Why Democrats everywhere are watching Beto O'Rourke's Senate campaign in Texas

Beto O'Rourke, his wife Amy and two staffers -- one streaming it all live on Facebook -- piled out of a maroon Dodge ...

Posted: Apr. 15, 2018 9:38 AM
Updated: Apr. 15, 2018 9:38 AM

Beto O'Rourke, his wife Amy and two staffers -- one streaming it all live on Facebook -- piled out of a maroon Dodge Caravan rental at the courthouse here last Friday afternoon.

They were in Runnels County, a county in rural Central Texas where Donald Trump won 86% of the vote in 2016, to meet Republican county judge Barry Hilliard and ask which issues are on his mind. The first thing out of Hilliard's mouth: Second Amendment rights are under attack. "It's a dire situation," he said.

The two debated gun control measures briefly. "I'll be the first to admit I have a lot to learn about it," O'Rourke politely conceded, even as he explained that AR-15s leave exit wounds the size of an orange.

But the point wasn't debating gun control -- it was that O'Rourke showed up in Runnels County at all.

"It felt like we got a real, substantive conversation," O'Rourke said afterward.

As the van pulled away, he hopped out for a picture by a statue in front of the courthouse.

That was 234 of the 254 counties in Texas down -- 20 to go.

Stops like Runnels County on a recent six-day, 1,600-mile road trip are at the heart of O'Rourke's effort to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz and become the first Democrat to win statewide in Texas in 24 years -- in part by showing up and convincing voters in often-ignored regions that he cares about their interests.

The stakes are high: An O'Rourke win could give Democrats a shot at winning control of the Senate in November's midterm elections.

And Democrats everywhere are watching. O'Rourke, the 45-year-old congressman who spent the early '90s as the bass player in the punk rock band Foss, raised a stunning $6.7 million from 141,000 people in 2018's first three months -- by far the best of all this year's Senate candidates in both parties. That's all despite a pledge not to take any money from political action committees. It's a step beyond what other candidates have promised before: In addition to rejecting corporate cash, O'Rourke is turning down checks from PACs run by left-leaning groups whose positions he strongly supports.

Instead, he's relying on a massive base of small-dollar donors cultivated by Revolution Messaging, the firm behind Bernie Sanders' vaunted 2016 digital operation -- as well as personal appeal that comes in part from showing up in places where many Democrats say they haven't seen a statewide candidate since Ann Richards.

"Beto's like a Beatle. I mean, there's like Beto-mania," said Laura Moser, one of the two Democrats in a runoff to take on Rep. John Culberson for a Houston-area House seat.

Why do Democrats find O'Rourke so compelling?

It starts with his decision to stream much of his campaign -- town halls, road trips, one-on-one meetings -- on Facebook Live.

Other candidates have had the same idea before: Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul once broadcast an entire day on the Iowa campaign trail in October 2015 on Periscope.

But because O'Rourke does it all day, every day -- and because many of the moments he captures, like stopping for gas, are so mundane -- it all comes across as more genuine.

And people watch: 9,000 Facebookers tuned in for his meeting with Hilliard in Runnels County. That's a small audience for an O'Rourke livestream -- but it's nearly double the number of people who voted in the 2016 presidential election in Runnels County.

Over dinner afterward at Mi Cocina, a Mexican restaurant in Sterling City, Texas, O'Rourke said he thinks the appearances in rural Texas and the livestreams allow supporters and volunteers to feel invested in his campaign -- like they're a part of it.

He said he's not sure whether other candidates could replicate what he's doing. "I totally get some people, like, 'I don't want people to see me eating a cheeseburger,'" he said.

"It's not for everybody."

***

For years, Democrats have sensed that Texas was nearing a tipping point.

It's long been a Republican bastion, with GOP financial titans of the oil industry funding campaigns of future presidents (George W. Bush) and presidential candidates (Rick Perry and Ted Cruz).

But Texas is an increasingly diverse state. And its previously ruby-red suburbs showed some movement in the 2016 presidential election, when Hillary Clinton came within 9 percentage points of Trump -- a closer margin than the swing state Iowa and almost as tight as perennial battleground Ohio.

Backlash over Trump's presidency, as well as competitive House races in the Houston, Dallas and San Antonio media markets, have fed the perception that Texas is a key battleground in the 2018 midterm elections. But O'Rourke, Democrats across the state say, is the real headliner.

"His approach to campaigning, the fact that he's going to all 254 counties in Texas, the fact that he's accessible and approachable -- people respond to him and they like him and they are enthusiastic about our chances of winning across the board," said Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, the other Democrat in that House race in Houston.

Even though he's Democrats' greatest hope in Texas in recent memory, though, O'Rourke hasn't closely aligned himself with the party.

He first won his House seat by ousting Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes in a primary. He voted against Nancy Pelosi for House speaker. He gained more than two million eyeballs -- including Mark Zuckerberg's -- by driving 16 hours to Washington during a snowstorm with Republican Rep. Will Hurd, a top target in November's midterm elections, and livestreaming the trip on Facebook.

He told a Bernie Sanders supporter in Midland on Saturday that he didn't want Sanders, Hillary Clinton or any other outsiders in Texas campaigning for him.

He also pledged to leave the political stage quickly: He'd only serve two terms, he said in Midland.

But the party hasn't won statewide in Texas since 1994. And after a long string of disappointments -- including Wendy Davis's 21-point loss in the governor's race four years ago -- Democrats here say they're ready to try something different.

And if O'Rourke is successful, national Democrats -- including 2020 presidential campaigns -- could learn lessons from his race.

The one O'Rourke said he hopes is adopted by other Democrats: Rejecting not just corporate money but all political action committee contributions. He said he sees it as responsible for his online fundraising bonanza.

"That's a game-changer," O'Rourke said. "It's just wrong. Interests are paying for access. And it's confusing to people -- is my member of Congress voting for this interest or corporation or are they for me?"

***

On the campaign trail, O'Rourke rarely says Cruz's name -- referring to only "the junior senator from Texas" at campaign events.

But type O'Rourke's name into Google and this ad text pops up: "Beat Ted Cruz | Join Beto O'Rourke's Campaign."

O'Rourke admits he'll have to confront Cruz more directly in the coming months.

"I just don't want it to be about being against somebody else. I don't want a town hall to be, 'Ted Cruz this, Ted Cruz that,'" O'Rourke said.

It likely won't be up to him.

Cruz greeted O'Rourke's March primary victory with a radio ad that referred to him as "Robert O'Rourke" and mocked him for going by a nickname, "Beto," that O'Rourke says his parents gave him as a small child growing up in El Paso.

O'Rourke said he still gets asked about the Cruz ad, and usually just tries to breeze past it.

"Our country's deserving of more. But I can also acknowledge that's politics. I guess I just try to answer the questions directly and then move on to things that are interesting," he said.

O'Rourke is also much more liberal than most of the 10 Democratic senators running in states Trump won this year.

He told students at the University of Houston that he supports the legalization of marijuana. He campaigned in Midland for "Medicare for all," the Sanders-backed single-payer health care program. He told a crowd in Brady, Texas, that he liked an idea he'd heard from a voter to raise the corporate income tax from 21% to 25%.

Yet at campaign stops, O'Rourke insists he's not interested in the party identification of the people he meets.

David Rosen, the Midland County Democratic chairman, said the crowd was dotted with people who typically vote for Republicans after about 250 people turned out to hear O'Rourke on a Saturday morning.

"It's not only the moment, it's him," Rosen said of O'Rourke. "He's energetic, he speaks well, he conveys his ideas well, and he acknowledges that he is not a far-left Democrat, a far-right Democrat -- he's concerned about getting things done, and he reaches across the aisle. And people love that."

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