U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a little-known Democratic congressman from El Paso, has entered the 2018 race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Ted Cruz. O’Rourke hopes to become the first Democrat to win a U.S. Senate election in Texas since Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, by traveling to every corner of the state and appealing to voters across party lines.
“We need to meet this fear, this anxiety, this paranoia that’s coming out of the White House and gripping so much of this country, with a strength and a confidence that could only come from Texas,” O’Rourke, 44, told a Friday rally on a rooftop plaza overlooking downtown El Paso. “And that’s up to all of us.”
“So let me ask you: Do you want to do this?” O’Rourke, his wife Amy by his side, said to an ebullient response. “Do you want to win in 2018? Are you with me? Because I’m with you. Let’s do this.”
If Texas hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate in decades, it hasn’t elected an El Pasoan to statewide office ever.
But O’Rourke has a folksy charisma and disarming style that might make a virtue of necessity.
“Folks are asking, `How much are you going to raise, have you polled the race, did you get the best consultant,’ and we haven’t done any of that stuff,” O’Rourke told the American-Statesman.
“It doesn’t mean I don’t need to raise money, because I do and I will, and it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t listen to people who are smarter than I am, and I am definitely going to do that,” O’Rourke said.
“But by 2018, it will be 30 years since we last elected in Texas a Democrat to the Senate,” O’Rourke said. “And we’ve spent hundreds of millions on consultants, and we’ve raised that money from Texans and from folks around the country, and it hasn’t produced a victory, and I could spend the next 18 months of my life killing myself to get the 41 percent (of the vote other Democrats have gotten) or I can trust myself and the people I want to represent to do this the right way, to be out there and listen to people.”
O’Rourke — born Robert Francis O’Rourke — is a white man in a party that desperately needs to improve its standing with Anglo voters. But, as his name, Beto — a childhood nickname that stuck — suggests, he is the product of a cross-cultural border city. O’Rourke, who speaks fluent Spanish, first won election to Congress after defeating an eight-term Hispanic Democratic incumbent in the primary in the majority Hispanic district.
Even before O’Rourke formally entered the race, the Cruz campaign issued a fundraising email, decrying O’Rourke as an “unabashed liberal … with the full support of the mainstream media and a Washington establishment willing to do everything in their power to see Ted Cruz defeated.”
The Cruz fundraising email was followed by an email from Gov. Greg Abbott endorsing Cruz.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, also sent out a fundraising email saying he too is “seriously thinking about taking on Ted Cruz and will make his decision in the coming weeks.”
O’Rourke said he called Castro on Thursday to let him know that he was going to make his candidacy official on Friday and to “wish him luck in making your decision.”
O’Rourke said he told Castro, “If we find ourselves running in the same race I hope we can do it in a way that makes Texas proud, and I hope that we can continue to talk. I consider him a friend and someone I respect, and I want to make sure that respect carries through to anything that we do.”
The former El Paso City Council member promises to be an unconventional candidate.
O’Rourke said that, as in the past, he wouldn’t accept any political action committee money in the Senate campaign, and just as he had promised to serve no more than four terms in the House, he wouldn’t serve more than two terms in the Senate.
O’Rourke recently showed his talent for seizing the public imagination and harnessing social media with a spur-of-the-moment, bipartisan Texas-to-Washington road trip with his Republican colleague U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Helotes when the pair found themselves in mid-March unable to fly back to snowbound Washington for votes in the House.
The pair livestreamed most of their journey, and its novelty and their infectious camaraderie drew a crush of positive notice.
“Who in their right mind would spend any time watching that, and hundreds and thousands of people did, and I think it is probably a reflection of how unusual it is for a Democrat and a Republican to be seen spending any kind of meaningful time together that’s not, `I thank my friend from the 23rd District, blah, blah, blah,’” O’Rourke said. “It was people being people.”
“I’m going to continue to travel, to listen, to learn from people and I’m going to continue to do it everywhere and not just the typical places that you would find Democrats, but everywhere because everyone deserves something better,” O’Rourke said.
“I’m convinced we can do better,” O’Rourke said. “Listening to people across the state, I’m encouraged that folks, regardless of their party background, wherever they live, whether it’s a big city or a small town, feel the same and are looking for someone who can deliver on that.”
Not focused on Cruz
Still barely known beyond his home turf, O’Rourke faces a steep, uphill race against Cruz, who came out of the blue to win the seat in 2012 and quickly emerged as one of the most brazen and polarizing figures in American politics and a formidable though ultimately unsuccessful candidate for president in the 2016 Republican primaries.
“Part of the reason people want something better is because they’ve had it with a junior senator who has devoted the better part of the last four years furthering his political ambitions, running for president instead of serving the state,” O’Rourke said.
But O’Rourke said his campaign wouldn’t be mostly focused on Cruz, who he said had “done such a good job of campaigning in Texas and campaigning across the country,” that Texans “know how they feel about Ted Cruz and I trust their judgment, whatever it is.”
O’Rourke said that on Sunday night, he and his wife, Amy, assembled their three children — Ulysses, 10, Molly, 8, and Henry, 6 — on Molly’s bed, and told them about his plan to announce for Senate, though, he said, like a lot of observers, “they already knew this was happening even though we hadn’t really talked to them explicitly about it.”
“They were good, they listened politely and said, `OK, can we get to the bedtime stories?’” O’Rourke said.
After making his announcement, O’Rourke was heading to Dallas for an evening campaign event.
He’s scheduled to hold events Saturday in Waco and Austin, where he will host a 2 p.m. fundraiser at the Austin Motel on South Congress Avenue followed by a free meet-and-greet at Scholz Garten downtown. From Austin, it’s on to Houston on Sunday before returning to Washington.