Win or lose, Texas Democrats have not had a candidate like Beto O’Rourke for at least as long as this has been a reliably Republican state.
“Nobody’s had a candidate like this,” said Sharon Kremer, a 64-year-old retired teacher from Denton who was among the throng of several hundred who filled the historic Santa Fe Depot in Gainesville to overflowing to see the Democratic congressman from El Paso who is challenging Republican incumbent Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate. With the visit Saturday, Rourke completed his 14-month trek that took him to each of Texas’ 254 counties.
Kremer had seen O’Rourke before, the first time at a Denton bar with food trucks called Backyard on Bell.
“When I saw Beto walk into Backyard on Bell, I viscerally responded and thought, ‘This is the Barack Obama I saw in Chicago; this is the Jack Kennedy I remember watching on television,’” Kremer said.
“He doesn’t fearmonger,” Kremer said. “Rhetoric and the use of language is extremely important to me, and I have read and have taught many dystopian novels and that’s what we’re living in now.”
Since O’Rourke announced his candidacy at the end of March 2017, he has held 234 town hall meetings — public meetings where he answers questions — and visited all 254 counties. The 253rd stop was Loving County, the second-smallest county by population in the United States, where he knocked on all 10 doors in the town of Mentone, population 19.
O’Rourke noted that, in his first term in the U.S. Senate, Cruz had visited all 99 counties in Iowa, seeking the presidency, but he calculates that Cruz hasn’t been to half of Texas’ 254. Asked how he knows that, O’Rourke said he asks people when he visits a county if Cruz has been there, and if they laugh, he counts that as a no.
O’Rourke’s travels to the four corners of Texas and every county in between has been a success on its own terms, but some Democrats worry that he might not be tough enough or mean enough for what’s to come in his uphill battle to defeat Cruz.
The very first question at Saturday’s town hall meeting in Cooke County was from a woman who asked if his mama had taught him how to deal with a schoolyard bully.
“She did,” O’Rourke replied.
He said Cruz was due respect for his service in the Senate.
“He’s just as much an American, just as deserving of respect as anyone else,” O’Rourke said. “The beauty of this is that he has been your senator, you have already formed your opinion of him. I trust your wisdom and your judgment. There is precious little I can add to that.”
On June 1 in Austin, Cruz said, “Usually, in a general election in Texas a Democrat runs to the middle, at least pretends to. Congressman O’Rourke isn’t doing that. He is running hard left, just like Bernie Sanders.”
Cruz said he brought Stephen Willeford, who fired the shots that stopped the perpetrator of the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, as his guest to the State of the Union address, while “Congressman O’Rourke chose to invite an illegal immigrant. That’s what he wants to highlight — that he’s fighting for illegal immigrants.”
But, O’Rourke said, one should not have to choose between the two.
“Heroes come from all different walks of life and backgrounds, are dreamers and are citizens, are undocumented and are fifth-generation Texans alike,” he said. “In other words, we don’t have to be divided on this stuff. We all deserve a chance to contribute and do the right thing.”
O’Rourke noted that this train depot was the last Texas stop on Harry Truman’s whistle-stop tour of Texas, which began in El Paso, in his seemingly hopeless 1948 campaign for president against Thomas Dewey.
He quoted Truman on that whistle-stop tour as saying, “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”
As O’Rourke spoke, yet another freight train roared past the depot, seemingly only inches from the windows.
Afterward, asked whether he needed to fight on more conventional terms to win, O’Rourke said, “There’s always a temptation, even inside my own head and heart, to do the things that you do in a conventional campaign.”
“This week Ted Cruz attacked my mom; he said she was a tax fraud,” O’Rourke said. But rather than respond in kind, he said, “Let’s talk about the facts. They are part of the public record. And let’s stay focused on the things people asked us about today.”
“It also comes through my head, when it comes to PACs or pollsters or constantly being negative on a personal level, there are lot of people counting on us, maybe I have to do the conventional thing in order to win. Maybe I have to tack over here to the middle,” O’Rourke added. “But we started this (campaign) running with nothing to lose, and we’re going to cross the line with nothing to lose and run it the same way, and that feels right to me.”
Does Kremer believe that O’Rourke could win?
“Please don’t make me cry,” she said. “It’s got to be.”