Hundreds of people filled a Downtown El Paso parking lot on Saturday afternoon to see Beto O’Rourke in the first hometown event of his campaign for Texas governor.

Mariachis warmed up the crowd outside DeadBeach Brewery until O’Rourke arrived at 2:30 p.m. Under clear blue skies on a windy afternoon, he criticized Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for his record on public health, border communities and Texas electrical grid.

“We have a governor who does not trust Texas. He doesn’t trust border communities,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke is expected to win the Democratic primary but trails behind Abbott in the Nov. 8 general election polls. But he struck a defiant tone in his hometown and said El Pasoans are used to beating the odds. O’Rourke said he will build a winning coalition focusing on creating well-paying jobs, improving public schools and expanding Medicaid.

“We are a city of underdogs,” he said. “We have another underdog team right here, right now… With your help, with this team, we are going to win the race for governor of the state of Texas.”

Many local supporters knew O’Rourke along before he was a national household name. They were high-spirited on Saturday, singing along with the mariachis, sipping beer and chanting for their hometown candidate.

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O’Rourke did not mince words when talking about his opponent Abbott. He pointed to the high death toll from COVID-19 in Texas and the failure of the electrical grid in Feb. 2021 as evidence of Abbott’s “failure of leadership.”

Turning his attention to the border and immigration policy, O’Rourke said Abbott treats communities like El Paso “as a prop to stoke anxiety, fear or even hatred.”

He said El Pasoans know that more walls and militarization are not solutions.

“As governor, I’m going to make sure that El Paso, and other border communities and other places in the state that are so often overlooked or taken for granted, become a priority,” he said.

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O’Rourke said issues like school, health care and wages could bring together a broad coalition and attract moderate and independent voters. Voter registration was available on-site, as the former congressman says winning over new voters and those who didn’t turn out in 2020 will be critical.

“Those unregistered voters, as they come on to the rolls, they really add up and could make a critical difference,” he told the media in the downtown parking lot.

O’Rourke, the most high-profile Democrat in Texas, announced his campaign for governor on Nov. 15 after months of speculation. But he is coming off losses in his 2018 Senate race against Republican Ted Cruz and 2020 bid for the Democratic nomination for president.

He faces a formidable opponent in Gov. Abbott. The incumbent candidate had already amassed $55 million for his campaign as of June. A Quinnipiac poll released last month put Abbott ahead by 15 points in a head-to-head matchup with the former congressman.

O’Rourke did not directly reference polling or campaign funding in his remarks to supporters on Saturday. But his tone was optimistic, referencing the history of El Pasoans beating the odds and the city’s “tenacity.”

“Never tell us the odds here in El Paso,” he said, mentioning El Pasoans who stood up against racial discrimination and the story of the 1949 Bowie High School Bears who won the state baseball championship.

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The celebratory event was a homecoming for the candidate. He made his first campaign stop in Fort Stockton and continued to Odessa, Austin, and Galveston.

O’Rourke thanked the event host, DeadBeach Brewery, and deadpanned that “everything is better with beer.”

Supporters lined up to greet and take photos with the candidate. They voiced frustration with the Republican leadership of Texas on a range of issues.

Fabiola Jiménez, 67, said she would vote for O’Rourke because he would bolster the social safety net in Texas and supports a living wage. The retired El Paso medical assistant said she struggles to get by on Social Security. “I’m so frustrated,” she said. “I worked all my life; I don’t deserve this.”

Supporters ranged from teenagers to the elderly. Many said they are long-time supporters and have volunteered for the current or previous campaigns.

“Seeing the community come together to support him is so meaningful,” said Lauren Carreon, 21. She said she was “devastated” when O’Rourke lost the 2018 Senate race. She was living in Austin at the time, but being back in her hometown, she wants to support the candidate.

“I was so upset and furious after the recent abortion law passed,” she said, referring to the September 2021 Texas law that bans abortions after six weeks. “Seeing Beto’s reaction and how passionate he is to fight for women’s rights really motivated me.”

The turnout at Saturday’s event showed support still runs deep for O’Rourke in his hometown. While attendees expressed disappointment at his 2018 and 2020 losses, they hold out hope 2022 could be his year.

“It’s going to be a struggle,” said Robin Dettman of El Paso, referring to O’Rourke’s long odds. “But if you can get people out to vote, he has a shot. Texas needs a change.”

Staff writer Martha Pskowski may be reached at [email protected] and @psskow on Twitter.

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