AUSTIN, Texas -- Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott decisively won a third term Tuesday night, defeating Democrat Beto O'Rourke in a midterm race that tested the direction of America's supersized red state following the Uvalde school massacre and a strict new abortion ban.
The victory underlined Abbott's durability. Despite record spending in the race that topped more than $200 million combined, O'Rourke was in danger of losing by double-digits just four years after his narrow U.S. Senate loss that was the closest by a Texas Democrat in decades.
"Tonight, Texans sent a very resounding message," Abbott said during a victory speech in the southern border city of McAllen.
In rapidly changing Texas - a booming juggernaut of 29 million people that is becoming younger, less white and a magnet for major companies - Abbott remained a bulwark for the GOP in the face of a high-profile and hard-charging challenger. Abbott capitalized on anxieties about crime and inflation against a charismatic rival who took up the fight for voters soured by mass shootings, an abortion ban and the deadly failure of the state's power grid in 2021.
The outcome now puts two of Texas' biggest political figures - one who has already run for the White House, the other potentially eyeing a bid of his own - on opposite trajectories.
Abbott, 64, strengthened his position as a potential 2024 presidential contender and secured his place as the state's second-longest serving governor. He has maximized executive power, stewarding a dramatic $4 billion operation on the U.S.-Mexico border in the name of curbing immigration, all while crushing challengers from his right and spending lavishly to sideline legislative critics.
He will remain buffeted by a solid GOP majority in the Legislature following a victory that aggressively courted Hispanic voters in South Texas and seized on economic anxieties and recession fears. More than 4 in 10 Texas voters rank the economy as the most important issue facing the country, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of almost 3,400 voters.
O'Rourke now confronts whether it's time to move on.
It was his third failed campaign for office in four years, further dimming the once-bright future of the former congressman who catapulted to Democratic superstardom after nearly wining a U.S. Senate race in 2018.
O'Rourke did not say during a relentless yearlong campaign across Texas whether this run for governor would be his last. But the race revealed the damage done by his flame-out in the Democratic presidential primary in 2019 as he had to answer for liberal positions he took on the national stage that put off Texans he needed to win back home.
He also faced the headwinds of President Joe Biden's low approval ratings, which Abbott exploited, running ads that morphed the faces of O'Rourke and Biden together and portrayed their policies as one in the same. O'Rourke tried to animate Democratic voters over the Uvalde shooting and Abbott signing an abortion ban that made no exceptions in cases of rape or incest.
Roughly 8 in 10 Texas voters say the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, which recognized a constitutional right to abortion, was a factor in their votes. But only 1 in 10 say abortion is the top issue facing the country.
The stakes of the race, O'Rourke said, were crystallized over the summer after a gunman entered Robb Elementary School in May and killed 19 children and two teachers. The shooting was one of the deadliest classroom attacks in U.S. history and continued a grim series of mass shootings in Texas, where Abbott and Republicans have loosened firearm laws and eliminated background checks for concealed handguns.
Parents of some of the Uvalde victims rallied behind O'Rourke and lashed out at Abbott in campaign events and television ads. Abbott, meanwhile, sought to focus the race on a record numbers of border crossings from Mexico into the U.S. and provocative measures that included busing hundreds of migrants to Democratic strongholds elsewhere.
If Abbott finishes another full term by 2026 he will have served 12 years as governor, second only to Rick Perry, who was in office for 14.
They have overseen an era of explosive growth in Texas, which since 2010 has added nearly 4 million people, more than any other state. Hispanics have accounted for half that growth, accelerating demographic shifts that Democrats have long believed will, eventually, turn Texas their way.
But Abbott, whose wife, Cecilia, is Texas' first Hispanic first lady, sees no such political reckoning on the horizon.
In Dallas, Danette Galvis, 48, voted for Abbott, saying she likes the job he's done. In her view, Abbott sending migrants to other states was "more of a message he was trying to send, not so much harming anything or anyone."
"We're kind of under attack just because we're on the border," Galvis said.
Associated Press writer Jake Bleiberg in Plano, Texas, and Terry Tang in Phoenix contributed to this report.