Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
One of 2018’s most remarkable campaign stories is unfolding on the back roads and small-town squares of rural Texas, where Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a three-term congressman from El Paso, is within striking distance of unseating arguably the nation’s most despised senator, Texas Republican Ted Cruz.
The most visible marker of O’Rourke’s success is his announcement this month that he raised $6.7 million in small donations from 141,000 people, breaking a three-decade record for the most money raised in a reporting period in a Texas U.S. Senate race. O’Rourke isn’t taking any political action committee money, because he’s a progressive who doesn’t want strings attached.
Even Cruz, who just launched his re-election bid, acknowledged O’Rourke’s fundraising. But true to Cruz’s negativity drenched form, his first statewide radio ad threw a litany of right-wing clichés mocking O’Rourke for not being man enough to represent Texas. Nevermind that O’Rourke, a mild-mannered former punk rocker, tech startup founder, El Paso city councilman and congressman, has real western Texas roots stretching back four times as many generations as Cruz.
The success of O’Rourke’s fundraising is a symptom of many things. But perhaps most importantly, O’Rourke seems to be everything that Cruz isn’t: personable, positive, empathetic, averse to taunts and pettiness, and crystal-clear about his inclusive and empowering progressive agenda. And one more thing in a year when Democrats are energized: O’Rourke is a road warrior who is live-streaming his days online and is fully at ease both with the technology and the transparency. That backdrop allowed AlterNet to follow O’Rourke for a day this week, from the van ride after his Trinity County event to a student town hall in Houston.
This everyman approach is utterly anti-Machiavellian. While O’Rourke, who has a wife and three kids, obviously has a private life, he is openly doing exactly what most politicians usually hide: their laundry, getting a haircut, knocking on doors unscripted, even sharing what happened when the power goes out at a gas station men’s room, leaving everyone, including him, a bit bewildered. Traveling in a van with young aides, O’Rourke recounted that almost TMI moment, paraphrasing Gram Parsons, a pioneering country rocker: “You don’t miss your water until your well runs dry.”
O’Rourke had just visited another rural county where he was likely to be told the last time a Democratic Senate candidate visited was Lyndon Baines Johnson, decades ago. What O’Rourke is doing is smartly mixing the old and the new. The old is showing up, briefly telling voters what he thinks on key issues, then hearing comments and taking questions. He pledges to try to solve problems by working reasonably with anyone who shares these concerns, regardless of party. The new, in contrast, is using live-streamed video, along with a complement of online communications and platforms, to give people a ringside seat to his life.
“What you have with Beto is not just somebody who is using all the tools that are available politically, through social media and other things, it’s somebody who is absolutely open and understands them,” a longtime Texas political consultant said, speaking on background. “And that’s different from most politicians. Most politicians come to that world through necessity that they have to, and it’s a struggle for them to understand it. Beto understands it in his bones. And gets it.”
O’Rourke announced his long-shot Senate campaign a year ago. When he first ran for the House, he knocked on “16,000 or 17,000 doors” in his district, another political consultant said on background, and praising O’Rourke’s dogged work ethic. The campaign knows Texas has 28 million people, an impossible number to individually reach. But it believes that by using the internet it can show enough voters that there’s a positive alternative to Cruz, and a candidate who is working harder.
While he clearly knows he’s on camera all the time, O’Rourke is entirely comfortable with it. On the issues, he presents a typical Berniecrat agenda without any of Sanders’ abrasiveness. He’s proud of El Paso’s binational identity, stands with immigrants, wants affordable health care and higher education, living wages, reasonable gun controls and family-friendly policies. But unlike Sanders, who does not reveal much about his personal life, typically gets hustled in and out of events and avoids the public’s questions, O’Rourke is mindful and considerate of the audience members who have taken to watching his live-stream.
“Okay, we’re just gassed up. Thanks to everyone who pitched in to make sure we could put gas in the tank of this Dodge Caravan,” he says, as he buckled his seatbelt and a 38-minute video began. “Some people will travel the state in a private jet. It’s a big state. I can see why, if you have the resources, you’d do it that way. But we’re traveling the state on the highways and byways, the roads and streets of Texas, and we’re enjoying the heck out of it.”
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful day,” he continues, pointing to the blue sky and green foliage. “We just left the Trinity County courthouse steps in Groveton, Texas, which is one of the more beautiful towns we’ve had a chance to be in. And the drive to Groveton was just gorgeous. And we’re now headed to Houston and we’ve added a stop to our day, which means we’re not going to have a chance to stop for lunch. And that’s okay and I’m going to allow Cynthia and Chris [his traveling aides] to tell you why.”
Now Cynthia chimes in, saying, “Everywhere we go, all the town halls, we meet the most amazing people.” She recounts how a supporter named Terry gave them a brimming picnic basket and cooler. She pulls out the Wonderbread, a second whole-grain honey wheat loaf, plates and forks, mayo, mustard, sliced vegetables, deli meats, and cupcakes, and shows them all to the dashboard camera. It’s a bit of a performance. But you get to watch how O’Rourke and his team do what they do, up close and personal, and how gracious O’Rourke is toward his grassroots supporters—the very people many campaigns take for granted.
“Terry packed all this?” O’Rourke says, eyes on the road.
“Terry packed all this,” says Cynthia. “She has to be a mom. There’s napkins, forks, plates. She’s very prepared.”
“She’s awesome,” O’Rourke says.
“Thank you, Terry,” he continues, glancing at the food. “So Terry came out to the town hall, listened to what we had to say, on the courthouse steps of the Trinity County courthouse, asked good questions, and then came with a full picnic.”
“Ding Dongs!” Cynthia announces, smiling at a box of desserts. “Terry, if you’re watching, thank-you so much. Thank-you so much.”
As this homespun snapshot unfolds, every few seconds a new real-time comment appears and scrolls down the right side of the campaign’s Facebook page.
“Ha! Ha! I see those Hostess cupcakes,” writes Nancy.
“Thank-you, Terry!” writes Brenda.
“You got this Beto!” says Leroy.
“VOTE BLUE; IT’S TIME FOR POSITIVE CHANGE!” says Sylvia.
The candidate keeps driving while his staff continues making lunch. The comments keep coming. They have been doing this for a year now. One of the results is a metric that political professionals outside Texas pay attention to: breaking fundraising records by raising $6.7 million from 141,000 donors in the first quarter of 2018. But it’s not entirely a surprise that O’Rourke has done this. It’s reflective of a genuine grassroots campaign that ordinary Texans obviously feel they can be a part of.
Here’s how another longtime Texas political consultant put it on background, which means he didn’t want his name used because he doesn’t want to get in front of O’Rourke’s messaging. “Beto’s just going to be who he is,” he said. “He doesn’t do rope lines. This is a guy, who 7,000 people watched him get a haircut. This is like The Truman Show, for lack of a better [analogy]… Everybody hates, in general, politicians. They all do the same kind of stuff that triggers everyone’s bullshit detectors. He typically streams all of his stuff. He’ll stream in the car. He streams his town halls. He’ll be just chatting with someone in the car in the line of LottaBurger. And there will be a lot of people watching that. Why they think that’s interesting, I don’t know.”
But it is interesting. The candidate leaves his cell phone on the roof of the car, remembers too late, then finds it was run over by an 18-wheeler. And it’s politically shrewd, because O’Rourke is being seen as the opposite of Cruz in every way. He’s open, not closed. He’s positive, not negative. He’s considerate, not abrasive. He’s transparent, not conspiratorial. There’s a genuineness about him that starkly contrasts to Cruz’s dark rumblings, to say nothing of the daily pathologies displayed by President Trump.
For all this novelty and innovation, there’s still a long road to November’s vote, and O’Rourke remains a long-shot candidate. As the Dallas-Fort Worth NBC-TV affiliate reported April 3, Ted Cruz is ahead by 10 percentage points in one recent poll by a “left-leaning” firm. That means O’Rourke has to become better known outside his circle of supporters and the press that covers campaigns.
But in a blue wave election year, one thing is clear: Cruz may awaken to the reality that he’s facing the fight of his political life in 2018. Come November, the results are going to be much closer than anyone thought possible, and that includes the prospect of Texas electing a Democratic senator for the first time in three decades.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).