The Texas Observer

Beto’s Drawing Big Crowds in Small Towns. But What’s His Plan for Rural Texas?

Beto’s Drawing Big Crowds in Small Towns. But What’s His Plan for Rural Texas?

Brad Tollefson/A-J Media

Beto’s Drawing Big Crowds in Small Towns. But What’s His Plan for Rural Texas?

Focusing on rural access to health care, high-speed internet and immigrant farm labor, O’Rourke’s rural platform looks to be cogent and cohesive, if still a little skinny.

by Christopher Collins
August 23, 2018

Beto O’Rourke has seen a lot of rural Texas in the last year. The El Paso congressman challenging U.S. Senator Ted Cruz has traveled to all 254 Texas counties, some of which count more farm animals than registered voters. O’Rourke has eaten fried pie at the Texas-Oklahoma line, watched wind turbines whir in West Texas and trawled the remote coastal communities pummeled by Hurricane Harvey.

It’s no secret that many of Texas’ rural enclaves, which tend to vote overwhelmingly Republican, are in a sorry state. O’Rourke picked up on that early in his campaign, railing against the shuttering of rural hospitals, a dwindling agricultural workforce and spotty internet service in the state’s less populated areas. Though his policy prescriptions often lack detail, he’s shown a fluency in the issues facing rural areas. Perhaps more important, he’s doing something few top-tier Texas Democrats have done in quite some time: Show up.

For example, at a town hall in Van Horn, a small town off I-10 in far West Texas, a county commissioner asked O’Rourke what could be done to stem the tide of rural hospital closures in the state. (Since 2013, financial problems have caused at least 14 rural hospitals to shut down, forcing people to travel farther to see a doctor and exacerbating medical emergencies.) “We’re the last [hospital] for the next 100 miles,” the commissioner said.

O’Rourke lamented the situation, saying, “It’s not as if the patient went away or the needs evaporated. The burden is even greater on the hospitals that are still open.” When the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, then-Governor Rick Perry opted out of expanding Medicaid in Texas, even though it would have extended health insurance to many of the state’s 5 million uninsured residents. At the Van Horn stop, O’Rourke said Medicaid expansion would ease the financial burden on small hospitals, which treat a high percentage of uninsured patients. He offered the solution again in Tyler — many of the now-shuttered facilities were located in East Texas.

Beto O’Rourke speaks to an attendee at a town hall in Anson in December 2017.  Christopher Collins

In cotton-centric Panhandle and West Texas towns of Roscoe, Sweetwater and Booker, gin operators told O’Rourke that they need more workers. And row crop farmers in West Texas and the Panhandle have complained that ripe fruits and vegetables are rotting in the fields for lack of immigrant workers to harvest them. (Many of the laborers who could fill farm vacancies are trapped in the Rio Grande Valley by federal immigration checkpoints.) O’Rourke has been vague about how that would work, but his campaign website says that “immigration reform can help … by more effectively linking migrant laborers with farmers and by protecting undocumented workers.”

Such a proposal could be better received by folks in the country than you’d think; even Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has said farmers would benefit from more agricultural visas. The Trump-aligned Texas Farm Bureau supports “comprehensive immigration reform” to deliver adequate labor to farmers.

O’Rourke has noted that the current Farm Bill, omnibus legislation that covers subsidies for farmers, land conservation programs and food stamps, only offers federal crop insurance assistance to a limited number of commodity farmers; O’Rourke has proposed extending federal crop insurance benefits to all farmers.

The skateboarding Congressman has also called for investment in broadband internet to address the scarcity of high-speed internet in rural areas. Inadequate internet access can make it difficult to apply for jobs, do homework, read the news or even fight wildfires. O’Rourke, who this year sponsored legislation to encourage public investment in broadband infrastructure, sneaks the issue in to most of his stump speeches.

This month, during O’Rourke’s fourth campaign stop in Longview, he told a crowd of 750 people that the federal government should push high-speed internet into rural communities in the way that FDR brought electricity to the same regions. At the time, nine out of 10 farms had no electricity — a problem the FDR administration tackled by providing low-interest loans to encourage construction of electric infrastructure. “Yes, it was an investment,” O’Rourke said. “And, no, it was not inexpensive. [But] it contributed more to the growth of this nation than the cost of laying those lines.”

Of course, public investment is anathema to many conservatives, including Cruz.

Don Baker, a retired physician assistant who showed up to an O’Rourke town hall in Lampasas last week, characterized the candidate’s policy approach as “a long string of platitudes and bromide.” Baker, a Trump supporter wearing a red MAGA hat, heckled O’Rourke mercilessly during the packed event. “Where’s the money gonna come from?!” Baker shouted during the candidate’s pauses. Other refrains: “Bullshit!” “Marxist!”

Don Baker, a Trump and Ted Cruz supporter, attends an O’Rourke town hall in Lampasas.  Christopher Collins

In Muleshoe, a pharmacist peppered O’Rourke with questions about gun control, saying that she needs firearms to stave off rattlesnakes and other critters. O’Rourke said he’s “all for shooting rattlesnakes,” adding that his wife’s family has “many rattlesnakes on the walls.” Ultimately, though, the woman wasn’t convinced. “He has a broad feelie-good plan, but not a specific plan, and that’s what worries me,” she told the Dallas Morning News.

Though O’Rourke generally has a good read on rural issues, his policy suggestions can at times feel a bit thin. For example: It’s true, as O’Rourke says, that expanding Medicaid in Texas would bring health insurance to an additional 1 million of the state’s poorest residents, and that this would help rural hospitals by easing their burden of treating the uninsured. But it’s not a panacea. Rural hospital administrators have said that part of the reason their industry is struggling is because of the nature of the services they provide — obstetrics and emergency room care — just aren’t as profitable as, say, oncology or knee replacement. The trade group representing the state’s rural hospitals has called for more generous state and federal reimbursements for Medicaid and Medicare patients.       

O’Rourke has been relatively vague on farm policy. An agriculture-friendly immigration policy would certainly help farmers, but the congressman has done little to expound on how current law could be tweaked to ensure that producers have access to adequate migrant labor. O’Rourke has also said, in Abilene and elsewhere, that he opposes Trump’s trade wars with China, countries in the EU and beyond because the conflicts stand to disrupt a number of Texas exports such as sorghum and beef. Still, he’s offered few specific policy prescriptions.

After the town hall in Lampasas, I asked O’Rourke if he’d consider filing legislation that would rein in the president’s powers to engage in trade wars under the guise of national security. “That makes a lot of sense to me. … I want to make sure the people have a say in the taxes — which is what tariffs are — that are being levied on them,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke stumps in Lampasas on August 16.  Christopher Collins

Beyond the policy question, there’s a political question: Why spend so much time chasing voters in rural Texas? Only 13 percent of Texans live in the country. Why even bother showing up to places like King County, the third-least populated county in the nation where 95 percent of voters went for Trump in 2016?

Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, said O’Rourke’s campaign has rightfully invested time in turning out Democratic voters, who overwhelmingly live in the state’s urban areas. But the congressman also needs to gain traction with at least a segment of rural Republican voters if he’s to beat Cruz. “He needs to do both. If all he does is mobilize more Democrats to turn out, he’s still going to lose,” Jones said.

O’Rourke’s platform will likely be a nonstarter with the far-right, Empower Texans crowd in suburbia, but his message has the potential to resonate with rural Republicans who tend to be a bit more forgiving of pragmatism, Jones said.

Voters may get an opportunity to see O’Rourke field questions on rural policy in real time when he debates Cruz either five or six times in the next few months. Cruz’s campaign website appears to largely ignore the issues of rural hospital closures, farm policy and internet access in favor of border security, gun rights and “standing with Israel.” Cruz has at least urged caution on blowing up NAFTA, a move that could further jeopardize farm exports. He’s also stumped in front of a backdrop of hay bales and John Deere tractors in Stafford, reminding voters that he is “Tough as Texas.”