At an open-air event space beside a craft brewery in east Fort Worth, a hip indie-rock guitarist introduces the leading Democratic candidate for Texas governor. “Who’s excited to see Beto?” he asks from the stage, pronouncing the Spanish moniker “Bay-toe.” In the spread-out crowd of a few hundred, a handful proclaim their excitement. The guitarist then asks if the crowd has heard of Foss, a defunct lo-fi punk group. “That was Beto’s band back in El Paso,” he clarifies, before admiringly describing an old photo of said band in which O’Rourke wore a dress. “But, yeah, this next one’s for you, Beto.”
I’m tempted to check the date on my phone. Might I, somewhere on my drive up from Austin, have passed through a portal to 2018?
More attendees trickle in. Many are being shuttled from a downtown parking area, safely past a couple square blocks of homeless camps, to arrive at the brewery. As the December sun sets, a campaign staffer announces O’Rourke will speak later than planned. The first band retires and is replaced by a DJ, who leads with top 40 standbys and hip-hop airhorns. The response is polite; then, he strikes gold. “Just a small town girl,” the song begins, and the crowd tightens. Millennial and middle-aged alike, in black Beto t-shirts, begin to sing. Fifteen minutes later, the DJ throws caution to the wind and plays the song a second time. If there’s one thing this crowd doesn’t want to stop, it’s believing.
O’Rourke, who rose to fame with a near-successful bid to topple Senator Ted Cruz four years ago, looks headed for another defeat. Polls show him trailing by as much as 15 points against Texas’ Republican incumbent Governor Greg Abbott, who thrashed his two prior Democratic opponents and sits on a $55 million warchest. Unlike in 2018, when O’Rourke rode a backlash to President Trump, he now stares down a projected red wave. After a quixotic 2020 run for president, he’s alienated swing voters. His Democratic base may still adore him, but in Texas, that’s not enough.
In Fort Worth, O’Rourke’s arrival can be felt as a ripple through the throng. Weaving his way through the crowd, he bounds up to a raised platform. As ever, he’s lithe and lanky, his smile all teeth; as always, he’s wearing a light-blue button-up shirt. Following a few paeans to local attractions, he launches into what’s become his stump speech—a careful litany of issues he hopes can become wedges.
He first addresses the February freeze and electric grid failure that killed hundreds of Texans, blaming Abbott for failing to prepare and being beholden to energy CEOs. Here—as he summons memories of the ordinary Texans who provided one another shelter, food, and water during the crisis—he makes his unity pitch.
“We put our differences behind us, we said no me importa, I do not care, if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, who you love, who you pray to … never mind the divisions, the differences by which they seek to divide us,” O’Rourke says. “Folks, imagine if we had a governor who felt the same way.”
He then cycles through some of the reactionary laws that Governor Abbott signed last year, particularly those that poll poorly. He touches on Senate Bill 1, the voting crackdown that House Democrats staged a walkout over last summer, and Senate Bill 8, the measure that’s placed a $10,000 bounty on nearly any Texan who provides or helps someone secure an abortion. He condemns the firearms legislation that now lets most Texans carry handguns without training or permits—a measure Abbott signed over objections from many police chiefs. O’Rourke, who once spoke favorably of defunding the police, now says simply: “You and I, we trust law enforcement, and we’re listening to them.”
An El Paso resident who formerly represented the border city in Congress, O’Rourke in prior campaigns spoke with power and eloquence in favor of immigrants and against policies like building a border wall. In Fort Worth, and other recent stops, he leaves those topics essentially untouched. The polling here is daunting for Dems.
He closes with a pun: Unlike Abbott, O’Rourke will keep the power on, and he knows “the true power of Texas is in the people around us.”
The crowd transforms into a snaking selfie line. Faces light up; this, it seems, is the main event. With each supporter, he shakes hands or hugs, he leans in, he brims with attentiveness. You can’t miss it: They love him. Watching dozens get their moment with O’Rourke, it’s almost enough to stir something in a heart laden with political polls and past disappointments. One can almost catch a sudden scent on the wind. Wine, perhaps, or cheap perfume.
What was it that made Beto magic?
In early 2017, just a couple months after Trump took office and a year and a half before the next election, O’Rourke announced his run against Ted Cruz on a shaky handheld livestream. The Texas Democrats had seen their last statewide star, Wendy Davis, crushed in the 2014 governor’s race. The going wisdom was that Davis, or one of San Antonio’s Castro twins, would eventually snap the party’s nearly three-decade statewide losing streak—if not this year, then soon. Instead, those rising stars rose until they winked out of sight. And there was O’Rourke, campaigning like a man on fire.
There he was, racing in his pickup to rural towns no rational Democrat would visit and delivering supplies amid Hurricane Harvey. There he was jogging, losing his phone, getting a haircut. Everything was live-streamed. No one recruited the little-known congressman from the Mountain Time Zone to do this; he recruited himself. Yet somehow he didn’t come off as arrogant. The Trump-era had filled the air with an urgency matched by his energy. As Christopher Hooks wrote for this magazine at the time: “Nothing this year feels good, but this does, and that can have a power of its own.”
Ideologically, O’Rourke was fuzzy in a smart way. Like Bernie Sanders, he swore off PAC money, and his volunteer apparatus was modeled on Sanders’ 2016 presidential run. He even flirted with Medicare for All. But O’Rourke never fully anchored himself to the policy positions that were rending the party between progressives and moderates. Ultimately, he was more of a good vibes guy. Soon, the money flowed in by the millions.
Election night was a drama in two parts: promising early returns for O’Rourke driven by suburban support followed by a red tsunami from rural Texas where, it seems, O’Rourke had wasted his breath. Cruz won by 2.6 points. Even sky-high voter turnout, Donald Trump in the White House, and record-shattering fundraising hadn’t been enough. But, unlike in 2014, there was a bright side: O’Rourke had fuelled down-ballot liberal wins. The Dems flipped two U.S. House seats, 12 state House seats, 2 state Senate seats, and locked in control of Harris County.
From there, as has been well-documented, O’Rourke went off the rails. Rather than stay home to prep another Senate run in 2020, he launched a doomed bid for the White House. In a bid for relevance, he staked out hard-left positions—not on popular issues like education and healthcare, but on mandatory gun buybacks and revoking churches’ tax status. En route to an early flameout, he burned credibility with fence-sitters and ticket-splitters.
On the eve of the Texas primary, he veered back to the center, joining a political blitz to stop Sanders and prop up Joe Biden, a move that earned the ire of former 2018 campaign staffers. Ideological fuzziness, at last, looked more like a lack of principles. Meanwhile, in his absence, a scrum of little-known Democrats duked it out for the chance to lose to Senator John Cornyn.
For the last year and a half, O’Rourke’s been on something of an atonement tour, one heavy on good intentions and light on success. O’Rourke threw his weight behind the Democratic effort to flip the state House in 2020, and he publicly pressed the Biden campaign to invest more in Texas. These efforts bore no fruit: The Dems flipped zero state House seats, the Senate candidate was drubbed, and Biden lost ground in crucial South Texas. Finally, while postponing his announcement for governor this year, O’Rourke focused on supporting the state lawmakers who fled to D.C. to stymie the GOP’s voting crackdown and push Congress to pass election protections. The anti-voting bill passed in August; Congress did not intervene.
O’Rourke could delay his gubernatorial announcement, which he made in November, because no other serious candidate was going to run. The once-unheralded El Pasoan who muscled aside the state party’s supposed stars had become the supposed star.
Dutifully, O’Rourke’s accepted his part, trotting his charisma around a state that already seems to know him too well: He’s almost universally recognized and more disliked than liked. He does so under the weight of a Democratic president sinking in the polls. And, thanks to Texas Dems’ 2020 failure, down-ballot races are set to be run on maps freshly gerrymandered by the Republican Legislature: If O’Rourke still has coattails, there may be nobody in competitive races to ride them.
Texas Democrats are expert conjurers of silver linings. If nothing else, there’s always the comfort of playing the noble loser. But who gets healthcare or gets to vote, who survives childhood without legal discrimination or the trauma of school shootings, hinges not on the virtue of the loser.
Somewhere along the way in 2018, O’Rourke’s run broke the mold: Even cynical observers couldn’t predict the plot, foresee the final act, anticipate the lines. Now, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re all back on-script.
In a November interview with Texas Monthly, O’Rourke answered a question about his troubling poll numbers. “I don’t think this will be much of a campaign if it’s about me,” he said. “I think it really has to be about Texas. It has to be about all of us.”
The day after his Fort Worth rally, he’s at a historic park ringed with sprawling Live Oaks in downtown Austin. The crowd’s bigger here, about 1,000 people. The supporters section band for the city’s soccer team, a brass and drum outfit, hypes the crowd with upbeat tunes and lyrics that go roughly: “Beto, Beto, Betooooo, Beto, Beto.”
Around the block, someone drives a truck with a bright-red Abbott ad on the side. It shows Biden’s face morphing into O’Rourke’s with alternating messages: “Wrong for America,” “Wrong for Texas.”
State Representative Gina Hinojosa introduces him this time. She details O’Rourke’s fundraising for House Dems’ failed voting rights walkout. Then O’Rourke takes the stage. He gives essentially the same speech as the night before, with the same high notes and jokes and sprinkles of Spanish. He reaches his closing pun in about 15 minutes. “We’re going to ensure that we elect a governor who will always keep the lights on and who understands the real power in Texas is the people of this state,” he says. “Be good to one another. Adiós. Buenas noches. Adiós.”
Cue the selfie line.