It’s Thursday morning in Lufkin and Beto O’Rourke looks tired and his voice is hoarse. After getting into town late the previous night, he’s running on three or four hours of sleep. And despite a diet that appears to consist wholly of Whataburger, barbeque and junk food, he looks rail thin, barely filling out his khakis and dress shirt. He’s just finished up a rally for a packed crowd of a few hundred people.
This is deep East Texas, not the most hospitable place for a progressive — and a somewhat confounding place for a statewide Democrat in a heated race to visit so close to Election Day. But O’Rourke’s mantra has always been about showing up everywhere. And even in places like Lufkin, his message looks to be resonating.
The most-watched U.S. Senate race in the country has been a whirlwind in recent weeks. Polls started showing Ted Cruz pulling ahead by as much as 10 percentage points among likely voters. Then O’Rourke announced his campaign had hauled in $38.1 million in the latest fundraising quarter, a record-breaking number for a U.S. Senate candidate.
We’ve now reached the homestretch — early voting has begun and the state’s largest counties are reporting a huge turnout that hews closer to 2016 presidential numbers and eclipses 2014 turnout rates. The Observer sat down with O’Rourke after last week’s Lufkin rally to talk about the state of the race.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our interview.
Q: Looking at early voting numbers coming in around the state, what does that mean to you? What’s that signaling in terms of coming on the tail end of this barnstorming across the state for the past year-plus?
Beto: I just can’t help but come to the conclusion that it bodes well for us. Definitely for this state, which is, you know, in midterm election turnout ranks 50th. We’ve got to do better if we’re going to help contribute and lead the national conversations that are waiting for us. And I gotta think the turnout that we’re seeing at 8:30 a.m. in Lufkin, Texas, at an event like this. For people who come from all party backgrounds. Folks I was talking to tell me, “I’ve never voted for a Democrat before.” But they’re doing it now. That’s good, too.
Recent polls have shown you trailing Cruz by as much as 10 percentage points. I know you’ve said those polls are missing something. What do you think they’re missing?
I don’t know if you just saw these students from Stephen F. Austin [University]. I don’t know how many times we’ve been to Stephen F. Austin, at least twice now. And I bet the number of times a Senate candidate has come to Stephen F. Austin before that is close to zero. They’re not reflected in anyone’s polls. The folks who told me that they just became citizens inherently are not in the polling universe. Those who haven’t voted in an election in 20 years are voting now. I don’t know that they’re reflected in anyone’s polls. I actually don’t know how polling works. I don’t have a pollster. You know that we’ve been incredibly fortunate in the number of people who have donated to this campaign, so we could do polling. I just don’t know that that’s where it’s at.
You must have predicted that Ted Cruz would cast you as a wild-eyed socialist radical from the get-go. Do you regret not doing more to present your own thoughts on Cruz’s own record?
No, especially as you’re introducing yourself to the state. I don’t know what my name recognition was 22 months ago but it was closer to 1 percent than it was 100. I think what you owe people is an introduction to you, to what you want to achieve with their help, to your record, to the way in which you’re campaigning. Now that we’ve done that and we’ve listened to everyone in the 254 counties of Texas, I think ensuring that … [you’re] doing a better job of defining the choice before you on any issue you care about: education, healthcare, immigration, PACs. I think that’s important.
I feel really good about when we’re doing it and how we’re doing it.
As Texas has begun voting, are you concerned about voter suppression tactics?
There’s a reason we rank 50th [in turnout]. It’s not by accident. Some people try very hard to keep some people out of their democracy. From voter ID laws to racial- and ethnic-based gerrymandering to, in some cases, trying to suppress people’s ability to reach the ballot box or in terms of where those polling sites are and how people can get to them. Yeah, I’m concerned about that. Thankfully, we have a lot of people working on this to ensure we protect the integrity of the vote.
Drawing crowds has never been a problem for you. Looking at the pivot you guys have had to make — from doing big rallies to getting people to help with door-knocking and phone-banking. You’ve set big numbers to reach in terms of maximizing turnout. Do you think the campaign has the juice in terms of door-knocking in cities and even rural areas like Lufkin? Do you think there’s enough energy, beyond the crowds, to do the work that needs to be done?
I probably feel strongest about this of anything in the campaign. I just got a chance to go to our field headquarters and talked to the amazing field team that organized canvasses in literally each one of the 254 counties over the last few days. Not just in the big places, not just in most of the places — literally every one of the places, including King County. Including Loving County, there were canvasses. Meaning a person knocking on somebody’s door, inviting them to vote in early voting. This is the largest grassroots field effort we’ve ever seen in Texas. It is comprised of people and volunteers getting after it and knocking on doors. I feel really good about that actually. Far better than I do about anything I bring to this is what those volunteers bring to it and what they’re willing to do.
You’re here in East Texas for a reason. What’s the goal? Do you think there are places you can win out here?
Absolutely. You must contest everywhere. You must show up for everyone. You couldn’t blame somebody for not voting for you if you never paid them the respect or showed them the courtesy of being there for them in the first place. And it’s important to not just be there once, but twice, three times. We’re in Lufkin and I feel really good about it. You might have gotten better numbers than we have. We haven’t gotten precise numbers on Angelina County turnout. But everyone anecdotally has said the lines are far longer than anything we’ve waited in before.
I feel good about our ability to contest. Not too far from here, in Longview, we got the endorsement of the News Journal, which is, I think, fairly unprecedented. We just found out today Dallas Morning News in North Texas. Papers that have traditionally endorsed the Republican are endorsing somebody who happens to be a Democrat.
What do you hope your campaign has done in terms of altering the landscape of how politics are done in Texas?
Not taking any PAC money. Not interested in any special interests. Not having a pollster. Not having consultants who say, “When you’re talking about health care, don’t use this word, do this one” but just listening to people. That’s the strength and power of this campaign. At a time that it really is an open question does this democracy still work? The level of dysfunction that you have in D.C. The fact that everyone knows to some degree our government and our politics our legislation, our elections. The playing field is not level. Some have more access than others and shape the policies that affect all of us. To restore some faith that we can do it, we people can do this — that’s gotten me pumped and inspired. I want that to be the standard for how campaigns are run. I want people to demand, “Hey, I want to know you’re listening to me and not the PAC.”
Do you think there’s a Beto O’Rourke and Greg Abbott voter and how many are there?
I think every paper that I just mentioned has endorsed Beto O’Rourke and Greg Abbott. So yes, anecdotally, driving through one community after the other, I see a Greg Abbott sign. I see a Beto O’Rourke sign. If that’s any indication, then you’re going to see a lot of voters follow a similar pattern.