'O’Rourke has had great crowds and has lots of supporters but he’s a Democrat in a Republican state.'

Does Beto O’Rourke stand a chance?

Alex Hannaford

Alex Hannaford on whether the Democratic candidate could really beat Ted Cruz in deep red Texas

13 October 2018 07:00

Two years after Colin Kaepernick, then the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, knelt down during the national anthem in order to protest racial injustice in America, a middle-aged man stood before a crowd of people gathered in Houston, Texas, and defended Kaepernick’s right to do so.

‘Isn’t it disrespectful?’ a member of the audience had asked. ‘My short answer is no,’ the man replied. ‘Black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement, without accountability, and without justice. And this problem,’ he added, ‘is not gonna fix itself and they’re frustrated, frankly, with people like me … who have been unable to resolve this. … And so non-violently, peacefully … they take a knee to bring our attention and our focus to this problem to ensure that we fix it. That is why they are doing it. And I can think of nothing more American.’

The short video clip instantly went viral (to date it’s had 300,000 views on YouTube) and got thousands of retweets on Twitter — including from actor Russell Crowe, who added: ‘This man, Beto O’Rourke is a dude.’

It’s fair to say that moment, probably, was when Beto O’Rourke, a Texas Democrat currently serving in the House of Representatives and hoping to beat incumbent Senator Ted Cruz to the job as one of America’s top lawmakers in the midterm elections next month, found his way into the national consciousness.

Beto O’Rourke responds to question on NFL protests

Or possibly it was a few weeks before when, after a long day on the campaign trail, the lanky 46-year-old decided to skateboard round the parking lot of a burger restaurant chain (that clip, too, went viral). Or maybe it was last year when, faced with cancelled flights due to a snowstorm back east, he persuaded a Republican colleague in the House to take a 1,600 mile road trip with him from San Antonio, Texas, to Washington, D.C., and then livestreamed the whole thing.

Either way, Beto O’Rourke is now firmly ensconced in the American imagination and entrenched in the most-watched (and arguably most exciting) race this election season. And what even six months ago seemed like an incredibly long shot (Texas’s senior Senator John Corynyn described Beto’s campaign as a ‘suicide mission’), now seems achievable. Which is incredible when you think what’s actually happening here: a progressive Democrat who is pro-choice, believes in gun control and universal healthcare, supports legalising marijuana, and is against the deportation of undocumented immigrants, is in a close race for the U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz in deep red Texas.

Not only that, he’s doing it in a way that is largely devoid of the attacks on his opponent that so often characterises high profile American election races. ‘And he’s diverging from what seems to be the national trend with Democrats of a more combative stance against Republicans,’ says Capri Cafaro, a political commentator and former Democratic Ohio senator.

Remarkably, he’s managing to out-raise Cruz in campaign contributions, too. According to the Federal Election Commission, from January 2017 to July 2018, O’Rourke amassed $23.7m versus Cruz’s $14.1m

So who is Beto O’Rourke? Unlike Obama, whose father was a Kenyan goat herder who grew up in a tin-roofed shack and came to America for a better life, or Ted Cruz whose Cuban father claimed political asylum in the U.S. after his student visa expired, O’Rourke was born in El Paso on the Texas border near New Mexico in 1972. His mother ran a furniture shop and his father was a businessman who once served as county judge (his dad died in 2001 after his bicycle was struck by a car).

‘This man, Beto O’Rourke is a dude.’

While he was in high school, O’Rourke played bass guitar with his punk band Foss. He went to boarding school in Virginia, then studied English at Columbia University where he was captain of the rowing team, but during summer breaks he’d return to El Paso and tour the U.S. and Canada with Foss. After college O’Rourke determined he’d become a writer, while Foss’s drummer, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, went on to front successful alt-rock bands At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta.

‘As I understand it Ted Cruz was pretty interested in government and politics from an early age. Beto wasn’t’ says Eric Benson, a senior editor at Texas Monthly magazine who wrote a profile of O’Rourke earlier this year and has spent a considerable amount of time with him on the campaign trail. ‘He wasn’t the guy in high school or college that people thought would become a politician. He was an english major playing in punk rock bands. After college he lived in Brooklyn, worked odd jobs. He had the idea of becoming a writer and working in publishing, then he went back to El Paso and started a web design company.’

Benson says O’Rourke was on the local chamber of commerce before, at the age of 32, he ran for city council. ‘Before that I don’t think people thought of him as a future senator.’ His inaugural election to the House of Representatives was, Benson says, pretty exciting. He launched a primary challenge to eight-term incumbent Democrat Silvestre Reyes and won by just a few hundred votes, despite Reyes picking up endorsements from then-president Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. O’Rourke went on to defeat Republican Barbara Carrasco in the general election with 65% of the vote.

In 2017, shortly before he announced his Senate bid, O’Rourke and Congressman Will Hurd embarked on their now-famous road trip from San Antonio to Washington, D.C. after their flight was cancelled due to snow. ‘Beto livestreamed the whole thing on Facebook,’ Benson says. ‘During the trip they called into cable shows, took questions from people online, and it became a feel-good story in an era of bitter partisan rancour. Only a few months after the election of Trump, here was a young Democratic congressman and a young Republican congressman getting along.’

During the trip, which CBS described as a ‘town hall on wheels,’ Hurd and O’Rourke talked about how they’d love to find a bipartisan solution to healthcare in America; they sang Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again (“It’s like carpool karaoke,” Hurd said); and O’Rourke admitted he was thinking about running for senate.

Political scientists don’t rate O’Rourke’s chances in Texas much, and not without reason: Texans haven’t elected a Democrat to statewide office for 24 years — which also happens to be the nation’s longest stretch without a win. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win here was Jimmy Carter in 1976.

So how does O’Rourke believe he has a fighting chance? ‘It’s very audacious,’ says Benson, who is hosting a new podcast about O’Rourke – ‘Underdog’ – which begins this week. ‘And he’ll only win if he changes the Texas electorate. His plan involves turning out people who’ve never voted before.’

Texas has one of the worst voter turnouts in the nation but over the 15 months leading up to June this year, O’Rourke managed to visit each one of the state’s 254 counties, racking up, as the Texas Tribune wrote, ‘tens of thousands of miles on the road, hundreds of town hall meetings and innumerable cups of coffee.’

Travis Ridout, a government professor at Washington State University, says the problem for Democrats in Texas in the past has been low turnout among Hispanic voters. But, he says, ‘there’s a chance Beto could win. Maybe they can change it this time around.’

The polls have been close. Only one showed O’Rourke in the lead, but a few have showed him within the margin of error. Benson says he’s continued to be a relentless campaigner. ‘His schedule is remarkable actually — the different places he’s going and speaking.’ But, he warns, this is Texas. ‘In 2016 Trump was not popular among Texas Republicans, and he performed worst of any Republican presidential candidate since Bob Dole 20 years ago,’ Benson says, ‘and yet he still won by a million votes.’

That said, this is a midterm year and Trump is an unpopular president, with an approval rating hovering around 40%. ‘Unless something wonky happens, his party is going to lose a lot of seats in the House — and they could lose the Senate,’ Benson says. ‘It’s hard to imagine Democrats winning the senate without Beto.’

How does O’Rourke believe he has a fighting chance?

Capri Cafaro says while Beto-Cruz isn’t the closest of the Senate races during this election season (that’s in Nevada, she says), the reason all eyes are on Texas is because it’s incredible that a Democrat in such a deep red state could make any kind of competitive play there. ‘Is that emblematic of a larger trend nationally?’ Cafaro says. ‘Changing demographics? Immigration? It’s going to go down to the wire.’

On Thursday, Quinnipiac released its latest poll which showed Cruz maintained his nine-point lead over O’Rourke. That said, the number of women supporting O’Rourke had risen, while the number of men supporting him had gone down.

Quinnipiac’s assistant director Peter Brown tells me that the most striking statistic in the poll isn’t good news for O’Rourke. ‘Cruz has a 25 point lead over Beto among men. There’s an awful lot of attention paid to female voters these days but the Democratic party in Texas doesn’t appear to be appealing well to men. Cruz is up 25 points among half the electorate — and when you’re up 25 points with half the electorate it’s a pretty good way to win an election.’

Brown says O’Rourke has had great crowds and has lots of supporters but he’s a Democrat in a Republican state, ‘and there are a lot more Republicans in Texas than in most other states. The demographics are pretty clear.’

That said, O’Rourke has a plan: turn his focus now to the Rio Grande Valley, that 5,000 square mile swathe of south Texas on the border with Mexico.

O’Rourke has had great crowds and has lots of supporters but he’s a Democrat in a Republican state.

‘I’m heading to the Rio Grande Valley tomorrow morning,’ Benson tells me. ‘Beto’s campaigning in McCallen and Harlingen this weekend. And he’ll be back there next week for a town hall being televised by CNN. The border area is large. There are 1.3 million people in the Valley but it notoriously has the worst voter turnout in Texas and some of the worst in the country. But it’s heavily Democrat and Latino, and so it’ll be a really good bellwether to see how powerful Beto’s campaign is. If he can get people to turn out in the Valley in a way they haven’t before it will be a staggering accomplishment.’

Ted Cruz, meanwhile, has declined to join O’Rourke at the town hall next week. ‘So Beto O’Rourke is going on his own,’ says Cafaro. ‘One hour of unfettered Beto.’

At the end of September, an estimated 60,000 people turned up on a Saturday evening at Auditorium Shores in downtown Austin to watch O’Rourke pace animatedly up and down an outdoor stage next to the lake, with the city’s skyline as his backdrop. ‘We are not running against anyone or anything or any political party,’ he told the crowd. ‘We are running for one another and for this country that we love so much.’

In a 20-minute speech in which he said Texas could lead the way, he trotted out his campaign greatest hits: universal health care, combatting climate change, reproductive rights, and the legalisation of pot. But this time he had a support act to drive the message home: 85-year-old country star Willie Nelson, Texas’s favourite son. ‘Here’s a new song we wanna spring on y’all tonight,’ Nelson told the crowd. ‘If you don’t like who’s in there, vote ‘em out,’ he sang. ‘That’s what election day is all about / And the biggest gun we got / is called the ballot box / If you don’t like who’s in there, vote ‘em out.’

After cycling through his own greatest hits package it was time for one last song. ‘Beto, come help me do this one,’ he said. A tired-looking O’Rourke climbed back onto the stage, sweat now staining his blue shirt, and joined Nelson in a rendition of his classic hit ‘On The Road Again’. O’Rourke’s time on the road rallying voters, though, is almost over. On November 6th, Americans go to the polls.

'O’Rourke has had great crowds and has lots of supporters but he’s a Democrat in a Republican state.'