O'Rourke tells PEOPLE he’s considering a run against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, but first his “full focus” is on increasing voter turnout

By Sean Neumann
June 18, 2021 12:59 PM
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Former United States Representative Beto O'Rourke speaks during the "Texans Rally For Our Voting Rights" event at the Texas Capitol Building on May 8, 2021 in Austin, Texas
Beto O'Rourke
| Credit: Gary Miller/Getty

Beto O'Rourke is getting ready for yet another long drive across Texas as part of his push to increase voter turnout in upcoming elections when he makes a quick declaration: "One way or the other, I'm in for the distance for Texas."

"That might be as a candidate," O'Rourke tells PEOPLE, referencing next year's Texas gubernatorial race and the state Democratic Party's self-described anxiousness over whether he'll be on the ballot. 

"But it might also be as a volunteer," he adds, shushing down speculation and putting "full focus" back on his recent work to promote voter awareness and speak out against what he calls Republican "voter suppression laws."

Whether O'Rourke, an El Paso native and Texas' former 16th district representative, will run against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in 2022 - in what's expected to be a critical Democratic heave to push the state a little more blue - has been a burning question in Texas politics as of late. But for now, it's not one they'll get an answer to.

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Beto O'Rourke
| Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Beto O'Rourke, right, speaks with Stephanie Hanson before a canvassing drive by the Texas Organizing Project in West Dallas . The former congressman and senatorial candidate is driving an effort to gather voter support to stop Texas' SB7 voting legislation Texas Organizing Project Beto, Dallas, United States - 09 Jun 2021
Beto O'Rourke
| Credit: LM Otero/AP/Shutterstock

The hustle rings just as it did when he was in college, touring the country in a punk band. It still shapes a chunk of his identity like it did when he ran, unsuccessfully, for both the U.S. Senate in 2018 and the presidency in 2020. And it energizes O'Rourke with a youthfulness that makes state Democratic Party leaders believe he's their guy.

"If anybody could beat Abbott, he could beat him," chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told the Associated Press last month.

Right now, that "anybody" is dizzying himself trying to drive up the number of people at the polls.

"We've been... I don't know... in 16 or 17 different cities over the last 13 days?" O'Rourke tells PEOPLE, after pausing to ask for music recommendations ahead of the drive to his next rally. "As dire as the situation is, it's been really encouraging how many people are coming out, and getting engaged, and then committing to taking action."

"I'm in the middle of all that right now," he adds.

Taking the lead from the likes of Stacey Abrams and Michelle Obama in recent years, O'Rourke has spent "the better part of the last two years" rallying up volunteers to help register others to vote.

In 2020, he says his Powered by People organization registered 196,000 Texans to vote - just shy of the roughly 215,000 he lost to Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.

Since his short-lived White House bid, O'Rourke has taught courses at the University of Texas - on, "of course," voting rights - and a general politics course at Texas State University.

Like most Americans over the past year, O'Rourke says he's also been "trying to make the most" of his time at home with wife Amy, 39, and their three kids - Ulysses, 14, Molly, 12, and Henry, 10, who all recently "had their last day of school."

The bassist-turned-politican has marveled at watching his youngest take up music on his own, recording songs in the family basement on the computer.

"We've got a drum kit in the basement, and amps, and a little PA system," the proud father says. "Sometimes we'll all play together."

Although O'Rourke has "really been busy" ramping up his voting advocacy efforts, he says the extra moments at home last year were also welcomed. "We are grateful to be doing this work and grateful for the good luck that we've had with our family," he says. "Nothing's more important."

Beto O'Rourke Holds Official Campaign Launch Rally In His Hometown Of El Paso
Beto O'Rourke and his three children
| Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty

O'Rourke's recent voter rallies have been leading up to a climactic event this weekend on the steps of the state Capitol building in Austin, where O'Rourke plans "to command the attention of the country" and underscore Texas as "ground zero" for the U.S. Congressional national fight to pass the For the People Act in Congress.

He says the federal law would help "roll back" controversial voting laws in several Republican-led states in the country, which the GOP claims are about election security and Democrats have called restrictive.

O'Rourke expects about 20,000 people to join him Sunday afternoon around 5:30 local time, when he plans to point a finger at Texas Republicans' own divisive new voting bill.

President Joe Biden described the legislation last month as "an assault on democracy."

The Texas GOP party has described the proposed bill as a set of "integrity" propositions to stop voter fraud, echoing former President Donald Trump's baseless gripes about his election loss.

However, The Houston Chronicle reported that state government data shows only 43 cases of fraud out of 11 million votes in the 2020 election, which sparked debates over voting laws in Texas, Georgia, Florida and Iowa in recent months.

State Democrats have described the bill's components just as O'Rourke has: "laws that would make it harder" to vote.

O'Rourke may very well be the state Democratic Party's preferred face of its 2022 efforts to oust Abbott, over potential competitors like fellow 2020 candidate Julian Castro and actor Matthew McConaughey

But right now, O'Rourke's attention is firmly planted on making Texas "a truly competitive state" by encouraging more people to vote and urging currently elected officials to pass laws making it easier for them to do so.

"That's why we are fighting so hard," O'Rourke says, counting the 2,500 miles he's put on his truck in the last two weeks. "It's why I'm literally, along with so many others, going the distance by driving the entire state of Texas."