Beto O’Rourke hasn’t had his coffee yet. It’s 7:30 in the morning in Austin, and the El Paso congressman and Democratic contender for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat looks tired. He should. Just 10 hours ago, Hurricane Harvey made landfall over the Texas coast, where it would hammer cities like Corpus Christi, Houston, and Victoria, one of the congressman’s recent campaign stops. When he gets in the truck, he sets the radio to the local Austin NPR affiliate for an update.
He tells the young volunteer behind the wheel to drive through a Starbucks as he gets his bearings for the day. It’s a Saturday morning, and he’s 29 days into a planned 34-day road trip. The staffers in the month-old Toyota Tundra (built in San Antonio, naturally) have rotated, but O’Rourke, of course, has been there the whole trip. He’s been criss-crossing the state, hitting up coffee shops and breakfast spots in small towns, in a way that feels more like a presidential candidate canvassing Iowa than anything Texas politics has seen in at least a generation.
He’s visited places like La Grange (pop. 4,690), Stephenville (pop. 20,607), Pampa (pop. 17,762), and Hondo (pop. 9,276), none of which are exactly Democratic strongholds. In 2016, Trump pulled at least 70 percent of the vote in each area. This morning, O’Rourke is headed to the Trailblazer Grille in Burnet (pop. 6,359), a place where Hillary Clinton received 17.6 percent of the vote. It’s at least the 35th official campaign stop of the tour. The truck finds a Starbucks, and O’Rourke gets a large drip coffee before pulling onto the highway, the rain from Hurricane Harvey hammering the roof of the Tundra.
The night before, O’Rourke had been in Austin, speaking to a different kind of crowd. In the famously progressive capital of Texas, he packed the Scholz Garden, a longtime political gathering spot a few blocks north of the Capitol. The crowd didn’t look much different from the sort that someone like Wendy Davis, the last high-profile Democrat to seek statewide office in Texas, had drawn. People clapped at the obvious applause lines—a shout-out for science here, for preserving DACA there—as they wore their “Friend of the Pod” (as in Pod Save America) and Progress Texas t-shirts.
Austin’s always been friendly turf to Democrats, but it’s been a long time since that mattered. The last time a Democrat won statewide office of any kind in Texas, it was when Bob Bullock was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1994. Back then, Beto O’Rourke was busy touring the country with his punk band, Foss. All the enthusiasm in Austin hasn’t been enough to push a Democrat to within 10 points of winning a Senate race since Lloyd Bentsen’s last election in 1988.
All of which helps explain why O’Rourke and his Toyota Tundra spent the month of August stopping in places like Burnet, La Grange, and Hondo. Focusing on the friendly parts of Texas—Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, the Rio Grande Valley, and the cities proper (if not the suburbs) of Dallas and Houston—isn’t a winning strategy. The night before stopping in Burnet, O’Rourke was playing to a crowd that already loved him, even if they’d only just met him a few months ago. He announced his longshot campaign in March with such verve that he managed to scare away more entrenched potential candidates, like San Antonio Democratic superstars Joaquin and Julian Castro. It was like watching a stadium rock show, where people mouth the words to the hits before Bono even sings them.
In Burnet, though, speaking to a crowd of about 90 people packed into a diner, O’Rourke sizzles with a different kind of energy. At the Trailblazer Grille, the words “chicken fried” appear on the menu in three separate times, and signs on the wall say things like “There’s a place for all God’s creatures… right next to the potatoes & gravy!” These might be all 90 Democratic voters in all of Burnet, but they’re still a room full of mostly older white folks, largely retirees who are having their morning coffee, where “diversity” means people with gray hair or people with brown hair, and O’Rourke is there to pitch himself as someone to lead them.
He talks about the military, sure—he’s been very active in the House as a member of the Veteran Affairs Committee—but he doesn’t stick to the script of safe applause lines. He gets a cheer from the crowd when he talks about extending VA mental health benefits to vets who received a dishonorable discharge, an initiative he worked on with a Republican colleague. He references the previous day’s announcement of a formal transgender military ban, and gets a room full of older, white voters in a county that Trump won with three-quarters of the vote to offer an ovation for transgender service members.
O’Rourke sticks around to meet every single person in Burnet who wants to meet him. He doesn’t leave until the last hand has been shaken, the last selfie snapped. It wouldn’t be impressive—that’s what politicians are supposed to do—except that nobody in Burnet can remember the last time a Senate candidate stopped by to talk to them at all, let alone hung around until he’d met everybody personally.
People are enthusiastic about him—because he showed up, sure, and also because of how he comes off. His staff is protective of his time; even though I was in the truck with him for more than an hour, we were only slated for ten minutes of interview time, so he can make calls to the coast and stream the drive on Facebook Live. But he’s not particularly guarded in how he talks. He’s a legit cusser, and he talks about how he came to conclusions about policy—even ones that may seem contradictory to his party or his background—in a naturalistic way.
He’s big on working with veterans because of the community in El Paso around the army base in town. He’s for ending marijuana prohibition because he grew up across the border from Juarez, where cartel violence once made the city the world’s most dangerous. He’s in favor of term limits, even though they’re an idea mostly championed by conservatives, because he believes that Washington is inherently broken and corrupt—but he thinks that maybe limiting the amount of time people spend in office could fix it. He’s to the left of most of the Democratic Party, but he cherishes bipartisanship as an ideal and an end unto itself.
“When you look at the DNC or the RNC or national politics, it’s corporate rock and roll. It has very little soul to it. Maybe no soul at all.”
That all matters for O’Rourke in order to have a chance of defeating Ted Cruz. He’s running an innovative campaign, avoiding the pitfalls of doomed candidates like Wendy Davis. He hasn’t hired a single out-of-state consultant or pollster, and with the exception of the volunteer driving the car, everybody I’ve met from his campaign is either from El Paso or from the congressman’s D.C. office. But it’s still as uphill a battle as there is in politics right now.
Turning Texas blue, or at least purple, has been a dream of progressives for decades. It’s also one that seems, somehow, to always be at least four to six years away. So can a former punk rock guitar player from a part of Texas that’s never produced a statewide elected official be the one to break the streak?
Robert Francis O’Rourke was born in El Paso in 1972, but he’s been called “Beto” for as long as anyone can remember. If you ask people at the bar in El Paso where the nickname came from, everybody seems to understand that it was bestowed upon him by his childhood nanny. (O’Rourke, for his part, says he’s not sure who first began calling him Beto.) Wherever the nickname originated, it’s how everybody knew him growing up.
That includes some prominent El Pasoans. O’Rourke spent his formative years in the city’s punk rock scene, playing in and watching bands whose members included people like Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who would later be the lead singer of the breakthrough hardcore band At The Drive In and the mid-2000’s arena rock smash The Mars Volta. O’Rourke and Bixler-Zavala played music together in a band called Foss—O’Rourke on guitar and vocals, Bixler-Zavala on drums—and toured the U.S. and Canada in the summers, while O’Rourke pursued his undergraduate degree at Columbia.
“When you look at the DNC or the RNC or national politics, it’s corporate rock and roll. It has very little soul to it. Maybe no soul at all.”
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE, TEXAS’ 16TH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT
Bixler-Zavala credits O’Rourke with turning him on to punk rock touring. O’Rourke, he says, gave him his first copy of Book Your Own Fucking Life, the DIY touring bible. “He introduced me to that whole subculture—he taught me all the ropes of that,” Bixler-Zavala says. “Yet at the same time, he didn’t even know what he was doing. He was winging it.”
The punk rock thing is a big part of O’Rourke’s story. On the way to Burnet, after we start talking music, a staffer tries to impress him by talking about the drum kit he still has at his mom’s house. O’Rourke played in bands in college, and again when he returned to El Paso in 1998. As he began to enter public life, though, it was harder to remain an underground punk rock dude. When he was just a guy who ran a web design company and a local arts and culture website, that was fine.
When he started to pursue politics—first with the El Paso City Council, to which he was elected in 2005, and then in his congressional run—aspects of his past became a liability. He’d been arrested for burglary after tripping an alarm while jumping a fence at the University of Texas-El Paso in 1995, and again for a DWI three years later. (He wasn’t convicted on either charge.)
But he’s proud of his punk days. In the truck, he brightens immediately when I ask him about Bixler-Zavala. He tells me about being at a birthday party for Bixler-Zavala’s kid with his family. He thumbs through his phone for a minute, looking for a photo of himself with a few At The Drive In guys and their kids. (He can’t find it, but offers to send it to me—“Maybe that’ll be interesting?”) It’s clear, talking to O’Rourke, that until pretty recently—probably until he started raising millions in his bid to unseat Ted Cruz—the fact that he was friends with rock stars before they were famous has been one of the cooler things in his life.
He’s not exactly a name-dropper, but there aren’t a lot of locals hanging around El Paso who can tell you about the time he traded a ticket for a Foss show to a teenage Feist in exchange for a lockpicking set outside of a bar in Calgary in 1993, a story he’s probably told dozens of times since “1, 2, 3, 4” was released. It doesn’t seem like it’s dawned on him yet that, if this all goes the way he hopes, she might be the one telling stories about the time she met a future U.S. senator with his punk band.
Bixler-Zavala already talks about O’Rourke like that. When I ask him if, when they were touring North America in a 1983 station wagon, he thought to himself, “Yeah, this guy is gonna grow up to run for Senate,” he laughs.
“I never thought that of him. At all. I saw him as this really tall, nerdy kid who hung out with the nerds. In high school, a lot of the nerds were into punk rock music—the Dischord kind of kid,” Bixler-Zavala says, referencing the seminal Washington, D.C. punk label that produced politically-minded bands like Fugazi and Minor Threat. “He turned me onto that kind of thing. He came around and was like, ‘I know you got the bug, and you want to get out of here.’ I never saw him as this overly charismatic, Kennedy-like figure that everyone sees him as now.”
O’Rourke talks about his music career on the stump sometimes. At an event in San Antonio in April, he went on a five-minute riff about how “punk rock, at its best, was just stripping down all the corporate rock I was hearing on the radio in the 1980s and getting down to its most basic roots.” That includes, in addition to not hiring pollsters or consultants, taking a Bernie-like approach to fundraising, rejecting all SuperPAC funds, and focusing exclusively on contributions from individual donors. Between April and July, he raised $2.1 million, $500,000 more than Cruz raised in the same time span.
This all fits neatly into the figure O’Rourke presents.
“We’re connecting with people in a very direct way, booking our own tour,” he says of the trip he’s on right now. “I listened to 70’s FM radio with my dad, and when I came of age, there was something wrong with rock and roll, and I didn’t realize it until someone took me to my first punk rock show. It was, ‘Holy shit!’” He was 15 years old, and he pauses to drop Bixler-Zavala’s name again, talks about watching the future rock star at 13 years old play Misfits covers.
“I got into punk rock because the corporate stuff didn’t get me going,” he says. “When you look at the DNC or the RNC or national politics, it’s corporate rock and roll. The songs sound familiar, but it’s really glossed and produced, and has very little soul to it. Maybe no soul at all.” It’s felt so good, he says, “to do this in as raw a way as possible.”
All of that sounds nice. The question is: Can it work? O’Rourke was an underdog when he ran for El Paso City Council against a two-time incumbent. He won. He was an underdog when he challenged eight-term congressman Silvestre Reyes for his House seat. He won. In both cases, O’Rourke seized some opportunities—an anti-incumbent wave, a push for younger leadership—to defy the odds.
So if you’re talking about “Can Beto O’Rourke beat Ted Cruz?” you can make a few arguments in his favor. Any one of these will get you laughed out of the bar if you’re talking to jaded political reporters in Austin, but let’s make them, anyway: He’s running the most effective ground game of any Texas Democrat in at least a generation, doing so early enough that he can afford to not just visit Burnet or Hondo, but to stop by a half-dozen times in the course of the campaign.
He’s by turns self-effacing, inspiring, and funny on the stump. Listening to Wendy Davis campaign was like mainlining NyQuil, and even her natural constituencies—Latino Democrats in the Rio Grande Valley or progressive activists in Austin—had a hard time understanding what her message was.
Not to mention that 2018 has unique potential, amid a Trump backlash and a slew of new organizing tools and groups, to be a wave election for Democrats, and O’Rourke has already proven that he’s on the radar of people who see Texas as one of the party’s best hopes (along with Nevada and Arizona) to expand the map, rather than just play defense. And Ted Cruz might be uniquely beatable. He’s unpopular with the Trumpist base of his party after his “vote your conscience” speech at the RNC, but also with the Never Trumpers and conservative-leaning Latinos in the state after his about-face in support of Trump at the end of the campaign. If O’Rourke were challenging the state’s senior senator, John Cornyn, none of this might matter—but Ted Cruz? Who knows?
“We’re not really a red state, or a blue state, or a purple state. We’re a non-voting state.”
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE, TEXAS’ 16TH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT
Operating against O’Rourke is literally everything else. It’s the weight of the state’s electoral history, the gerrymandering that’s discouraged voters, the voter ID laws that disenfranchise his core constituency…but not to worry, O’Rourke has a stock response to that: “If you look at it, we’re not really a red state, or a blue state, or a purple state. We’re a non-voting state.” I’ve heard him give that response probably a half-dozen times to interviewers or people asking questions at his events. It explains his campaigning approach. He needs to activate every progressive in Austin, every non-voter in San Antonio, and every dissatisfied Republican in from Lubbock to La Grange.
Even if it doesn’t work, no one will be able to blame him for following the same failed playbook of the Dems of Texas Past. O’Rourke’s rhetoric is part Obama-esque soliloquies aimed straight at the better angels of our nature, part Bernie-esque roadmap for progressive policies. (While he declined to get involved in the 2016 Democratic Primary, and eventually endorsed Clinton after she secured the nomination, O’Rourke’s views tend to align him with the Bernie wing of the party.)
Those policies are probably going to be a part of the campaign against him, if things end up competitive. Republican consultants in Texas have already derided O’Rourke as “more liberal than Wendy Davis” and saying “he would rival Elizabeth Warren” as “one of the most liberal senators in the nation.” As the campaign heats up, it’s safe to expect more efforts to paint him as deeply out of touch with Texas values.
But O’Rourke is interested in values, and interested in challenging the way they play out in politics. The day before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, I asked him if he felt like the storm could help him lead Texans to a place where they’d see government as an entity that existed to help people who were suffering—basically the opposite of the small-government rhetoric American politicians of both parties have gorged themselves on since Reagan.
“After we make sure that everyone’s okay, and help those who aren’t, we need to decide that we’re going to make investments in those areas that are affected, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars,” O’Rourke says. “Maybe that’s because of a philosophical difference, where folks think that’s just not a good use of those resources. Here’s a golden opportunity, as I see it.” He wants the people in small Texas towns, the kind who might see themselves as fiscal conservatives, to recognize they want government to work for them. He brings up a visit he made to Decatur, Texas (pop. 6,648), where the locals told him about their desire for broadband, and a stop in Galveston where they talked about storm surge protection—things that are well beyond the taxpayers’ ability to fund in those counties.
“It is uniquely a federal role to invest in those things, and they’ve gotta have an advocate in the Senate who begins with the belief that that’s an appropriate role for government.”
After the event in Burnet, O’Rourke cancels the rest of his tour. Instead, he packs up the Tundra and heads back out to the coast, where he spends some time volunteering with hurricane relief efforts. Then, he barrels through the state, from Port Arthur all the way back to El Paso, across 830 miles to get home in time for two planned events: A campaign rally at a local brewpub, and his monthly constituent town hall in the park. He promised to do one every month as congressman, and in his third term, he’s cutting it pretty close: It’s August 31, and the event is scheduled to start at 9pm.
The campaign rally gets transformed into a rally for Harvey relief. The community turns out in droves—the stacks of bottled water and canned goods overwhelm the facade of the building, and it seems like everybody hip, politically connected, or engaged in activism in El Paso is there. The porch of the brewpub is standing-room-only, as is the overflow room inside. At The Drive In co-founder Jim Ward is there, helping out with the sound system for the band opening the event. On the stump, O’Rourke doesn’t even bring up his campaign, instead telling a crowd full of people who are already firmly in his corner about what he saw working on the coast after the storm.
“I don’t know that I can, in a very honest way, connect with the emotion of what I just saw in public,” O’Rourke tells me before the event. “The devastation was so profound, and the heroism was so amazing. That will change how I see people and what’s possible.”
It’s a good line, and it feels off-the-cuff. O’Rourke’s job as a candidate is to make you feel like he’s telling you things you haven’t heard before, and he does it really well. It’s not a shock that he’s raising money and drawing crowds. If you squint, he does look a little bit like Bobby Kennedy, and his family is politics-ready. His three kids (Ulysses, Henry, and Molly) spend four hours outside at their dad’s campaign rally, and they never once pull out a tablet or an iPhone. He’s a guy running for Senate whose values are inspired by Fugazi, competing against a guy who, after being elected, read the lyrics to Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” on the floor of that distinguished body. It seems possible that O’Rourke is sincere in all of this.
After the rally at the brewpub, I make my way down to San Jacinto Park in downtown El Paso for the town hall. The crowd is smaller—maybe a hundred people, and they’re not all supporters. In fact, a lot of them seem like they’re there to argue with their congressman. It plays like a scene out of Parks & Recreation. O’Rourke greets an ornery old vet in a cowboy hat by name, and listens politely as the man insists “We should wipe North Korea off the map.” A woman hijacks the microphone for three minutes to rant to the crowd about GMOs.
Toward the end, though, it gets interesting. A constituent wants to talk about single payer health care. O’Rourke is for single payer, but he doesn’t just give the woman lip service. It’d be easy to just say, “Yep, I’m for it, when I’m in the Senate, I’ll join Bernie Sanders in fighting for it,” then boom, onto the next question. But he doesn’t. Instead, he gets into a seven-minute exchange in which he explains that he wants to get there, but that he doesn’t consider the vehicle she prefers, John Conyers’s bill to eliminate private insurance, to be viable policy.
“This is not about politics,” he tells her. “I want to achieve the actual goal. But we can’t pass this, and we shouldn’t want to pass this, only as Democrats. We have to find common ground. I want to go so far as a single-payer system, but we have to do it the right way. I know that might not be satisfying, but that’s where I am with this one.”
He’s not doing it for the cameras—I’m the only national reporter there, it’s almost 11pm, for all he knows I’m half asleep—but he is there, getting into a protracted argument with a voter he fundamentally agrees with about the details of the policy she wants to talk about.
The simplest solution to “Why is this guy doing all of this?” is because he thinks it might actually be the right way to do politics in 2017 and beyond. He might be rewarded for it, or he might not. Certainly, cynicism has proven correct when it comes to asking whether progressive politics and politicians stand a chance. But the idea that the punk rock dude from the border town could trade in his long hair for a blazer and go on to represent the whole state in the Senate is tantalizing. O’Rourke really seems to believe that being straight with people and embracing your contradictions might be political assets, instead of liabilities.
“I trust a politician who has the same sort of background with subcultures that I’ve been in,” Bixler-Zavala says of his former bandmate. “There’s not this dehumanized view of people. It’s not just that I know him—it makes me feel safe. I want to tell people that he’s actually one of us.”
This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more here.