Inside the Final Days of Beto’s Battle for Texas
When Beto O’Rourke was little he wanted to be a Beatle when he grew up. Not a musician. Not a rockstar. But very specifically: a member of the biggest, most beloved rock band of all time. He told me that back in May of 2017, about a month and a half after he kicked off his Senate campaign, but I was reminded of it a few weeks ago, in Austin, as 55,000 people chanted his name.
On the outskirts of Auditorium Shores park, where Willie Nelson was headlining a free concert to promote O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, vendors were selling knock-off “Beto For Texas” gear alongside “It’s Mueller Time” trucker hats. A few hours earlier, fans had packed the 2,400-seat concert hall across the street to listen to O’Rourke be quizzed in granular detail about Medicaid expansion and immigration policy. (One shuttle bus to the event, filled with mostly older, white women, erupted in screams when a passenger spotted O’Rourke in a nearby car, and it didn’t let up until the driver pulled up so they could ask for autographs.)
I could say a lot has changed in the year and a half O’Rourke has spent on the trail, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. From the start of the campaign, he’s inspired this kind of reaction in people he’s met along the way — there’s just a lot more of them now. Which is to say: Everything has gone to plan. O’Rourke’s strategy, which he outlined 17 months ago as we drove to the first of two campaign stops — one in a supporter’s backyard, the other in a church, both in map-dot towns typically neglected by politicians campaigning statewide in Texas — was to spend the better part of the next two years putting his face in front of as many voters as he could, in as many cities as he could travel to, in each of the 254 counties in the state.
Beto For Texas’s campaign infrastructure at that time — almost a full year before Cruz officially declared his bid for re-election — consisted of O’Rourke and two aides, both old friends from El Paso, in a rented sedan. It was clear even then that something special was happening: Not only were dozens, sometimes hundreds of people turning out to see him in deep-red corners of the state more than a year before the election, they were showing up with signs and buttons and T-shirts bearing the campaign’s stark black-and-white logo — and the campaign didn’t have merchandise yet. It was all homemade.
Since then, O’Rourke has vaporized fundraising records, criss-crossed the state several times over and — that day in Austin — held the the biggest political rally since Barack Obama ran for president. (At an event earlier that day, O’Rourke was asked how much money he thought the campaign had raised in the third quarter. He just smiled. “It’s going to be a lot,” he said. It was a typical understatement: The campaign would announce a few days later that it had raised $38 million — a U.S. Senate-race record. The campaign’s total haul now stands at $69 million and counting.)
It wouldn’t be much of an overstatement to say this race has turned O’Rourke into the political equivalent of the Beatles. And even if that was his dream as a kid, he squirms a bit at the analogy. “They’re not coming out to see me,” O’Rourke says backstage in Austin, minutes before he’s set to address the crowd and introduce Willie Nelson. “They’re coming out to see Willie; to see Leon Bridges. They’re coming out to see Carrie [Rodriguez] — some of these other great performers. And they’re coming out because they know there are going to be other great people around them. I think that’s what it is: It’s just this energy and excitement about people right now.”
For the record, that isn’t what it is. And if you want proof, I’ll point you to the fact that dozens of folks start streaming away from the venue the moment Nelson strums the first notes of his first song, shortly after O’Rourke wrapped up his remarks.
There’s isn’t a lot of mystery left around why people in Texas are showing up at events like this or pouring millions of dollars into Beto O’Rourke’s campaign. It’s him. He’s captured the imagination of Democrats across the state and around the country, convinced them that he really does have a shot of flipping the Texas seat — and maybe the whole Senate with it. The entire nation is afflicted with BetoMania. Everything seems to be going in his favor. Now it’s just a question of whether he can manage to not fuck it up.
IN THE DAYS leading up to the 2016 election, multiple polls showed Hillary Clinton with a shot of capturing the Lone Star state’s 38 electoral votes. In late October, Trump had an edge of just three points in one survey, two in another. Statistically, as analyst Nate Silver wrote at the time, Clinton had a better chance of winning Texas than Trump did of winning the entire election. (Silver’s model this year puts O’Rourke’s chances as better than either of those outcomes — between 16 and 20 percent, depending on which factors you weigh.)
Clinton’s hopes were pinned to the idea that Hispanic voters (almost 40 percent of the state’s population, as of 2014) would be so galvanized by Trump’s campaign rhetoric they would rise up and march to the polls in unprecedented numbers, delivering a knockout blow to the virulent strain of xenophobia Trump had made as the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. That didn’t happen. Hispanic turnout rose just two percent in 2016 compared with 2012 — from 17 percent to 19. In the end, Trump easily dispatched Clinton in Texas, winning by close to 10 points.
O’Rourke has talked on the campaign trail about the muted horror with which he and his wife, Amy, watched the returns on election night. “You know how we felt because you felt the same way,” he’s said. “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.”
O’Rourke’s bid for Senate, for all intents and purposes, began that night. His first informal “Meet and Greet,” in McAllen, Texas, came in February, followed by the official campaign kick-off in March 2017. From the very beginning, O’Rourke has based his candidacy around the idea that Texas is neither a “red or a blue state, it’s a non-voting state.” That last part is true: Only about half of the state’s eligible voters cast a ballot in 2016, placing Texas next to last in voter turnout nationally. For O’Rourke to win, he has to lock up the Democratic strongholds in Texas’s big cities and along the border, peel off a healthy slice of persuadable Republicans, and get a whole lot of new voters and non-voters out to the polls too.
With all the enthusiasm swirling around his candidacy, all of the money flowing in, all of the new voters getting registered, with O’Rourke’s deep ties to Texas’s border region, where much of the state’s Hispanic population resides, and with the president doubling down on his 2016 playbook, floating the ideas of ending birthright citizenship and refusing asylum to refugees, deploying thousands of troops to the border, stoking fears about a “caravan” of migrants still hundreds of miles away from the U.S. at the southernmost tip of Mexico — with all of that, making sure Democrats show up for O’Rourke shouldn’t be the hard part.
It was a warning sign, then, when in September, Democrats lost a state legislature seat in one of the deepest blue pockets of the state, not far from the Congressional district O’Rourke has represented since 2013. A week and a half before the Austin rally, Republican Pete Flores defeated Democrat Pete Gallego by six points in a special election to represent state senate district 19, a broad swath of Southwest Texas encompassing more than 400 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. The district, which is two-thirds Hispanic, has been represented by a Democrat for more than 139 years and in 2016, it went for Hillary Clinton by 12 points.
With the loss, Democratic representation in the Texas state senate fell to its lowest level ever. It also all but guaranteed Republicans would maintain a two-thirds supermajority — enough votes to bring legislation to the floor without Democrats’ approval — in the new legislative session. “All this talk about a ‘blue wave’? Well, the tide is out,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick chuckled at Flores’ election night party.
Backstage in Austin, when I ask O’Rourke about the race, a serious look flickers across his face. “It surprised me,” he says. “I really expected Pete [Gallego] to win. I know Pete. I love Pete. He’s beloved in that area. He’s represented part of it for decades — in the statehouse, and for a little while in Congress.”
But he quickly brushes the possible implications away. “We’ve been well-served by not trying to read the tea leaves or listen to the pollsters or identify trends and analyze numbers. We’ve just been trying to make this about, and have made this about, people. And I’m going to continue to do that. I was disappointed to see Pete Gallego not pull this off, but I don’t know that it portends anything larger.” He shrugs, somewhat unconvincingly.
Then O’Rourke tells me to look out at the sea of 55,000 people at Auditorium Shores. The crowd is dotted with large, glowing balloons. Standing below each one, O’Rourke tells me, is a deputized voter registrar, some 250 of them, qualified to register voters in any of 25 surrounding counties. “I don’t know what they did not do,” he says of the Democrat in senate district 19. “But I can tell you what we are doing is the bar-none largest grassroots registration, and contact, and conversation, and turnout operation that you’ve seen in the state of Texas. Ever. That’s something that we’re doing right.”
MORE THAN 1.6 million voters have been added to the Texas voter rolls since the last midterm election, in 2014. The race will hinge on whether or not he can persuade those new voters, and registered non-voters, to actually get to the polls in a state where Republicans routinely route their Democratic rivals with one million votes to spare.
By the end of early voting last week, according to the campaign, its volunteers had knocked on close to 2 million doors in Texas and placed more than 8.5 million phone calls to voters — numbers that Democratic strategists unaffiliated with O’Rourke speculated made it the largest operation for a statewide campaign, ever.
The size and scope of the O’Rourke campaign’s undertaking has dwarfed efforts by Ted Cruz For Senate, which reportedly outsourced its own turnout operation to the team working on behalf of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s re-election. That was news to Dave Carney, the political consultant coordinating turnout for Abbott. “Yeah, I heard that — last week,” Carney chuckles when Rolling Stone asks him about the report. The joke is that Abbott actually has a field operation, and Cruz…doesn’t. “We’ve got 120 field staff, they have, like, five,” Carney says, still laughing. “On a weekend, we talk to 35,000 people and they talk to 400.”
Carney did, however, confirm that Cruz For Senate was using the same organizing tools and data set that Abbott’s team has made available to all Republican campaigns in Texas. “We give them our field app for free and access to our data for free,” Carney says.
For what it’s worth, Carney isn’t all that worried about the O’Rourke campaign’s claim to have knocked on nearly 2 million doors. “You know what we call that in Texas? We call that a good start,” says Carney (who, for the record, is based in New Hampshire). “We’ve had 2.7 million conversations with voters. We don’t count door-knocks because that’s really just dropping off a piece of literature, and if you want to do that the postal service is a lot better, more effective, cheaper.”
Carney concedes that while voter turnout has hit record highs, it hasn’t, according to his calculations, strongly favored either side. One week out from the election, Carney’s model, which assigns each voter a score guessing how likely they are to cast a ballot for either party, estimated the Republican ticket had a 10-point lead over the Democratic one.
Carney downplayed the impact of the record number of voters added to the rolls since the last midterm election. “Even the new voters since Bee-to or whatever his name got all this momentum and all these new voters, as of last week, only 48,700 [of them] had voted, and we were definitely holding our own,” he says. Unless O’Rourke can muster at least three-quarters of the Hispanic vote, according to Carney, “He’s toast.”
Ambar Calvillo-Rivera, vice president of campaigns for the non-partisan voter registration group Voto Latino, says she’s feeling encouraged by the level of enthusiasm she’s seeing in Texas, where the organization held one of its largest registration drives earlier this year. Speaking less than a week before the election, Calvillo-Rivera noted the large early-vote numbers in areas like Harris County and Fort Bend. Of El Paso, she says, “in previous years, it’s had unfortunate turnout rates. But just in the first couple of days of early voting, they have been exceeding total numbers of voting in 2014 and 2012 — and this is for a midterm election.”
According to the Texas secretary of state, 123,588 had voted in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso heading into the last day of early voting, nearly as many as voted in 2016, but still just 27 percent of the county’s total registered voters. O’Rourke will have to far surpass that if he wants to win, and he’ll have to run up the margins in all of Texas’s large cities, where 75 percent of the state’s population now lives.
Republicans are still confident, but Carney says, cautiously so. “There’s nothing we’re taking for granted. We’re not sleeping well, we’re not chilling the champagne,” he says. “Until the polls close in El Paso at 8 o’clock Central Time, we’re not going to take the foot off the pedal.”
Neither campaign is, and it’s driving turnout on both sides. All across the state, record shares of registered voters were showing up at the polls: 32.3 percent in Houston’s Harris County, double the 15.5 percent that voted early in 2014; 35.1 percent in Dallas County, up from 15.2 percent in the last midterm election. In Austin’s Travis County, 42 percent voted early, surpassing the number that voted early in 2014 and in 2012, and approaching 2016 levels. And in Tarrant County — home of Fort Worth, and the most conservative of Texas’s large urban areas — nearly 37 percent had already voted, double the number that voted in the last midterm. According to one analyst, the percentage of young people — 18 to 30 year olds — was up more than 500 percent compared to the last midterm election.
Those are encouraging numbers for O’Rourke; they could point to victory, and not just for him — because if you ask O’Rourke, Betomania has never been all about him.
“I carry with me everything that everyone has told me about what they’re counting on,” he tells me backstage in Austin. “About why this election is important, why we’ve got to do this. But I also am being carried by everybody I’ve ever met who feels just as urgently as I do about making sure that we deliver for this country right now. Any moment that I ever am like, Can I do this? Am I strong enough? Do I have the gas? Am I going to make it? If I take a breath and I take a step back and I see all of the people who are with me that I am doing this with, then I feel good. I feel confident. I feel strong. I feel encouraged. I feel as hopeful as I have ever been.
“I think that that’s the key: You cannot put this on a person, because no one person can do this. It’s got to be on all of us. And if I can just remember that, we’re going to be good.”