Can Beto O’Rourke lead Texas Democrats out of the political wilderness?


Highlights

Beto O’Rourke combines intense retail campaigning and deft use of social media in his bid to unseat Ted Cruz.

Rep. O’Rourke, a congressman from El Paso, campaigned across 7,311 miles and 143 Texas counties in 34 days.

O’Rourke knows his bid is a long shot, but he is campaigning in parts of Texas that Democrats had given up on.

Some 12,000 people viewed a Facebook livestream of Beto O’Rourke getting his hair cut on Aug. 22.

As he was about to enter the Trimmier Barber Shop, the 44-year-old, third-term Democratic congressman from El Paso — who has his sights set on replacing Republican Ted Cruz in the U.S. Senate — gently hyped the moment:

“We are in Killeen, Texas. We just finished a veterans’ town hall. I’m going to get a haircut here at the barbershop, and then we have a general public, anyone-can-come-and-all-are-invited (town hall) at 6 o’clock. Get more details on Facebook. But right now, I’d love for you to join me as I try to get a haircut. We’ll see. I don’t know if we made an appointment. We’ll just try and walk in.”

It is Day 25 of O’Rourke’s 34-day Town Hauling Across Texas Tour, which began in San Antonio on July 29 and ended Thursday in El Paso, traversing 143 of Texas’ 254 counties while putting 7,311 miles on his brand-new Toyota Tundra.

Along the way, O’Rourke held 38 public events before Hurricane Harvey caused him to cancel the remainder of his tour and turn the Tundra back toward the coast, where it could be used to haul medicine and other supplies to flooded communities and where he could meet victims and first responders before heading home for a “rally for relief” and his regular monthly congressional town hall meeting.

Before that turn of events, it was from all appearances a successful trip.

O’Rourke drew generally good and enthusiastic crowds even in communities that rarely vote for a Democrat, let alone actually encounter one running for statewide office.

And through a veritable livestream of consciousness of the whole experience on his Facebook page, O’Rourke also invited Texans to join the journey and become engaged in not just his campaign but with him, raising the question: Could this little-known candidate from a different time zone and on a different wavelength be the one who leads Texas Democrats out of their two-decade sojourn in the wilderness?

It turned out that the tiny Trimmier — rhymes with premier — Barber Shop was empty apart from the proprietor, Insuk Enochs, and a stentorian musical score blasting from her cellphone, which O’Rourke, who toured with a successful punk band in his youth, pegged as heavy metal opera.

In a matter of minutes, O’Rourke, who had arrived feeling “shaggy,” was shorn, paid his $8 plus tip and returned to the campaign trail, announcing, “I feel lighter.”

O’Rourke’s remarkably troll-free Facebook audience was mostly delighted.

But not everyone.

“Talk about the issues,” wrote Tony Gates of Dallas. “I don’t care what your hair looks like.”

“Tony — chill,” replied Lincoln Crowder of Waco. “Winning elections takes lots of approaches.”

For 20 years, Texas Democrats have tried lots of approaches without winning a single statewide election and losing by ever wider margins. Cruz first won election in 2012 by 16 points over Paul Sadler, a former Democratic state representative. Two years later, Greg Abbott defeated Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis for governor by 20 points.

“I think that a lot of political people jump immediately to the conclusion that he can’t possibly win, and it’s the wrong thing to jump to,” said Paul Stekler, a political documentary filmmaker and professor at the University of Texas.

“To begin with, who the hell knows what will happen in a year under the most unusual president in the history of the country, going from crisis to crisis day after day,” Stekler said.

“If you’ve got a younger candidate who’s very personable and is running a very positive campaign and avoids doing the obvious thing of just attacking Trump and attacking Cruz, it’s not a bad tactic, especially when the Democratic brand in Texas is just so weak right now, just so tainted,” Stekler said. “The Democrats have to start someplace to come back.”

O’Rourke lacks strong attachments or obligations to the state or national Democratic Party. He backed a challenge to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He is unencumbered, so far, by consultants or pollsters. He is unburdened by great expectations.

“We should go back and look at all the Jack Kerouac Texas references,” he said, sitting in his Tundra. “There’s a really good El Paso one from ‘Dharma Bums’ where he spends an amazing night,” O’Rourke said. “But, of course, he wasn’t in a truck, he was on a train.”

Like Kerouac, O’Rourke went to Columbia University in New York, and he knows something about storytelling.

It was O’Rourke who initiated an impromptu, two-day, bipartisan road trip in March, when he and Republican Will Hurd, the 40-year-old second-term congressman from a district that stretches from San Antonio to the edge of El Paso, rented a Chevy Impala in San Antonio to drive 1,600 miles to get back to the Capitol just in time for some votes.

Streaming their endless hours of banter about public policy and favorite bands on Periscope and Facebook Live, it was politics as spontaneous, good-vibe buddy movie with call-ins of encouragement from politicians of both parties — and 2.6 million views online.

“The reason why he and Will got so many eyeballs on Facebook Live is they are really nice guys, young enough to have grown up in the world of social media and smart enough to use it in really interesting ways,” Stekler said.

“It’s been very interesting,” O’Rourke said of his campaign road trip in an interview with the American-Statesman after his long day in Killeen. “Sometimes I wonder whether it makes sense to livestream all this because there’s so much, and it’s all the time. But the intent was to, through our actions, show that we’re literally, physically going to be in every part of Texas, and then, that we’re very transparent and you can hold me accountable.”

‘Beto is a maverick’

“He’s putting a human face on a government official, and that’s something that’s sorely lacking in Texas,” said Raejean McDonald, a 60-year-old retired Army sergeant who follows O’Rourke on line and who attended both of his town halls in Killeen, home to Fort Hood.

“He’s open, honest, empathetic,” McDonald said. “I told Beto this afternoon, Trump gives more nightmares than my PTSD does, because you don’t know what you’re going to wake up to each and every day.”

A few hours later, McDonald had a good seat when O’Rourke made his way, to applause, through the packed house at the Stillhouse Wine Room.

“We got over a hundred people to show up. That is an amazing turnout for a Democrat in deep red Texas, deep red Bell County, Central Texas,” said Kenith Gonzalez, a 23-year-old student at Central Texas A&M and president of the Central Texas Young Democrats.

Trump won Texas by nine points but beat Hillary Clinton by 15 points in Bell County.

Gonzalez said O’Rourke’s relative obscurity might help. Texas Republicans, he said, would have been ready for the Castro brothers — U.S. Rep. Joaquin, D-San Antonio, and his twin brother, Julián, the former San Antonio mayor and secretary of Housing and Urban Development — who, more risk-averse than O’Rourke, passed on running for statewide office this cycle.

O’Rourke’s road trip was a chance to make, from one stop to the next, a first impression of his own design, with the help of folks like Chris Rosenberg, the Bell County Democratic Party chairwoman who introduced him at the wine room.

“Beto is a maverick and a Texas son in every sense of the word,” she said.

“What’s more Texan than a fourth-generation Irish-American who graduated with a degree in English but is also fluent in Spanish and calls himself Beto?” she asked. “And what’s more American than a musician who reads the classics, became a businessman in the tech industry and looks like a Kennedy running for U.S. Senate?

“There is no other individual who represents a stronger rebuke to Donald Trump than Beto O’Rourke,” Rosenberg said. “There will be no other race in the 2018 cycle that will mark a sharper contrast on immigration and border security than between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz.”

That might be true.

O’Rourke rhapsodizes about the bicultural, binational border communities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez in nearly Edenic terms. For him, Trump’s border wall is a sacrilege.

But his starkest contrast with both Trump and Cruz is in tone and approach.

Trump and Cruz are, in their own ways, polarizing figures. But O’Rourke is temperate, accommodating, approachable and positive.

He talks about his visit to Booker in Lipscomb County, the northeastern corner of the Panhandle, where Hillary Clinton garnered 135 votes to Trump’s 1,159, but where the Republican Party chairwoman, “in true Texas fashion … invites me out to dinner, and we’re talking about immigration because, she tells me, ‘We just deported the salutatorian from Booker High School at the point where he is about to pay dividends back on the investment we made in him, someone who is as American as any of our kids or grand kids.’”

At the veteran’s town hall at the J.Q. Adams American Legion Post in Killeen, O’Rourke, whose district includes part of Fort Bliss and who serves on both the House Veteran’s Affairs and Armed Services committees, talks about working with Colorado’s Republican Rep. Mike Coffman on giving veterans with a less-than-honorable discharge access to mental health services, and with Rep. Joe Wilson — the South Carolina Republican who shouted “you lie” during President Barack Obama’s speech before Congress in 2009 — to restore full funding for tuition assistance for active-duty military personnel.

You can’t, he explained, get anything done in a Republican Congress without a Republican partner.

Because of his bond with Hurd, O’Rourke has recused himself from any involvement in a race that represents his party’s best chance to pick up a Texas seat in Congress in 2018.

“I just can’t do that,” he said.

He got an earful from some Democrats in San Antonio. “They’re disappointed with me, and I understand that,” O’Rourke said.

But, he said, “Will and I have a genuine friendship. We talk. We check in with each other. We had this special experience together and then been able to work together.”

‘Not a slam dunk’

O’Rourke has concluded that Trump merits impeachment. He disparages Cruz for putting his 2016 presidential ambitions ahead of his constituents.

But mostly, at the town hall meetings, where he gives long and thoughtful answers, he doesn’t dwell on either man.

Of Cruz, he said, “Most people have already formed their judgment of him.”

“I’m just very mindful that I tend to get turned off when folks just talk about how bad the other person is, and I tend to get really inspired when someone’s able to capture my imagination about what they want to do,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke credits Trump for his crowds.

“I don’t think you would see the turnout you’re seeing — or how intensely people feel about this or how urgent they think it is — without Trump,” he said. “The wall, the Muslim ban, North Korea, the Klan and the neo-Nazis, the basic breaking down of civility. It’s all connected to him.”

There are two ways, Stekler said, for a Democrat to make progress in today’s Texas.

“One is to wake up the sleeping giant of the Latino vote, and the other is to make progress with Republicans, especially Republican women in the suburbs,” Stekler said. “They are turned off by Trump-style tea party politics.”

At a late-added stop in Williamson County — which Trump carried by just shy of 10 points — the morning after his Killeen events, O’Rourke told a breakfast crowd of about 130 in Putters Cafe at Sun City in Georgetown, “if you think you are joining a Don Quixote on this mission,” he considers victory “possible — not a slam dunk, not likely, still a long shot by anyone’s measure if we’re being honest — but absolutely possible.”

He says it feels good to look people in the eye, to listen to their concerns.

“If you are a little dismayed, a little distraught, perhaps a little depressed about the lack of civility in our country today, at the unwillingness of people to look beyond their careers, the partisanship, the party, the ideology and do what is better for the country rather than themselves, to look beyond the next election to the next generation — travel the state of Texas,” he said.

“The people of this state absolutely get it. The most ardent Democrat, the most hard-core Republican want us to work across the aisle and figure out ways for us to be constructive and productive and put the business of this country first,” he said.

Gary Gunther, who lives in Austin and creates video game characters, had watched the livestream of O’Rourke getting his hair cut. He watched a couple of days earlier as O’Rourke and aide John Meza did their laundry at Harvey Washbangers, a combination laundromat, bar and restaurant in College Station where O’Rourke gave Meza a clinic on crisply folding shirts straight from the dryer to avoid ironing. They had a locally brewed beer on tap and met a young couple who had seen the livestream and raced over with their baby to meet O’Rourke.

“I think people need to feel that they are connecting with someone who is real,” Gunther said. “This politics thing we do, it intersects with people’s lives in real says. He gets that.”

‘He answers the question’

That afternoon in La Grange in Fayette County, which Trump won by nearly 60 points, Scott Shaffer, a leader of a nonpartisan group that brought O’Rourke to town and filled the room at Sealand Seafood and Steaks, announced that O’Rourke was the first U.S. Senate candidate to visit La Grange in 40 years.

O’Rourke drew about 500 people to a middle school in Amarillo, his fourth visit of the year, and a couple of hundred in San Angelo in Tom Green County, where Trump won by 48 points.

“I’ve been to Lubbock County four times now, and just for those who are keeping score on the political count and are wondering, how in the hell we are going to win this thing, Lubbock County voted for Ted Cruz 70-30 (actually 70-27) in 2012,” O’Rourke told the La Grange audience. “After the fourth visit to Lubbock County, I am confident we will not lose 70-30 in Lubbock County.”

Afterward, Evan Moilan, a fundraising consultant from Bastrop who serves on the board of directors of Lutheran Social Services, approached O’Rourke to thank him “for bringing decorum back.”

“I told him that I thought I would bring my daughter to see him, and I wouldn’t bring my daughter to see other politicians because of the rhetoric and the vigor and the fire that they use to get people engaged,” Moilan said. “He’s thoughtful. He takes his time and listens, and he answers the question.”

Sissy Farenthold, 90, the Texas liberal icon who twice ran for governor in the 1970s, traveled from Houston to La Grange to see O’Rourke.

“He’s like Jimmy Stewart,” she said — tall (6-foot-4), lean and earnest.

Now in his third two-year term in the House, O’Rourke had pledged to serve no more than four terms. He has promised not to serve more than two six-year terms if elected to the Senate.

The next morning, O’Rourke, who isn’t accepting money from political action committees, described in vivid detail the soul-crushing fundraising regimen both parties place on members of Congress to a small but rapt group of 20 at the Hallet Oak Gallery in Halletsville, located in Lavaca County, which Trump carried by 71 points.

O’Rourke out-raised Cruz his first full quarter as a candidate — $2.1 million to $1.6 million — but Cruz built a prodigious fundraising network in his presidential campaign and can be expected to well outpace O’Rourke in the long haul.

“I don’t see any way the DNC or other Democratic leadership institutions are going to be helpful to us,” O’Rourke told the Statesman. “But I knew that going in.”

“I think the challenge this year for them is they have 10 Democratic Senate seats in states that Trump won — and some of those by large margins — so actually the reverse is happening, to be very honest with you,” O’Rourke said. “I see them coming to Texas to take money out of this state to go fund those campaigns. So the flow’s going in the wrong direction.”

From Hallettsville, it was on to Victoria, where Guy Burleson, a retired high school teacher and coach, was waiting outside the Victoria Art League to greet O’Rourke.

Trump beat Clinton by 40 points in Victoria County, and Burleson likened spotting a statewide Democratic candidate here to a Bigfoot sighting.

“You know, you’ve heard rumors that they exist, and maybe you’ve got a cousin’s brother-in-law’s uncle who’s seen one out in the woods, but he was out drinking,” he said.

As Hurricane Harvey approached and the rains began, the Victoria County Democrats canceled a rally that night for O’Rourke, who departed for Austin (he would return to Victoria after it flooded) and a Friday night rally that drew about 800 people to Scholz Garten as Harvey made landfall.

“Folks are fired up, and they want to be part of something and channel their frustration or their excitement or their energy into something that’s going to do something,” O’Rourke told the Statesman. “If I’m honest, a lot of it is there, regardless of me or who the candidate is. But I don’t know anybody who has worked this hard to go out and connect with it.”

This road trip ended, it remains the road map for the rest of the campaign.

“I think this is very much what we will be doing,” O’Rourke said. “A mailer, an ad, a TV spot — nothing beats being there. I think that’s going to be the focus.

“You have to be everywhere,” he said.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Trump rips New York Times reporter, defends Cohen
Trump rips New York Times reporter, defends Cohen

President Donald Trump came out swinging on Twitter Saturday morning, firing off three tweets attacking The New York Times and reporter Maggie Haberman. A story published Friday in the Times -- written by Haberman, Sharon LaFraniere and Danny Hakim -- suggested that Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen might cooperate with federal...
FORECAST: Showers possible Saturday in Austin, some storms could be severe
FORECAST: Showers possible Saturday in Austin, some storms could be severe

Showers are possible Saturday in Austin and some storms in Central Texas could become severe, producing hail and damaging winds, the National Weather Service said. Meteorologists put rain chances in Austin at 40 percent Saturday in the day and 20 percent at night. Forecasters say some storms stretching from east of Llano to Hallettsville could...
Queen Elizabeth turns 92: 5 fun facts
Queen Elizabeth turns 92: 5 fun facts

Queen Elizabeth II turned 92 on Saturday, and after 65 years on the throne, she holds the distinction of ruling longer than any monarch in the United Kingdom’s history.  The queen actually celebrates two birthdays each year: her actual birthday, which is April 21; and one in June when she hosts a parade -- weather permitting -- called &ldquo...
Man killed Saturday morning after being struck by vehicle on I-35 in North Austin
Man killed Saturday morning after being struck by vehicle on I-35 in North Austin

A man was struck and killed Saturday morning on Interstate 35 in North Austin, causing heavy delays in the area, Austin-Travis County EMS officials said. Medics said they responded at 7:14 a.m. to a vehicle-pedestrian crash in the 6100 block of north Interstate 35, which police said is near U.S. 290.  A man described as in his 30s was pronounced...
OVERNIGHT: Woman struck, killed along I-35 in South Austin
OVERNIGHT: Woman struck, killed along I-35 in South Austin

A woman was killed early Saturday after she was struck by a vehicle in South Austin, Austin-Travis County EMS officials said. Medics responded at 3:42 a.m. to a vehicle-pedestrian crash in the 8100 block of south Interstate 35 along the frontage road north of Slaughter Lane. A woman described as in her 30s was pronounced dead on the scene, officials...
More Stories