Instead of salvation, he was peddling universal healthcare, marijuana legalization and an end to the Trump administration’s cruel immigration crackdown. Even as the capacity crowd and August heat overpowered the A.C., the candidate kept up his sermon, his voice cracking, sweat drenching his trademark blue dress shirt.
Finally, an abuela in a colorful blouse left her seat, twisted the cap off a water bottle and handed it to O’Rourke amid laughs and a few cheers. If she hadn’t stepped forward, someone else probably would have.
There’s something about O’Rourke, now vying to become the first Democratic senator to represent Texas in a quarter of a century, that makes people want to root for the guy.
During a seven-stop South Texas tour last month as part of his pledge to hit every county in the state, the El Paso congressman found an audience hungry for his unrepentantly liberal message, steeped in compassion and positivity but also bipartisanship. Depending on who you asked, they saw him as a check on the Trump administration, the antithesis to the acid-tongued partisanship of Republican opponent Ted Cruz or a fresh and upbeat voice in an increasingly ugly political wilderness.
“He’s inspired voters by doing something different, something that isn’t standard issue,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, senior editor with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, who’s tracked the campaign. “The message has resonated because it’s optimistic and it’s hopeful.”
To be sure, it’s a novel approach, one that’s hoisted O’Rourke’s star to a national level, but he’ll need to sway more than the state’s disenfranchised Democrats to clench a victory in November. To win in the Lone Star State, which hasn’t elected a blue candidate in a statewide race since 1994, the charismatic contender will need to pour on every bit of his charm to steal away Republican votes.
Here seems like as good a place as any to mention the Cruz campaign didn’t respond to interview requests for this story. Suffice it to say, there’s more to come on the freshman senator’s take on his rival.
Much of O’Rourke’s platform may sound like common sense to progressives — universal healthcare, banning the most-deadly assault rifles, fixing public schools and dealing with climate change. But this is Texas we’re talking about — red as a baboon’s ass and defiantly proud of it.
And many liberals recall how painful it can be to get their hopes up. Despite the national buzz around Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis, Greg Abbott’s 20-point landslide knocked her right out of her pink running shoes. The lesson? You can’t win statewide with just the support of big-city and suburban voters.
“Ted Cruz ends every speech saying, ‘Let’s keep this a red state’ or ‘Let’s make it redder than ever,’” said O’Rourke, 45, after a town hall on veterans’ issues in San Antonio. “People hate that shit. My take from visiting all 254 counties in Texas is that most of us, Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, are just not into what color the state is. We’re into getting something important done.”
Prior to joining the Current, I watched O’Rourke’s campaign with curiosity, even kicking in a couple of $13 donations last year. (For the record, those contributions were permissible since I wasn’t working in the news business at the time.) Like others, I was curious about the rangy upstart, wanting to see how far he could get.
He seemed like a likeable underdog. But one facing a Davis-esque fate.
Now, with Labor Day in the rearview mirror, an O’Rourke victory still looks like a longshot, but polls suggest he’s building steam. He’s been pegged only two to four points behind Cruz, and managed to capture imaginations like few other Democratic candidates in recent memory.
From an education town hall at S.A.’s Carver Cultural Center to a cramped room in the Beeville Community Center, the faithful and curious were out in droves to see him last month. Nearly every venue during that three-day South Texas swing was over capacity, frequently requiring people to watch a video stream from outside. A few of the meetings concluded with standing ovations and chants of “Be-to! Be-to!”
At every stop, O’Rourke touted his latest fundraising coup. Even though he doesn’t accept money from political action committees, the campaign had pulled in $10.4 million for the most recent quarter, mostly from small donors. That’s more than double Cruz, who’s backed by PAC money.
In the era of Trump, plenty of conventional political wisdom is out the window, and even in Texas, enthusiasm abounds for someone willing to stand up to the divisive and unpopular commander in chief. Look no further than Doug Jones’ Alabama Senate win or 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in New York to see the change coming, O’Rourke supporters pointed out at his campaign stops.
Plenty seem convinced the candidate will surf that much-anticipated Blue Wave right over a waterlogged Ted Cruz.
“We need somebody like him to break through — someone with a heart for people,” Diane Brady, a 71-year-old retired teacher and ex-Marine, said after a 9 a.m. standing-room-only town hall at an RV resort in Rockport. “If he doesn’t win, I’ll be so heartbroken I will literally cry.”
In recent profiles of O’Rourke, a lot of ink gets spilled over his punk rock past.
After all, this is a guy who played bass in a band with Cedric Bixler-Zavala before the latter fronted At the Drive-In and Mars Volta, two of the state’s best-known underground rock exports. Not to mention, O’Rourke occasionally lets a “shit” or a “fuck” fly during stump speeches. Cuss words are pretty punk, right?
But that’s where the comparison ends.
There’s nothing half-baked or amateurish about the O’Rourke team in action. Metaphorically speaking, the drummer isn’t puking in the alley behind the club. The singer’s dad’s credit card isn’t getting declined at the Exxon station.
Watching the congressman stop after stop, it’s clear he’s a consummate retail politician, genial, at ease around people. The kind who can make it look authentic, almost easy, as his crew toils to work out the details.
Communications director Chris Evans, who barely looks old enough to legally buy a beer, uses his iPhone to broadcast every stop on Facebook Live. Road manager Cynthia Cano cycles people through the selfie-with-Beto line after every speech with the practiced efficiency of a Chuck E. Cheese manager directing a kid’s birthday party.
After watching more than a half dozen speeches, the lines become familiar. The policy discussions are modular. He switches them up, depending on the topic of his town hall or the audience at a particular stop. But he’s an ace at feeling out the room, peppering the talk with fluent Spanish in heavily Hispanic Beeville, quoting Bob Dylan in front of the baby boomers at that Rockport RV park.
Frequently, he mentions stories of the real Texans whose problems he wants to solve, from the mentally ill man who regularly has himself arrested to get mental health treatment to the 25-year teacher drowning in college debt.
Perhaps most importantly, O’Rourke knows how to sell even his most progressive ideas as common sense. In speeches, he comes across as a level-headed counter to the ideologue Cruz. When advocating for universal pre-K, he trots out the program’s $10,000-a-year cost per kid versus the potential $22,000-a-year cost of incarcerating the same person as a young adult.
More than once on the recent South Texas jaunt, handler Cano struggled to pull the candidate away from a deep policy conversation with a supporter so he could pose for photos or jump into the rented Toyota Tundra to make the next town on time.
Those moments of human contact seemed to pay off. Again and again, audience members took them as signs of sincerity and compassion — signs that he understands their problems.
After the Corpus Christi town hall, as a line snaked around the interior of the building to snap photos with O’Rourke, three middle-aged women watched the people lug stacks of yard signs to their cars. All three were eager to volunteer for the campaign, even though some in their number, they coyly revealed, had voted for both Bushes, Senior and Junior.
Why the change of heart this time around?
“Beto cares about us – you can really see it,” said Mary Clary, 62, the hair at her temples still damp from the heat inside the hall. “And after the last presidential election, I’d run a marathon to see something like that doesn’t happen again.”
Family legacy plays big into O’Rourke’s approach. He remembers spending much of his childhood watching his dad, a longtime El Paso county judge, build campaigns and make community connections. The elder O’Rourke died in a 2001 bicycling accident.
“That joy in connecting with and serving people is definitely part of his legacy that I hope to live up to,” O’Rourke said. “That’s the way we should be doing this. It doesn’t have to be bitter or ugly or angry. I never saw him be that way.”
While earning an English lit degree at Columbia, O’Rourke toured summers with his band Foss. Afterward, he kicked around Brooklyn before heading back to his hometown to start a tech business, now operated by his wife Amy.
His break into politics came in 2005 when he became one of the youngest people ever elected to the El Paso city council. From there, he set his sights on the U.S. House, winning a 2012 primary by running to the left of eight-term Democratic incumbent Silvestre Reyes.
Noel Candelaria, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, became an early supporter after O’Rourke pulled him into a roundtable where educators discussed how they’d fix the troubled system. Candelaria also recalled the councilman taking the city bus so he could hold rolling town halls and find out what ordinary folks wanted him to tackle.
Candelaria remained loyal during O’Rourke’s House bid, even after Reyes tried to put together an educators’ roundtable of his own.
“I told him, ‘Thank you, but we’ve been asking you to do this for years,’” Candelaria said. “He was only doing it because he was worried about the election. We may have had someone who’d vote for the right things, but we didn’t have an advocate like we did with Beto.”
In Congress, O’Rourke worked across the aisle, passing a bill that set up alternative-appeals process to speed up veterans’ disability claims. He also earned kudos for livestreaming a cross-country road trip with Republican Rep. Will Hurd.
Until now, O’Rourke hasn’t exactly been one of Texas’ most visible legislators. He’s only served as primary sponsor for three enacted bills, according to watchdog website GovTrack — and one of those was to name an El Paso federal courthouse. According to the same site, the congressman missed 2.9 percent of roll call votes from January 2013 to September 2018. That’s on par with the average 2.4 percent absentee rate of currently serving representatives.
Laredo’s Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the House’s most conservative Democrats, said he’s “ideologically very different” from O’Rourke, yet the two found plenty of common ground on border issues.
Once, O’Rourke brought Cuellar through the border crossing into and out of Ciudad Juarez to show the lawmaker that the snags his constituents encountered with Customs and Border Protection checkpoints weren’t isolated. As a result, Cuellar attached a spending-bill rider that called for better agent training and new technology to fix the problem.
“He could have just told me about it on the House floor, but by showing me that in El Paso, he helped validate that this was an issue that permeated CBP,” Cuellar said.
Allies say that willingness to collaborate and learn, rather than impose top-down solutions would be a key asset to the Senate.
“Beto’s not trying to be the smartest guy in the room,” said state Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, who’s met with O’Rourke to walk him through some of the state’s educational challenges. “He’s trying to be the best listener in the room.”
So far, O’Rourke’s two television spots are pastiches of cell phone video showing him meeting voters around the state and calling for an end to petty, corporate-controlled politics. He’s pledged to keep his campaign positive for its duration, trusting voters to know he’s shooting straight.
When he criticizes his opponent and the president on the campaign trail, he sticks to their policies, shying from personal jabs and seldom mentioning their names. But Cruz, who’s verbal nastiness has made him plenty of enemies in his own party, is unlikely to join in the good sportsmanship.
Indeed, the gloves came off prior to Labor Day — usually the demarcation for when the really damning dirt is dredged up — when the state Republican party trotted out ads showing the mugshot from O’Rourke’s two-decades-old DUI.
O’Rourke has made no secret of the arrest, calling it a “terrible mistake” that he learned from. Still, it’s a safe bet that new details of the incident reported by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News will get major play in the campaign — namely that a witness told the Texas Department of Public Safety the candidate smacked into a truck and tried to leave the scene.
And, last week, the conservative Club for Growth launched a commercial claiming Councilman O’Rourke aided his father-in-law, Bill Sanders, as he sought to redevelop part of downtown El Paso, “pushing the city to bulldoze an historic Hispanic neighborhood using eminent domain.”
The issue hounded O’Rourke during at least one council reelection bid and again when he first ran for the House, but his current campaign pointed to published reports that he didn’t vote to use imminent domain for the project. What’s more, the El Paso Ethics Review Commission dismissed a pair of conflict-of-interest ethics complaints against O’Rourke after finding no wrongdoing.
But don’t expect the shots to end there.
A few days ago, Cruz posted a clip heavily edited to make it look like O’Rourke had said he supports people burning the American flag. (He doesn’t.) And, last week, reports surfaced of an imposter sending text messages to O’Rourke supporters asking if they’d help people in the country illegally cast votes.
Joining in the dogpile, President Trump, who repeatedly referred to Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted” during the 2016 presidential contest, tweeted that he plans to hold an October rally in the Lone Star state to shore up his one-time rival.
“My faith is in the people of Texas,” O’Rourke said of his opponent’s negative campaigning. “They’re going to know I don’t want to legalize heroin. They’re not going to buy into the fear and scare tactics. That’s how we’re going to win.”
While a constant barrage of negative ads may not drive away O’Rourke’s supporters, it does create problems for converting Republicans. And that’s a likely necessity if he’s going to win. In Texas, there simply aren’t enough Democrats and left-leaning independents to propel the candidate across the finish line.
“(O’Rourke) either needs really low Republican turnout or he needs to make conversions, and I haven’t seen signs of that,” she said. “I’m not saying at the end of the day that can’t happen, just that it hasn’t happened yet.”
In interviews with nearly two-dozen attendees of the South Texas O’Rourke rallies, none owned up to being a Republican, although a few said they were independents who sometimes voted Republican. Most identified as longtime Democrats or left-leaning independents.
And there’s yet another big hurdle: No matter how many black-and-white Beto signs dot San Antonio front lawns, O’Rourke still lags his rival in name recognition. Apparently, running for president, playing hoops with Jimmy Kimmel and singlehandedly shutting down the federal government does wonders in that department.
More than a third of registered voters in a recent NBC News/Martist Poll said they were unsure about O’Rourke or had never heard of him. Only 10 percent said the same of Cruz.
At a Beers for Beto event at a Goliad beer garden, singer-songwriter Tish Hinojosa, the opener for some of the candidate’s South Texas appearances, looked over the hundred or so people chattering as they waited for the candidate. There was a genuine buzz in the air, and not just from the IPAs they were quaffing.
“The energy feels more like a presidential campaign,” Hinojosa said, clipping a capo onto the neck of her acoustic guitar. And she would know, having performed for both Bill Clinton’s and Al Gore’s.
For all the old-fashioned road work O’Rourke’s put into the race, it’s decidedly 21st Century in its smart use of social media, observers said. Ultimately, that could be the secret weapon that helps channel the Beto buzz to voters unlikely to end up at a rally.
After all, the closest predecessor to the El Paso congressman’s 254-county jaunt was LBJ’s 1948 Senate campaign. That candidate flitted between small towns in a helicopter, then a technological novelty that also became part of the story.
O’Rourke’s social media mastery has yielded valuable viral moments. From that footage of him skateboarding at the Whataburger to his Houston speech supporting NFL players’ decision to take a knee. The latter landed him a spot on The Ellen DeGeneres Show last week, and it’s hard to imagine him not sneaking in a few more high-profile TV appearances before November.
In contrast, Cruz’s most viral moment remains that time he may or may not have eaten a booger on national TV during a 2016 presidential debate. And the incumbent’s social media swipes at O’Rourke for playing in a band and dropping F-bombs during speeches, seemed to have backfired, bringing barrages of ridicule.
“Many of us have taken our kids 2 Beto rallies,” Twitter user Pattipalooza fired back at Cruz’s admonishment over the naughty language. “Ya wanna know what happened? They got interested in politics & coming together 4 positive change. They were inspired, as were adults. Wanna know what doesn’t inspire us? Begging 4 support from the man who insulted your family & lying.”
Even if O’Rourke can’t leverage his campaign excitement into a Senate seat, there’s still a likely upside for Texas progressives.
Beto-mania should help get out the votes for down-ballot Democrats, especially in large cities, experts point out. Plus, the grassroots campaign has already resulted in a major overhaul for the state’s once crumbling Democratic infrastructure. The fundraising list alone is likely to be the envy of any future Democratic hopeful.
Be that as it may, Trinity University political science professor David Crockett doubts the time is right for O’Rourke. Demographic data suggests it will be the next decade before Texas becomes the kind of purple state many have predicted. But, he allows, the race still might be close.
“If he can close the gap and get within a couple of points of Cruz, that would be a moral victory for the Democrats,” Crockett said. “But if he wins this thing, that would be earthshattering.”
After the San Antonio veterans’ town hall, a young woman asked O’Rourke if they could speak privately about military sexual assaults. Once the photo ops were done, the pair huddled across from each other in the back of the empty hall for 10 minutes while O’Rourke’s staffers waited, bags of Subway sandwiches and campaign swag clutched in their arms.
“I’m ecstatic he actually took the time to listen,” said the woman, a sexual assault survivor who declined to give her name because she’s still in the service. “I’m going to phone-bank my ass off for him. Because he didn’t have to do that.”
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