How a progressive congressman – and former bassist – from El Paso is threatening to unseat the Senate’s most hated Republican
Beto O’Rourke, the democratic congressman from El Paso, has just finished the first of the day’s three campaign events, an early-morning house party in Tyler, Texas, and is now high-tailing toward a second meet-and-greet 115 miles away in Texarkana, determined to squeeze in an extra, unscheduled stop. O’Rourke wants to overtake “the Beto Bus” – a raucous, 45-foot vessel scooping up supporters of his long-shot bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz – currently lumbering somewhere up ahead on an East Texas highway. O’Rourke’s longtime chief of staff, David Wysong, is privately skeptical of the plan. “It has a lot of moving parts,” he mutters more than once. O’Rourke loves it. He loved it too when one of the organizers of this morning’s event pulled alongside the car to insist he not leave town without eating at Stanley’s Famous Pit BBQ. Now, open-faced brisket sandwich in his lap, a little cup of barbecue sauce perched on the armrest, and with 20 minutes of lost time to make up, O’Rourke glances at Wysong, navigating a steep stretch of highway, and says with a grin, “No sudden moves.”
Before he got the idea that he could win a Senate seat in Texas from a Republican incumbent with universal name recognition and a formidable fundraising operation, O’Rourke was a fairly low-profile member of the House. Few people knew of his crusade to combat gang violence by legalizing marijuana, or the years he spent playing bass with Cedric Bixler-Zavala (now a member of the Mars Volta and At the Drive-In) in their old punk band Foss. That started to change last summer, after Speaker Paul Ryan ordered C-Span cameras turned off during Democrats’ 25-hour sit-in to protest inaction on gun control, and O’Rourke launched his own broadcast on Facebook Live (Ryan has since passed a measure that would fine live-streaming from the House floor). O’Rourke’s profile spiked again earlier this year after a blizzard canceled flights into D.C. – he and a Republican colleague, Rep. Will Hurd, live-streamed a 1,600-mile rental-car drive (#CongressionalCannonballRun) from Texas to the nation’s capital. Tens of thousands of people, including dozens of colleagues in the House and Senate, plus Mark Zuckerberg, tuned in for the 36-hour bipartisan “town hall,” during which O’Rourke and Hurd grabbed doughnuts, talked health care and border security, and made a detour to Graceland.
Besides supporting limits on guns, O’Rourke, who is 44, is pro-choice and a vocal advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. If that sounds like a tough way to win a race in Texas – where political moderation is considered symptomatic of a disease known as “Californication” – O’Rourke has vowed to do it without accepting a cent of PAC money. He has reason to be confident: For one thing, he’s never lost a race. He won his first bid for Congress campaigning in a district on the Mexican border, on a platform calling for the legalization of marijuana. His rival in the primary, an eight-term incumbent, had the full support of the Democratic establishment – Barack Obama endorsed him; Bill Clinton came to El Paso to stump – but O’Rourke, whose political career at the time consisted of two terms on the El Paso City Council, stole the seat nonetheless.
Still, it’s been 23 years since a Democrat won a statewide race in Texas – the longest dry spell anywhere in the country – and nearly 30 years since one captured a Senate seat. The last candidate to do so was Lloyd Bentsen, re-elected to the Senate in 1988, the year he and Michael Dukakis lost a bid for the White House to George H.W. Bush. As recently as 1994, Democrats controlled the Texas state Legislature and the governor’s mansion, and held almost twice as many congressional seats as Republicans. That changed in 2005, when a GOP-led redistricting campaign flipped the balance. Today, Republicans hold 25 of Texas’ 36 congressional seats, and control nearly two-thirds of the state Legislature.
The recent dominance of Republicans tends to obscure the changing conditions on the ground. Donald Trump captured the Lone Star State with just 52 percent of the vote, down from the 57 percent Mitt Romney got four years earlier. In Texas’ urban centers, where some 88 percent of the state’s population now resides, the news is even worse for the GOP: Obama captured Houston’s Harris County, for example, by just 971 votes in 2012; four years later, Hillary Clinton won with 160,000 votes to spare. “The day that Texas Democrats regain power will be the day when someone who everyone thinks is a big long shot says, ‘To hell with it, I’m running,’ ” says Brent Budowsky, a former aide to Sen. Bentsen and a longtime observer of Texas politics. “The great Texas Democrats over the years didn’t wait for invitations.”
O’Rourke jumped into the race on March 31st – 585 days before Texans head to the polls. But at every stop this weekend, all in counties Trump won, spectators assemble like it’s the final stretch of the campaign. At a brewery in Allen, cars were parked half a mile down the road in both directions; the overflow crowd was in the flowerbeds. Dick Hildenbrand, a local precinct chair for the Democratic Party, says it’s the largest crowd he’s ever seen at a Democratic event in Collin County. But the enthusiasm tracks with the general mood since Trump’s election: “Just a total groundswell of people wanting to get involved.”
Surveying the crowd from a stack of pallets, O’Rourke recalls watching the November returns with his wife, Amy. “You know how we felt because you felt the same way,” he says. “The immigrants vilified and denigrated. The lies told boldly and openly and without shame. The promise to ban Muslims and refugees and asylum seekers from our country. Mocking people with disabilities, or who are vulnerable. Making people, or trying to make people, ashamed of who they are and whether or not they fit into this, their country. All of that came to a head as the results came in.”
While Trump has generated much of the energy animating progressive-minded voters, many Texans are equally excited to oppose Cruz, whose favorability in the state began tanking in November 2015, just as the presidential campaign shifted into high gear. By the election – after Cruz grudgingly endorsed the man who threatened his wife and implicated his father in the plot to kill JFK – 49 percent of Texas voters disapproved of the job Cruz was doing. Today, his 37 percent approval rating in the state is about as dismal as Trump’s is nationally.
Under normal circumstances, Democrats face a tough map for reclaiming the Senate in 2018. The party needs to defend 23 seats, plus those of two Independents who caucus with them, and flip three of only eight Republican seats up for grabs. But as of August, Democrats led the generic congressional ballot – one of the best indicators of whether a party will gain or lose seats – by six points. And the only poll taken of the race for Senate in Texas has O’Rourke dead even with Cruz.
On the campaign trail, O’Rourke rarely mentions his opponent, but when I ask for his pitch to someone who voted for Cruz, he says, “I mean, if you’re happy with what you’ve seen over the past four years, keep going, more power to you! But if you feel like you got ripped off because a guy who campaigned to represent you and serve you and address your concerns and needs and make the most of the opportunities in the state, then ran for president for four years, shut down the government and put his party, his ideology and his career over his country? You, then, have a choice.”
Almost as many folks turn up at the party in Tyler, in a county Trump won by 43 points, as in Allen. There’s live music, a choice of “Bring It Cruz” cold brew or “Si Se Puede” percolator coffee, and a whole lot of homemade “Beto for Texas” gear. After he speaks, O’Rourke hangs around, shaking hands and snapping selfies with nearly everyone. “I’m old enough to remember, and he reminds me of Bobby Kennedy,” says a woman in a blue flower-print dress. “You can look at him and tell he means what he says.”
As we drive away, O’Rourke says the party reminded him of the kind he attended as a kid with his dad, Pat Francis, a beloved Democratic politician in his own right. “We’d be in someone’s backyard watching the Reagan-Mondale debates and everyone is drinking beer,” he says. “I just remember there being this energy and excitement around politics.” Pat, who died in a bicycle accident in 2001, served eight years as an elected official in El Paso, and was Texas co-chair for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. Today, O’Rourke says of his father, “He just couldn’t give a shit who he pissed off. If he knew it was the right thing to do, he was gonna do it.”
O’Rourke seems to have inherited the trait. He recalls his first day in Congress, in 2013, when the party assembled its new members. “They said, ‘Your number-one priority is get re-elected,’ ” he says. “ ’Your second priority, which supports the first, is to raise a shit-ton of money.’ ” To do that, party leaders advised frequent meals with lobbyists and learning about their pet issues to secure donations. O’Rourke was repulsed, which is partly why he is not accepting money from PACs, an idea his treasurer, Gwen Pulido, calls “his biggest challenge.” But in the first quarter, O’Rourke raised $2.1 million – half a million more than Cruz during the same period.
When we catch up with the Beto Bus in Atlanta, Texas, the passengers – many wearing campaign T-shirts they printed themselves – cheer at the sight of O’Rourke. “Come on board!” calls Mary Lou Tevebaugh, a disability lawyer who orchestrated the trip. “We got some mimosas, we got some jello shots.” O’Rourke fields questions on the 30-minute drive to Texarkana, where he’ll deliver his third speech in 24 hours. Afterward, Tevebaugh points out a pair of siblings in the audience. “They’re very conservative,” she confides. But the sister, also a lawyer, had told Tevebaugh, “We don’t like Ted Cruz,” Tevebaugh recalls. “I said, ‘Well, get on board with us. Let’s go!’ ”
To win over Republicans like these two (she describes herself as “definitely conservative,” he as “right-leaning”), the brother says, O’Rourke shouldn’t “harp on the social issues,” talk about guns or mention how “cozy with Mexico” he is. But, the man adds, with a note of admiration, “I appreciate the fact that he came up to East Texas. We’re kind of an underserved area.”
There is a reason candidates tend to skip towns like Texarkana, located in one of the 10 most conservative congressional districts in the country. Trump won that county by 47 points. But O’Rourke doesn’t need to win the district outright. He just needs to persuade demoralized Democrats to show up to the polls, and a few Cruz-loathing Republicans – maybe these two Cruz-loathing Republicans – too. O’Rourke still has more than 400 days to make his case. And as the sister puts it, “We’re here listening to him, so obviously he’s doing something right.”
Senator Ted Cruz said a “staffing issue” led to his official twitter account liking a pornographic tweet. Watch here.
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