Why Women Are Betting On Beto O'Rourke

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Courtney E. Smith
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Ahead of the October 9 deadline, a massive number of Texans are registered to vote — some 15.69 million, a record number according to the secretary of state. That’s a big deal in the state that is 49th in voter turnout and home to one of the most-watched Senate races in the country, with incumbent Republican Ted Cruz polling ahead of Democratic challenger and new party golden boy Beto O’Rourke by a smaller margin than the party is used to — or comfortable with. After years of apathy, it seems Texans are suddenly interested in participating in mass numbers. And a huge number of those newly incentivized voters are women.

President Donald Trump promised to hold a “major” rally in support of Cruz in October, tweeting that it would be in “the biggest stadium in Texas we can find.” But plans on his official schedule for such a rally haven’t manifested, and aren’t likely to. While Trump's approval is expectedly split along party lines, he only has a 42% approval with Texas women. And some of that contempt may be trickling down to Cruz: According to a Quinnipiac poll, women in Texas are favoring O'Rourke, at 52% to Cruz's 46%.

O’Rourke has kept his campaign more homespun than Cruz. In September, he sang at a rally with Austin native Willie Nelson — an event that would set a record for attendance at a political rally since the 2016 election with some 55,000 people showing up. The GOP started something they couldn’t finish when they tweeted a photo of O’Rourke’s band from the ‘90s in which a very young, very handsome Beto donned a dress. It didn’t take long for people to remind Cruz that he was once a creepy mime and that he probably shouldn’t make fun of O’Rourke for his rock band past.

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Being easy on the eyes and a shared history with members of the Mars Volta isn’t all O’Rourke has going for him in the eyes of Texas liberals. There’s also his sense of inclusiveness. For a white man running in Texas, he spends a lot of time advocating for minorities, immigrants, the incarcerated, and women.

In Dallas, O’Rourke notched a last big appearance before the state’s voter registration deadline on October 9 at the Buffalo Tree Festival, headlined by Austin indie rockers Spoon.

<span class="copyright">Photo: Loren Elliott/Getty Images.</span>
Photo: Loren Elliott/Getty Images.

As much as the festival itself had a peaceful hippie vibe where families and leashed dogs are welcome, the inner thoughts of many of the 5,000 attendees were plastered all over their outfits. Among the sea of pro-Beto t-shirts, I spot a 30-something woman in a shirt that reads “Not Today Satan,” and a middle-aged blonde woman wearing a red “Nevertheless She Persisted” tee. The volunteer with a clipboard who registers me to vote is wearing a Planned Parenthood button that reads: “Don’t fuck with us, can’t fuck without us.” A woman manning the American Pakistani Public Affairs table wears an American flag as her hijab and a biker chick strolls by me in a hand-painted denim vest with an American flag and the word “Beto” under it.

I think you must find the common ground that exists, no matter how narrow or small that might be and enlarge it as you can.

“My vote was already with Beto, but I came to support,” says Lauren McCarthy, a 25-year-old resident of downtown Dallas with heavy black-rimmed glasses and curly hair. “I’m not a hardcore Democrat, more of a Libertarian. I would never go to a rally, that’s not me and not most younger people. This festival is an easier environment that’s comfortable with no pressure.”

The notion of a candidate not only speaking to women but caring about the lives of Black and brown women is noted in the community. “I’m here because I thought that as a Black woman it’s necessary to show up to these events. I decided to check it out because it’s a political rally, not for the music,” says Barbara Jalloul, 19. “I wanted to see who I want to vote for up close.”

Backstage, before his headline speech, O’Rourke tells Refinery29 that he knows he has to lead on women’s issues and make them a central, up-front part of his campaign. Healthcare has been an issue of hot debate in the state, with current Texas attorney general Ken Paxton executing lawsuits to repeal Obamacare and force abortion restriction not only across the state but in federal courts — all under the leadership of state governor Greg Abbott. A part of what is drawing so many women to O'Rourke — even those who are opposed to abortion like evangelical Christian women.

“I think you must find the common ground that exists, no matter how narrow or small that might be and enlarge it as you can,” O’Rourke says, insisting that most people agree that women should have the right to make their own choices about their bodies. “When you share that as we’ve shut down all these family planning clinics, we have become the leader in repeat teen pregnancy in this state [it’s clear that] fewer women making informed decisions about their bodies. When I share with people that by law not a dime of federal taxpayer money can be used to fund an abortion but it can be there to help a woman get access to a cervical cancer screening, that’s some common ground that I can find, perhaps even with Governor Abbott. I don’t know, but I’ll seek it.”

O’Rourke has famously visited all of the 254 counties in Texas during his campaign. The plan was to talk to everyone, even the people who don’t traditionally vote for Democratic candidates because if elected he will represent all of the people of Texas. It’s a major change from Republicans, who speak to their base voters and choose to gerrymander the rest of the state out of having a voice. If money talks and bullshit walks, it’s worth noting that O’Rourke’s campaign raised a record $38 million in donations in the last quarter, strictly from individual donors with a majority of that money coming from Texans, even though he himself has gone viral and attracted attention across the country. It’s three times what Cruz’s campaign earned.

“I love stuff like this, I always come to the Homegrown [music] festival, which is also in Main Street Park. This is by far the most crowded that I’ve seen it,” Tara Manzo, 35 told Refinery29. “I’m especially into supporting Beto and turning Texas blue.”

Women, from music fans to school teachers to housewives, are going to great lengths to support the O’Rourke campaign. On Facebook, I see that a friend who grew up in Texas but now lives in Los Angeles has volunteered to come back home and canvas for the campaign. A college girlfriend is running his phone banks in Austin. A student in a writing class where I was a teaching assistant is registering voters in North Texas and campaigning for Beto. There are at least a half dozen Beto yard signs on my block and neighbors offering to bring new ones by when those get stolen.

Women in Texas are involved, both by running in elections and making their voices heard, in a way I haven’t felt in this state in a long time. A record number of women were on the ballot this year, with some 50 plus women ran in Congress the Texas primaries in 2018, with hundreds more running for local office across the state.

O’Rourke says he doesn’t know the demographic breakdown off hand, but that he’s noticed a lot of Texas school teachers approaching him. “Most of [the teachers] have been women who have approached me at town halls. [Campaign spokesman] Chris Evans and I were eating at a restaurant yesterday in Dallas and two school teachers said they were waiting tables because they also teach school and couldn’t afford to do just one,” O’Rourke says. “That’s a cause for real concern and anxiety.”

<span class="copyright">Photo: Courtesy of Mike Brooks.</span>
Photo: Courtesy of Mike Brooks.

O’Rourke tells Refinery29 that the palpable anger of women, which has been amplified in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings and Cruz’s vote in support of the newest Supreme Court Justice, is a huge driver in his campaign. He talks about an impactful conversation he had with Alisa L. Simmons, leader of the NAACP in nearby Arlington, TX on the state’s notoriously high maternal mortality rates, which are only higher for women of color. Those rates have been climbing with the closing of women’s health and reproductive clinics.

“We’re in the same state that, in 2011, began to systematically shut down family planning clinics and access to healthcare that saves women’s lives,” O’Rourke says. “But Arlington is also a city that doesn’t have a reliable mass transit system. So, if you think about women who are working not just one job but maybe two or three jobs and are getting rides from friends or colleagues to those jobs — even if they have health care, and we are the least insured state in the country, their ability to get transport to a clinic or hospital is marginal at best. Women who are able to get care, depending on their race or ethnicity, are not getting the same quality of care, with really tragic outcomes.”

The extraordinary leadership we need comes not just from officeholders and candidates but from people. That leadership is here in extraordinary numbers in Texas.

Just a month away from the election, all of the Democratic candidates trying to turn Texas blue are still trailing in the polls — every outlet has them all, including O’Rourke, down from their challengers. With the final fundraising date past, it’s looking very tight for the blue wave. Giving these speeches and motivating the voter who typically doesn’t turn out, is exactly what all of these candidates want to do. O’Rourke, for one, is going to keep the momentum going with determined optimism, right up to the finish line.

“The extraordinary leadership we need comes not just from officeholders and candidates but from people. That leadership is here in extraordinary numbers in Texas,” O’Rourke says, with a reminder that the Women’s March in Austin in 2018 was even bigger than the first march in 2017. “The fact is that every single one of the 36 congressional districts in Texas is finally being contested for the first time in 26 years, and many of them by women — by women who are running for the first time — who are going to win those races.”

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