Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke is a former punk guitarist who curses like a sailor. He’s pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-pot and pro-immigration, and he’s aiming to take Ted Cruz’s Senate seat in November.
In any other year, the Democratic lawmaker would be a political footnote in deep-red Texas, where no one from his party has won statewide office in more than two decades.
But, as Democrats head to the polls in their party's primary Tuesday, they are turning out in record numbers, in part, to help make O'Rourke their standardbearer--a surprising sign that Democratic enthusiasm in the Trump era is sweeping even the most conservative states ahead of the midterm elections.
And, as O'Rourke likes to point out on the campaign trail, he has raised nearly three times as much money as Cruz this year, all without accepting contributions from corporations or political action committees. (He recently returned donations from The American Bankers Association and Vistra Energy.)
To be sure, Democrats face an uphill battle. The state hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988, and Donald Trump won there in 2016 by nine percentage points. In Cruz, O'Rourke also faces a well-connected incumbent popular with conservatives. The Republican has more cash on hand--about $6 million to O'Rourke's $4.9 million--and can rely on donors and Super PACs from his failed 2016 presidential campaign. One such group, Texans ARE, has already raised $1.7 million.
Still, Democrats sense an opening, particularly as Texas' growing Latino population shifts the Lone Star State's politics to the left. Hispanics now make up 28 percent of the eligible voters in Texas, and O'Rourke is courting them.
Born Robert Francis O’Rourke, the Irish-American candidate goes by his childhood nickname of Beto, short for Roberto. He speaks fluent Spanish, and reguarly jaunts from El Paso to Juarez for lunch or a drink. His congressional district is 75 percent Hispanic and he openly opposes Trump's border wall. States that border Mexico have "never been more secure," he says.
Even Cruz, who has called for tripling border security and ending all paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants, seems to sense the changing political landscape.
Last month, he warned his supporters not to get complacent. “The far left is going to show up and vote. We are already seeing in early votes right now Democratic turnout shattering records,” he told Republicans at an El Paso dinner. “If we know the hard left is going to show up in big, big numbers, then our job is clear, we've got to make sure conservatives show up in big, big numbers to keep Texas red."
A recent Democratic poll put O'Rourke within single digits of Cruz and early primary voting shows that Democratic turnout has increased dramatically. In fact, it's doubled compared to the party's 2014 midterm primary and surpasses 2016 presidential primary levels. Republican turnout has increased 15 percent since 2014 but is below presidential levels.
O'Rourke is working to capitalize on that Democratic excitement in what many strategists in both parties still consider a long-shot campaign.
He’s often seen stepping down from his Toyota Tundra pickup, bleary-eyed and bestubbled, into a town hall or diner or coffee shop. Those who can't attend in person are invited to join digitally, as most activities are posted onto Facebook Live. Working on four hours of sleep, he greets, and persuades Texas voters that he’s the candidate for them. The candidate has been on a 12-month tour of his home state, working all of its 254 counties. So far he’s visited 223 of them.
O'Rourke's plan borrows from the playbook of Barack Obama's first presidential bid: Campaign in deeply conservative districts to mitigate the size of the loss there while driving up turnout in urban areas. His relentless touring schedule, however, hails from his days as a post-hardcore guitarist in the 1990s, when his band Foss released a seven-inch record called The El Paso Pussycats. (The drummer of his group, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, went on to find widespread success in bands like At The Drive-In and The Mars Volta.)
“We had been on the road nonstop for years in this shitty little van playing shows in front of six people night after night," O'Rouke said. "People connected to that and that was the foundation of our success.”
He’s hoping to form those slow and hard-earned connections once again, even if that means a year of non-stop campaigning. “I could be safe and not screw it up, not win but not lose," O'Rourke said. "Or we could go for broke and run like there’s nothing to lose."
Some Democratic operatives are impressed.
"O’Rourke is running this race right. He’s going to every district, attempting to appeal to everybody and not just his own party, and focusing on real issues that impact people," said Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist who ran Sen. Doug Jones' successful Senate campaign in deeply-red Alabama last year. "There’s absolutely a chance he takes this seat."
Others, however, are much more skeptical. O'Rourke says that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has yet to prioritize his campaign. And state Republicans, as well as some establishment Democrats, say it will take more time for the state's changing demographics to make Texas more competitive.
“Turning Texas blue has been the great white whale for Democrats,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “And it will turn blue, but not in 2018. It would take a major meltdown for Cruz to lose. The idea makes for good cocktail conversation, but there’s not much to watch.”
On the campaign trail, O'Rourke paints Cruz as an out-of-touch Washington politician, focused more on his presidential ambitions than his Texas constituents. “It’s about showing up,” O'Rourke said. “He doesn’t govern that way. In his first year [as Senator], he was already in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. That’s not lost on Texas.”
The Cruz campaign portrays O’Rourke as an establishment Democrat, in the pocket on Washington leadership. "Chuck Schumer did a great job—he came to Texas early in the year and got national liberals really excited about the chance to elect a pro-amnesty, anti-gun, pro-big government liberal to represent Texas," Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said in a statement.
O'Rourke says he's running a Texas campaign with Texas talent, only using consulting firms to help with the technical aspects of his bid. No pollsters. No strategists. His campaign director, Jody Casey, has never run a political operation; she previously worked in sales at General Electric.
O’Rourke, a fourth generation El Pasoan, grew up in a political household. His father was a county judge who worked with former Texas Gov. Mark White, but O'Rourke himself was drawn to the anti-establishment ideals of the 1990s emerging punk scene in West Texas. Eventually, he moved to New York to attend Columbia University. After spending a few years working in New York’s tech scene, he moved back to El Paso in 1998 and established an internet services and software company.
In 2012, O’Rourke successfully ran against an eight-term congressional incumbent to represent Texas’s 16th district. His opponent, Silvestre Reyes, had the support of Obama and Bill Clinton and capitalized on O'Rourke's two run-ins with the law. In 1995, he was arrested for burglary. O'Rourke claims it was a "prank gone awry" and that he was caught climbing a fence at the University of Texas-El Paso. In 1998, he was arrested for drunk driving, an event he says he regrets.
Still, he won, saying the campaign helped him learn how to use social media to connect directly with voters. “Consultants say Facebook isn’t enough and that you have to have a slick promo video,” he said. “But I don’t think anything beats listening to voters, just being there and being present.”
President Donald Trump’s 2016 election inspired O’Rourke to consider a Senate run. “On election night, I was concerned about my kids,” he said. “I thought, ‘How am I going to answer for this?’ I decided I needed to put everything on the line and stand up for what I believed in. There has been this rise in paranoia and anxiety dominating the national conversation. I know we can do better than that.”
Favored to win Tuesday's Democratic primary, O'Rourke acknowledges his long odds in the fight ahead.
“Look, I don’t know that anyone 'establishment' would want to help me, and I don’t know how promising this race is to them,” he said, “but I gotta tell you: It feels right.”
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