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Texas Gov. Abbott's lead over Democratic challenger O'Rourke is narrowing

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In Texas, an abortion ban and the school shooting in Uvalde may have shifted the odds in the governor's race. Earlier this year, polls indicated that Republican Governor Greg Abbott had an overwhelming lead over the Democrat in the race, former Congressman Beto O'Rourke. But as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, the Democrat's chances may have improved.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: It's 103 in Dallas as Linda Ortman steps out her front door.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

LINDA ORTMAN: The dog wants to come?

GOODWYN: What used to be considered one of the most right-wing cities in the country has evolved into one that is deeply democratic. The political signs in Ortman's yard are no shock these days.

ORTMAN: We have Beto for Texas and Black Lives Matter, Funky East Dallas Democrats and two Mothers Against Greg Abbott signs.

GOODWYN: Mothers Against Greg Abbott - MAGA - get it? The signs were invented by an Austin mother. One of her children has a compromised immune system. And in March of last year, when Governor Greg Abbott eliminated the state's COVID mask requirements, Nancy Thompson got very angry. She went into her garage and got a piece of poster board. She was going to drive over to the Capitol building and protest, but she needed to figure out what to write.

NANCY THOMPSON: And I was like, gosh, I'm so mad at Greg Abbott. I'm like a Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I'm like, mothers demand action, but I'm a mother against Greg Abbott. So I wrote down, Mothers Against Greg Abbott.

GOODWYN: Thompson looked at it and laughed - Mothers Against Greg Abbott - MAGA.

THOMPSON: And so I just went down there, and I protested all by myself in front of the Capitol for 2 1/2 hours. I had somebody take my photograph, and I made it public, and it went viral.

GOODWYN: Now, Mothers Against Greg Abbott signs can be found in yards across the state. And with three months to go, the governor's contest has tightened. Abbott started the year up 17 points, but SMU political science professor Cal Jillson believes now the race is on.

CAL JILLSON: It's six or seven - maybe eight points. But Abbott is not sweating unduly at this point, but he is alert to danger on the horizon. So I think we've got a race for governor in Texas.

GOODWYN: Jillson believes there are several reasons why O'Rourke has a chance. First, the statewide collapse of the electricity grid in February of 2021 - hundreds died, and millions froze for days. Then, on the last day of their school year, 19 elementary students and two teachers were gunned down in Uvalde, Texas, by a teenager using an AR-15-style rifle. Finally, there's been the near-total ban on abortion that Abbott signed into law last year. In fact, Nancy Thompson's group decided to make a video about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Dr. Robinson) There's no easy way to say this, but your baby has a catastrophic brain abnormality.

GOODWYN: The ad starts with the doctor giving his pregnant patient devastating news. On the wall behind the doctor is a small box with a smiling picture of Texas Governor Greg Abbott on the front.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Dr. Robinson) I wish I could tell you what to do, but there is only one person who can make this choice.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) How much time do I have?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Dr. Robinson) And that person is Greg.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Greg?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Dr. Robinson) Yeah. Let me just give him a call.

(SOUNDBITE OF CABINET OPENING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Dr. Robinson) Hey, Greg.

GOODWYN: Here's Democratic governor candidate Beto O'Rourke.

BETO O'ROURKE: There is now, because of Greg Abbott, a total ban on abortion, with no exception for rape or incest. We are counting first-time voters by the dozen at our events throughout this state - young women overwhelmingly, in fact, who say, you know what? I was never political before.

GOODWYN: But unlike the Kansas primary election, the abortion issue is not on Texas' ballot in November. Without that, will Democratic voters turn out in big numbers? Greg Abbott's campaign doesn't appear worried about beating Beto O'Rourke.

DAVE CARNEY: I mean, the guy is an ineffective, showboating gasbag.

GOODWYN: Dave Carney is a veteran campaign organizer and the general consultant for Texans for Greg Abbott.

CARNEY: We see this as an eight- to 10-point race. The undecided is so small.

GOODWYN: Both campaigns have raised astounding amounts of money. Over the last few months, Beto O'Rourke raised $27.7 million. That set a new Texas campaign funding record. But don't cry for Governor Abbott. His campaign has over $45 million in the bank just waiting to be spent. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.