Beto Testing

Can Beto O’Rourke’s seat-of-the-pants, DIY, break-the-rules campaign succeed against Ted Cruz?


A version of this story ran in the October 2017 issue.

Beto O’Rourke is sitting in a vinyl booth in an overlit lobby bar at a Courtyard Marriott in Lubbock, and he’s holding forth about authenticity. “I think everybody’s bullshit detector is as sensitive as it has ever been,” he says, “and I’m really mindful of that. I really don’t want to come in with something you’ve seen or heard before.”

Earlier this year, when he was starting to plan his bid for the Senate seat held by Ted Cruz, O’Rourke’s friends arranged meetings with a number of consultants and strategists. These were the people, his friends told him, who knew how to run a statewide campaign in one of the most complicated political battlegrounds in the country. The meetings didn’t go very well.

“They show you all these ads,” O’Rourke says with the tone of someone describing a timeshare presentation. “They’re like, ‘Our deal is, we think you should introduce yourself to the state through video. We want to keep it edgy. We think you’re edgy, and we think we could make this a little raw.’ I was allergic to the whole deal.” He couldn’t figure out why he needed to pay someone to tell him to do a video that gave the false impression of being real. So instead he flew to El Paso, gathered his family together backstage at the downtown Palace Theatre, and introduced himself to Texas through Facebook Live.

“Hey everyone,” he says, as the handheld iPhone shakes. “We’re gonna get started.” He introduces his family and staff, who seem a little uncomfortable on camera. O’Rourke then makes his way up a stairwell and exits the building as The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” blasts through muddy speakers. We’re conditioned to expect machine precision from campaign communications, and we pick over tiny flaws. This was something else — it looked like a home movie.

So far, O’Rourke’s campaign is essentially an endless road trip punctuated by his congressional duties. In August alone, he held scheduled events in some 32 towns and cities, and stopped in others along the way, many of them places that few prominent Democrats ever go. He’s livestreamed almost every important moment, and a hell of a lot of unimportant ones. There he is talking to the owner of a thrift store in La Pryor about his vacation plans; there he is rubbing the belly of a golden retriever in Bowie; here’s a five-minute video of O’Rourke looking for his phone on a country road somewhere around Palestine, before learning it had slid off the roof of his truck and was crushed by a passing vehicle. “Otherwise a really beautiful day,” he says, as cars whiz by and a staffer runs to get a plastic bag. The video has 7,000 views.

In nearly every conceivable way, O’Rourke is the antithesis of his opponent. Cruz works hard to be liked — he’s carefully machined and makes many of his colleagues uncomfortable. O’Rourke is boyish and handsome, effortlessly charismatic, and seems to hold genuine affection for just about everyone he talks to. In Lubbock, having remembered from earlier that I hadn’t eaten on the drive from Austin, he makes a point of ordering food at the bar.

O’Rourke is building a policy profile that’s significantly more progressive than is the norm in Texas — fewer paeans to business, fewer hedges on social issues and a firmer embrace of new-left shibboleths like universal health care. But his campaign’s real distinguishing quality is earnestness. The Facebook videos are intended to show the public what it’s like to be with O’Rourke in person, when his charm comes across strongest. O’Rourke’s message, so far, isn’t as much about what he’s saying as how he’s saying it.

Even if O’Rourke is simply able to close the gap with Cruz, it would be one of the greatest political stories of the decade.

In that, O’Rourke is holding up a romantic ideal of campaigning. The politics of the moment is degrading and alienating. But here comes Beto, hitting the road with his friends, holding parties around the state, sidelining the usual consultants and strategists, de-emphasizing fundraising, saying only what he believes to be true in the moment. It’s how a lot of people would like politics to be. If it works, or even if O’Rourke is simply able to close the gap with Cruz, it would be one of the greatest political stories of the decade.

Another possibility is that Cruz is a windmill and O’Rourke is Don Quixote, engaging in a dreamlike quest of his own devising. He can’t count on much support from his weakened party, he has no experience with statewide politics and he’ll be enormously outspent and out-organized by his opponent. The question of what he’s likely to do with this opportunity hinges on a question many are pondering: Who is this dude?

Supporters hold signs for Beto O’Rourke at J&M BBQ during a July campaign stop in Lubbock. (Brad Tollefson)

Ted Cruz was a certain kind of kid. He frequently tells audiences about the time he saved his allowance to send a $10 donation to Jesse Helms, the neo-Confederate senator from North Carolina. As a teenager, he performed with the Constitutional Corroborators, a group of high schoolers who used mnemonic devices to recite constitutional amendments in front of rotary clubs around Texas. In college, his classmates said, he’d stroll around the women’s wing of his Princeton dorm in a paisley bathrobe, making himself about as welcome as he’d be in the Senate many years later.

O’Rourke is about the same age as Cruz, but his coming-of-age story couldn’t be more different. O’Rourke grew up in El Paso, a city defined in part by its isolation within Texas and the United States — the California state line, an eight-hour drive, is closer than Austin — and its uniquely Mexican-American identity. O’Rourke, born Robert Francis, grew up speaking Spanish, partly thanks to his nanny, and started going by his nickname at an early age.

Reagan-era El Paso, at least for a teenager, felt airless and sterile. “The music on the radio, just, there wasn’t any,” he says. “I don’t quite know how to put it. There was nothing dangerous. There was no energy. There was no risk.” But the city’s isolation helped incubate a restive music scene. Touring acts traveling from the rest of Texas to Los Angeles would stop in El Paso, often performing in small venues. In the late ’80s, these acts included influential punk bands like Black Flag, Fugazi and the Dead Milkmen, but also hundreds of less famous ones.

One night, a friend took O’Rourke to the now-defunct Sound Seas Performance Wherehouse, a mainstay of the city’s punk and hardcore scenes that variously found its home in a tin shed, a gutted storefront and a Quonset hut next to a pig farm. O’Rourke saw a band from California whose members were about his age, and a light bulb went off. “I just— I was sold. I was like, ‘That is the coolest fucking thing in the world. I want to be that. That’s amazing.’”

A lot of kids in town had a similar aha moment, and they formed an unusually tight-knit musical community that took shape in the late ’80s and early ’90s. O’Rourke started his own band, Foss, and he played with a lot of other musicians in the El Paso scene, including the early members of At the Drive-In, the biggest band to come from the city. It was a much-needed creative outlet for a lot of young El Pasoans.

What the scene had in common was an appreciation for the punk values of DIY, community and self-sufficiency, which fit neatly with the cultural values of the borderlands. “I think people today hear the word ‘punk’ and don’t really know what it meant for us in that moment, especially in the Southwest,” says Julie Napolin, who played with O’Rourke in his second band, the Swedes. “It was about working with what you have, and community, and making things happen together.”

O’Rourke’s generation was the last to reach adulthood before the internet became ubiquitous. “People of our generation know what it’s like to build community around face-to-face contact — around cafes, bookstores, record stores,” Napolin said. “People who were making stuff happen in that moment understand something key about building community.” In other words, it was political training for O’Rourke, in the same way the Constitutional Corroborators was for Cruz.

O’Rourke’s vision for his Senate campaign is a direct reflection of his early years in El Paso. When he steps in front of a mic at his rallies, he says, he feels the same thrill he would when he used to perform. Asked about his plans to staff up through next fall, he references Get in the Van, Henry Rollins’ tour diaries. He wants to believe, he says, “that we can figure this out within our group, without bringing in all the consultants. I want it to be as professionally run as possible without losing the fact that it’s a little bit like a show. That it’s an intimate thing.”

If you’re a Democrat and you find yourself running for statewide office in Texas, somewhere along the way you’ve made a wrong decision. A campaign is a two-year hell, and you have a very low chance of winning. If you lose badly, like Wendy Davis, your political life is probably over. Stay on the sidelines, like the Castro brothers, and your time may never come. Either way, you and your party lose. To run, and to commit to it seriously, requires either a sort of blindness to reality or a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good.

O’Rourke has a bit of both. On the one hand, he has very little experience with state politics, having skipped from a seat on the El Paso City Council to Congress. He’s unfamiliar with the bitterness and cynicism that pervades party politics in the rest of the state.

“People of our generation know what it’s like to build community around face-to-face contact — around cafes, bookstores, record stores.”

But he also feels a certain urgency. Many people believe the whole system of American politics is breaking down, he says. “I know so many people who voted for Trump, and I say, ‘How could you do that? You live in El Paso. You don’t want a wall.’ They’re like, ‘No, I could give a shit about the wall. I just want somebody to blow that place up. That place is so fucked up and corrupted, and it is a swamp, and that’s the first guy who I know could care less about the system.’” In his own way, O’Rourke is trying to blow up the system, too. When he describes his reasons for doing so, it becomes clear that the campaign is a sort of personal crusade.

“I think that your successor 500 years from now is going to be writing about us the way that we write about the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages,” he tells me. “It’s just so corrupt, in the same way that they were selling bishoprics and indulgences to shorten your time in purgatory. We’re selling votes. We’re selling amendments. We’re selling democracy, and it’s absolutely disgusting. But what makes it even more fucked up is that everybody knows that it’s happening, but it’s just what has always happened for so long now that it’s all-encompassing in the system. No one seems really willing to do anything that will compromise their ability to be successful in that system by stepping out of it.”

O’Rourke, of course, wants to win. But how do you win and blow up the system? He’s trying, he says, to learn from Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, after many years of serving as an Obama Democrat. He’s not taking PAC money. He’s also bucking the advice of campaign professionals: His staff consists of several longtime friends and allies, which campaign vets say will prevent the people around him from giving unpopular but necessary advice. Unsurprisingly, much of the political class, including Democrats who wish him well, thinks O’Rourke is crazy. When he decided to reject PAC money, he says, “all my friends in Congress were like, ‘See you later.’”

O’Rourke’s town halls have pulled in large crowds in unexpected places — one rally in Amarillo in August brought out almost 500 people. Of course, crowds can be deceiving. Bernie Sanders drew huge crowds, but so did Ron Paul. Some Beto skeptics believe that his rallies largely consist of committed Democrats, not the low-propensity voters he needs to reach. An early test will be if O’Rourke’s name recognition — only about a third of voters said they had an opinion of him in June — has improved by the fall, when more polls will be conducted.

“We’re selling votes. We’re selling amendments. We’re selling democracy, and it’s absolutely disgusting.”

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Still, O’Rourke is betting that the free publicity from his livestreaming and local events provides a multiplier effect that balances out Cruz’s visibility and resources. “I think there’s this whole other way to reach people that none of us fully understands yet, but is incredibly exciting,” he says. He’s also hopeful that going to places like Lubbock, Texarkana and Wichita Falls — where Texas Democrats rarely visit — will help bring activists together and lay the groundwork for future political organizing.

On July Fourth, O’Rourke and his family march in Lubbock’s parade alongside the Lubbock County Democratic Party’s float. A woman with a bullhorn is periodically trying to boost the congressman’s name recognition. “This is Beto O’Rourke, congressman from El Paso.” The first four people I talk to at the fairground have never heard of Cruz, let alone O’Rourke. He power walks with his daughter, quickly high-fiving parade watchers. “Happy Fourth. Happy Fourth.”

It’s unclear how much of this is sinking in with people, but then, at the end of the Democrats’ parade column, there’s Drew Landry, a first-time candidate for House District 83, a Republican-held seat that Democrats seldom challenge. Landry is a college professor who’s having to learn, quickly, how to campaign. He’s mimicking O’Rourke’s style, smiling and high-fiving: “Happy Fourth. Happy Fourth.”

O’Rourke talks to cheerleaders from Roosevelt High School with his daughter Molly. (Brad Tollefson)
LEFT TO RIGHT: Stuart Williams of Lubbock holds up a sign supporting Beto O’Rourke at a Fourth of July parade in Lubbock; O’Rourke carries his daughter Molly on his shoulders. (Brad Tollefson)

A few weeks after I visited with O’Rourke in Lubbock, I made the eight-and-a-half-hour drive from Austin to El Paso to learn about O’Rourke’s formative years, but also to get a better sense of how he fit into El Paso politics as a City Council member and, later, a congressman. Before this year, O’Rourke rarely came up as a prospective statewide candidate. Few people know much about him, but he also has a clean slate on which to write his story. When he comes to Austin, he’s a newly minted progressive hero. But in El Paso, he cuts a different political profile — one that complicates his reputation as a liberal crusader, but also demonstrates a more traditional political aptitude.

After Foss disbanded, O’Rourke graduated from Columbia University and worked at an internet company in New York before returning to El Paso and starting his own, Stanton Street Technologies. O’Rourke says he ran for City Council in 2005 with the hope of making El Paso a place young people would want to return to. But the question of what makes El Paso great is a complicated one; it is a city polarized strongly along racial and class lines. O’Rourke and his council colleagues believed in the new urbanist theories of Richard Florida and others — for them, progress meant development.

Squeezed between downtown El Paso and Juarez is a neighborhood called El Segundo Barrio, a poor area that has long served a role akin to the Lower East Side of New York, a launching pad for immigrants, with an abundance of very low-cost housing that can generally be paid for with cash. “To be from the Segundo Barrio is to be a person under siege,” says David Romo, an activist in El Paso. “It’s a place that’s been under siege for more than 100 years.”

O’Rourke’s gerrymandered district included both Segundo Barrio and the tony residential areas near El Paso Country Club, meaning he simultaneously represented the city’s poorest people and its richest. And it turned out that what a lot of the wealthiest people wanted to do was to redevelop Segundo Barrio, a plan that O’Rourke steadfastedly supported. O’Rourke had another complication: One of the richest men in town, and a big proponent of the plan, was his father-in-law, William Sanders, a prominent real estate investor.

At the time, Sanders was a leader of the Paso del Norte Group (PDNG), a sort of unofficial chamber of commerce that included many Anglo members of the city’s business and political elite as well as powerful figures in Juarez. In 2004, the City Council commissioned the group to generate a plan for the area. What Paso del Norte dreamed up was ambitious: Some 325 acres of Segundo Barrio and neighboring areas would be redeveloped, with 168 acres of it bulldozed. Eminent domain would be used where necessary. The likely candidates who would then invest in the area — local developers and moneymen — happened to be members of the Paso del Norte Group.

Residents of Segundo Barrio were outraged, but they lacked political clout. “The average age in parts of the neighborhood was about 70,” Romo says, “and there’s a lot of recent immigrants and undocumented who don’t want to rock the boat.” Nevertheless, they started to flood City Hall, leaning especially hard on O’Rourke. To his credit, O’Rourke held town halls in Segundo Barrio, and proved himself willing to publicly defend his position and talk to residents even when it meant fielding abuse, much of it directed at his father-in-law. In videos of his events at the time, he looks pained and uncomfortable.

Though O’Rourke recused himself from some votes on the issue, activists and residents from the time retain an abiding sense of being ignored. In early 2008, they came in force to a City Council hearing to testify on a measure that would have limited the use of eminent domain, only to be told it wouldn’t be voted on until the following week. They went home, and then the council, including O’Rourke, voted it down anyway.

“It wasn’t a very pleasant time,” said Father Eddie Gros, who was the pastor of Sacred Heart Church. “But I like Beto. I think he tried. It was almost an impossible situation for him, because of his district. He tried very hard to be open.” Other El Pasoans are less forgiving. “Robert Francis is ambitious,” said Romo, pointedly using O’Rourke’s given name. Developers hold an enormous amount of sway in El Paso, Romo said, and O’Rourke understood that. In the end the redevelopment plan had a natural death, the victim of the global financial crisis.

In 2012, O’Rourke ran for Congress and unseated Silvestre Reyes, a longtime Democratic incumbent who had been endorsed by both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Partly, O’Rourke got lucky. Reyes ran a shoddy campaign, running a bizarre ad in which young children blast O’Rourke for wanting to “legalize drugs.” (As a council member, O’Rourke was an outspoken proponent of marijuana legalization, co-writing a book on the issue in 2011.) He was helped considerably by the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a nonpartisan PAC then trying to unseat longtime incumbents, who dumped a boatload of money in his district. When Reyes lost, the interpretation from some national observers was that a young, progressive upstart had beaten an old, conservative Democrat, largely because of O’Rourke’s position on drugs and gay marriage.

But that wasn’t quite right. O’Rourke appears to have won because of Republicans voting in the Democratic primary, a not-uncommon outcome in Texas. Exit polling from the race — conducted by an area high school, but trusted locally — indicates that Reyes won 53 percent of voters who considered themselves Democrats, but O’Rourke won independents 2-to-1 and Republicans 7-to-1, with the final result placing O’Rourke at 50.5 percent to Reyes’ 44.3.

Many members of the PDNG and El Paso business class donated heavily to his congressional campaign, and to PACs opposing Reyes. Eileen Karlsruher, a local business owner and Republican, told the business journal El Paso Inc. that she voted for O’Rourke because he had established himself as a pro-business, “middle-of-the-road, conservative Democrat,” and because of that, it was easy to overlook his more outspoken stances on social issues.

At the first debate with Reyes, O’Rourke criticized Reyes for not offering concrete ways to cut the federal budget, and then turned to Social Security. “We need to look at things like means testing,” he said. “We need to look at a later age at which my kids are gonna retire.” In general, O’Rourke promised to reform bloated, dumb government, and criticized Reyes for his waste of taxpayer dollars.

“I think everybody’s bullshit detector is as sensitive as it has ever been, and I’m really mindful of that. I really don’t want to come in with something you’ve seen or heard before.”

If there’s a tension between this O’Rourke and the DIY O’Rourke, it’s a contradiction that calls to mind one of his political heroes, Barack Obama. Like Obama, O’Rourke is able to appeal to groups with different interests by nature of his effortless charisma and a somewhat indeterminate rhetoric that emphasizes hope, change and regeneration. Obama wouldn’t say that he supported gay marriage, but his supporters knew differently — he was on the right side. That desire to extend credit gives cover to politicians like Obama and O’Rourke, who are more complicated, and more ideologically heterodox, than their supporters may admit.

In August, I caught up with O’Rourke at an outdoor town hall in Marfa. The event was held at El Cosmico, the faux-bohemian campground on the south side of town. The next day, the campaign would pick up two of O’Rourke’s three children from a summer camp in Fort Davis and continue its ad hoc tour. The candidate had wanted to camp — the campaign caravan carries tents with it — but the road-weary staff, one of whom took a hard fall in Big Bend, discreetly reserved marginally less rustic accommodations.

The town hall has a party atmosphere. A mariachi band from Presidio warms up the crowd — the mayor plays the trumpet. Henry, O’Rourke’s youngest son, plays in the grass with some kids he just met. The high desert is cool and dry; the sky pink. Campaigns aren’t supposed to be fun, and yet O’Rourke gives the impression that he is on vacation.

The politics of the era is one of failure. So many failures: the Bush administration, the Iraq War, the global financial crisis, the 2010, 2014 and 2016 elections. To know politics is to be perpetually half-stuck at the points in time at which the world could have gone in a better direction and didn’t. That’s a bitter taste. Beto, by contrast, feels too good to be true, a candidate ex machina. The temptation he offers to get emotionally invested is strong. Nothing this year feels good, but this does, and that can have a power of its own.

When O’Rourke takes questions in Marfa, a man asks if it is possible to win without “going negative.” O’Rourke, who was a superdelegate for Hillary Clinton in 2016, tells a story about a meeting between Bernie Sanders and the House Democratic Caucus late in his campaign. Members of Congress were furious he hadn’t yet dropped out. Sanders’ unpopular message, as remembered by O’Rourke: “It is not enough not to be the bad guy. It’s not enough to point out how much Donald Trump scares us, how offensive he is,” O’Rourke says. “What are you for? What inspires you? What brings you out?” O’Rourke promises the man he’ll try to run his campaign on the same principle. Will it work? “I don’t know,” O’Rourke says. “I’m sure gonna try.”

top photo by Jennifer Boomer

This article appears in the October 2017 issue of the Texas Observer. Read more from the issue or become a member now to see our reporting before it’s published online.