Beto O’Rourke is on fire. In front of the altar of the historic Good Street Baptist Church on a steamy late-summer night in Dallas, the wiry young congressman is pacing back and forth across the red carpet. He is not speaking. He is preaching, with a fury at injustice that echoes across the centuries—from the West Texas populist rabble-rousers of the 1890s to the San Antonio labor organizers of the 1930s to the border-town civil-rights campaigners of the 1950s and the intersectional activists of right now. O’Rourke’s words do not come in a steady stream of predictable political parlance. They explode in bursts of righteous anger and indignation over the killing of another young African-American man by another white police officer.
“How can it be, in this day and age, in this very year, in this community, that a young man, African-American, in his own apartment, is shot and killed by a police officer?” he demands. People in the crowd of 2,000, which has packed the church days after 26-year-old Botham Jean was killed by a police officer in his Dallas apartment, begin to rise. They are clapping—slowly at first, and then faster. There are shouts of “Yes!” and “Right!” More people rise as O’Rourke continues. “And when we all want justice and the facts and the information to make an informed decision, what’s released to the public? That he had a small amount of marijuana in his kitchen.” The applause is now thunderous. Everyone is on their feet, roaring their approval as O’Rourke thunders: “How can that be just in this country? How can we continue to lose the lives of unarmed black men in the United States of America at the hands of white police officers? That is not justice. That is not us. That can and must change.”
That’s the Democratic nominee for the US Senate in the Lone Star State talking. Texas: the state that has not backed a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Texas: the state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994. Texas: the state that in 2012, by a 57–41 margin, elected Senator Ted Cruz, the paleoconservative firebrand who would briefly serve as the standard-bearer of the “Never Trump” Republicans, who entertained the fantasy that there was a space to the right of Donald Trump. Cruz would have preferred to be president, but he’ll settle for another term in the Senate. To that end, he has made his peace with Trump—a compromise that has earned him ridicule, like the mobile billboard that’s been showing up all over Texas with a Trump tweet from 2016 reading: “Why would the people of Texas support Ted Cruz when he has accomplished nothing for them? He is another all talk, no action pol!”
Cruz is an absurd figure, a political careerist so craven that he is now carrying water for the guy who tried to link Cruz’s own father to the John F. Kennedy assassination. But, historically, absurdity has not been a disqualifying trait in Texas. So the best bet going into the 2018 election was that Cruz would do what Republicans have done in every Senate race for a quarter-century: Slay the latest Democratic sacrificial lamb. “Since 1988, when Lloyd Bentsen won re-election to the Senate, Democrats have spent close to a billion dollars on consultants and pollsters and experts and campaign wizards and have performed terribly,” O’Rourke told The Texas Tribune as he launched a rule-breaking challenge to the incumbent. For a campaign that would upend Texas politics, O’Rourke gave up a safe seat in the House, renounced PAC money, and headed off in a Dodge Grand Caravan to campaign in every one of the state’s 254 counties. “There’s no private jet, no consultant, no pollster saying, ‘This is the message you have to say to this group or that,’” O’Rourke announced. “We allow people to drive the conversation and this campaign.”
Adapting the DIY ethic of the punk scene that he’d been part of as a Texas teen, the 45-year-old candidate explained as he got his campaign rolling in 2017: “When you’re putting out your own records and booking your own tours and writing your own songs, you get to control what you say. The campaign is the same thing.” As O’Rourke embarked earlier this year on a 34-day road trip across the state—serving as driver and dashboard DJ—The Houston Chronicle declared: “It’s a new playbook, born of Democratic futility in Texas.” That new playbook has turned out to be a fine field guide for 2018.
“Who would have thought that the Senate race in Texas would be competitive?” marveled veteran election analyst Larry Sabato. On September 21, the day of the first debate between the candidates, in which O’Rourke more than held his own against Cruz, the Cook Political Report moved the Texas race from “Leans Republican” to “Toss-Up.” The change came as polls showed O’Rourke pulling even with the GOP incumbent. Most surveys still put Cruz slightly ahead. But the Cook analysis was based on O’Rourke’s momentum—and money. Though Cruz is one of the most prodigious fund-raisers in contemporary politics, O’Rourke’s grassroots backers had, by August, provided the challenger with almost as much campaign cash as the incumbent: $23.3 million raised over 15 months by O’Rourke, versus $25.9 million raised since late 2012 by Cruz. Announcing that his campaign is “what democracy looks like,” the Democrat reported that he had attracted 215,714 individual donations, averaging $33, in the second quarter of 2018. That’s necessary money in Texas, a state with 20 media markets, and where Democrats have struggled for years to hold their own in the TV “ad wars” that conclude fall contests. As the Cook Political Report now suggests, there’s a path to victory for O’Rourke that’s “difficult though not utterly impossible.”
That has Democrats across the country excited. The chaos and crisis of the Trump administration—with the president’s approval ratings tanking and generic congressional-vote surveys showing Democrats up by as much as eight points—established the prospect of flipping the House early in the 2018 campaign season. But the idea of taking the Senate from Mitch McConnell’s Republicans was initially dismissed, in a year when 24 Democratic seats are up for grabs, versus just nine for Republicans. Putting Texas in play, however, shifts the calculus. If O’Rourke wins, and if Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Jacky Rosen seize Republican-held seats in Arizona and Nevada, then the party could afford to lose a vulnerable incumbent (such as Indiana’s Joe Donnelly or North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp) and still start 2019 with a 51–49 majority. So when a September 19 Reuters/Ipsos/UVA Center for Politics Poll put O’Rourke ahead of Cruz by two points, social-media alerts went off nationwide.
There’s another reason why Democrats should be paying attention to O’Rourke’s rise, however. His campaign represents a real-time experiment for a party that is still struggling to define itself in the Trump era. This experiment rejects the tepid counsel of the Democratic strategists who have, since the arrival of the so-called New Democrats of the 1980s, steered the party’s red-state contenders toward bland “we’re not quite as bad as the other guys” messaging. Instead of making empty appeals to a few swing voters, O’Rourke seeks to mobilize millions of people who are disengaged, disenchanted, and discriminated against. While the congressman is unfailingly polite, even courtly at times, he is practicing a style of no-holds-barred politics that marks him as a different kind of candidate—not merely from the contenders that Texas Democrats have sacrificed in Senate race after Senate race, but from the party’s nominees for offices in most red (and many blue) states.
O’Rourke is betting on the long-anticipated promise of Texas: that a demographic wave will eventually evolve Lone Star politics beyond the cruel conservatism of the past—which once made its home in the segregationist sectors of the old Democratic Party, but that is now firmly embedded in the GOP of Cruz and Trump. There is mounting evidence that what the author Steve Phillips and the O’Rourke-supporting activist group Democracy for America refer to as a “New American Majority” coalition of Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, women, and the young is transforming Texas politics. In 2016, Hillary Clinton did as well there as she did in the traditional battleground state of Ohio—and her Texas percentage was better than in the battleground state of Iowa.
But while the trend lines are improving, the Democrats are still waiting for a win. So O’Rourke has mounted what he admits is a “Hail Mary” campaign. He has jettisoned the caution not just of the consultants he decries but of his own early years in politics, when he was a developer-friendly member of the El Paso City Council, and then as a low-profile congressman who in 2016 praised Bernie Sanders but gave his superdelegate vote to Clinton.
O’Rourke is not the only prominent Democrat who has recognized that the party needs to go bigger and bolder in 2018. But it is beyond debate that he has gone bigger and bolder than anyone expected from a Senate candidate in Texas. While O’Rourke has a history of taking strong positions against the War on Drugs and in favor of unprecedented action on climate change, he’s running this year as a full-spectrum progressive: someone who makes abortion rights and gun control central to his campaign; embraces unions and civil-rights groups; seeks to “end the militarization of our immigration-enforcement system”; talks about the need for “stronger antitrust regulations that break up monopolies”; and says “a single-payer Medicare for All program is the best way to ensure all Americans get the health care they need.” Cruz rips O’Rourke for his “extreme left-wing positions—positions further to the left of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or Nancy Pelosi.” But Texas populist Jim Hightower, who was twice elected as the state’s agriculture commissioner back in the last blue-wave era of the 1980s, sees it less as a matter of left versus right and more as a case of recognizing the deep frustration that voters have with both major parties. “You’ve got a Democratic constituency that is fed up not just with Trump but with the centrist, mealy-mouthed, know-nothing Democratic establishment. And they’re looking for some real change,” says Hightower, who argues that “Beto is representing that.”
There is nothing mealy-mouthed about O’Rourke’s campaign. Asked in July about President Trump’s disastrous trip to Europe, which culminated in an astonishing display of obsequiousness toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, O’Rourke’s response was, indeed, bolder than that of Pelosi, Sanders, or Warren. “Standing onstage in another country with the leader of another country who wants to and has sought to undermine this country, and to side with him over the United States—if I were asked to vote on this, I would vote to impeach the president,” the Texan said. A month later, at a town hall in Houston, O’Rourke was asked whether he thought it was wrong for NFL players to “take a knee” during the national anthem. “My short answer is no, I don’t think it’s disrespectful,” he replied, before offering the overwhelmingly white audience his “longer answer.”
He asked them to reflect on “peaceful, nonviolent protests, including taking a knee at a football game to point out that black men, unarmed; black teenagers, unarmed; and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement, without accountability and without justice. And this problem—as grave as it is—is not gonna fix itself. And they’re frustrated, frankly, with people like me and those in positions of public trust and power who have been unable to resolve this or bring justice for what has been done and to stop it from continuing to happen in this country…. And so, nonviolently, peacefully, while the eyes of this country are watching these games, they take a knee to bring our attention and our focus to this problem to ensure that we fix it…. I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights anytime, anywhere, anyplace.”
NBA star Lebron James saluted O’Rourke for his “candid thoughtful words!” But Cruz declared that his rival’s “perception of what is ‘American’ is utterly flawed.” The Cruz campaign tore into O’Rourke with a video that asked: “Nothing more American? Liberal Hollywood was thrilled. But do Texans agree?” The answer came from places like Plano in North Texas’s Collin County, which backed Trump 56–39 in 2016 and where the local legislators and congressional representatives are GOP stalwarts. When O’Rourke arrived in Plano in mid-September, after saying he would vote to impeach Trump, after saying there was nothing more American than taking a knee, and just hours after he decried the killing of Botham Jean, thousands of people showed up. They chanted “Beto! Beto! Beto!” so loudly that it was hard to hear the candidate declare, “We are defying the conventional wisdom.”
O’Rourke kept defying the conventional wisdom a few days later when he debated Cruz. The incumbent, a college debate champion who has a reputation for verbally shredding his opponents, claimed that O’Rourke was out of touch with “Texas values.” The Democrat replied, “Only one of us has been to each county in Texas and would have an idea of what Texas values and interests are.” Then, recalling his rival’s failed 2016 presidential bid, O’Rourke noted that Cruz had “visited every single one of the 99 counties of Iowa.” The senator listened with the forced smile of a man in pain. He roared on about how O’Rourke’s views are “not consistent with what the people of Texas want.” The challenger calmly pointed to the incumbent and said: “I want to make sure that we’re not giving away to corporations or special interests. That’s what Senator Cruz would do, thanks to the contributions he’s received from those political-action committees. He’s working for the clampdown and the corporations and the special interests. He’s not working for the people of Texas.”
“Clampdown” is the righteous anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-corporate song penned by the pioneering punk group the Clash in the late 1970s, when Margaret Thatcher was turning Britain against itself. The reference was a savage burn, knowingly applied by a punk rocker turned candidate to one of the most culturally unaware members of the US Senate. Ted Cruz didn’t know what hit him.