covers 26 counties and parts of three more. A HuffPost analysis of election results found that if Ortiz Jones had attained O’Rourke’s totals in these seven counties ― Culberson, Brewster, Val Verde, Maverick, Zavala, Dimmit and Presidio ― she would have netted an additional 970 votes, more than Hurd’s margin of victory.
“I am glad that Beto is coming to this [guns] fight when so many have been organizing and making policy on it for so long,” said Annie Weinberg, a former elections director for the liberal group Democracy for America, which endorsed both O’Rourke’s Senate bid and Ortiz Jones’ House run. “It remains to be seen the depth of his commitment and how he is going to follow through, because he was willing to give a pass to a congressman who had an A rating from the NRA. That is a trust deficit.”
“When Beto had a chance to help elect a pro-gun control Democrat over the NRA favorite, he stayed on the sidelines,” said Monica Klein, who advises progressive women running for office. “His newfound gun control activism is the kind of inauthentic posturing that turns voters off of the Democratic Party.”
Some Democrats have also faulted O’Rourke for lending Hurd bipartisan credibility during the 2018 election cycle. In March 2017, after a Washington snowstorm scuttled air travel plans, the neighboring House members embarked on a buddy road trip from San Antonio, Texas, back to the nation’s capital in time for important votes. The pair, who earned some viral attention with a live stream of their trip, appeared together at an official event more than a year later, at a time when O’Rourke’s Senate run and Hurd’s reelection bid were in full swing.
“When it came to his congressional career, Beto was never about the issues. Beto has always been about protecting his buddies in Congress,” said progressive strategist Murshed Zaheed, noting that O’Rourke endorsed Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney for New York attorney general in 2018 over both progressive law professor Zephyr Teachout and Tish James, who became the state’s first Black attorney general.
But other Democratic strategists have disputed the idea that full-throated support from O’Rourke would have made the difference for Ortiz Jones. And as a Senate candidate, O’Rourke has noted that he shared voter data and other resources with Texas’ entire slate of down-ballot Democratic candidates, including Ortiz Jones. And even as he declined to officially endorse her, O’Rourke spoke highly of her at campaign events where she was present.
Hurd, currently the only African-American Republican in the House, has taken more moderate stances on some issues than his GOP colleagues. For example, he voted against the bill that tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act in May 2017.
But until recently, Hurd has stuck to party orthodoxy on guns. In a message to members encouraging them to vote for Hurd in 2018, the NRA noted, among other things, his opposition to expanded background checks and his support for a bill requiring all states to honor concealed carry permits issued in gun owners’ home states. In January 2016, following the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, Hurd blasted then-President Barack Obama for a series of executive actions tightening gun safety, including measures designed to increase background checks and keep closer track of firearms lost in transit from manufacturers to gun sellers.
Hurd is not seeking reelection next year. If he were, it is not clear that he would still receive an “A” rating from the NRA. This year, Hurd voted for a bill to close some major background check loopholes, such as those exempting gun shows and other private sales. He still voted against a bill to close the “Charleston loophole” by extending the background check period from three to 10 days. And he is still co-sponsoring the bill that would effectively prevent more liberal states from upholding their own concealed carry laws.
Of course, Hurd’s reelection did not prevent Democrats from taking control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections, nor did his “no” vote on the Charleston loophole bill stop it from passing the House. O’Rourke said in June that he would support Ortiz Jones if she were the Democratic nominee in the race for the now-open Texas House seat. Ortiz Jones announced in May that she would run for the seat again; Hurd announced his plans to retire at the end of his term in August.
O’Rourke has been candid about how the two recent mass shootings in Texas ― in El Paso in early August and in the Midland-Odessa area at the end of the month ― have sharpened his views on gun safety.
In a mid-August interview on CNN, O’Rourke argued that the time had passed for merely deliberating bold measures like a mandatory buyback of assault weapons. “I’ve talked to people. I’ve listened to that survivor,” he said. “And now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, regardless of what it does to our prospects going forward, you’ve got to speak the truth and be clear about where the solutions are.”
O’Rourke, who has hovered in the low single digits in most presidential primary polls, has the opportunity to test the appeal of his gun safety pitch at the Democratic primary debate in Houston on Thursday evening.