Beto O’Rourke has a plan for America, and it starts in Texas. The Democrat from El Paso, who became a global superstar with his insurgent 2018 bid to oust Ted Cruz from the US senate then went on to contest the Democratic presidential nomination, is back where he says he likes it most – trying to move mountains in the Lone Star state.
With less than a month to go before early voting opens in Texas, with its giant crop of 38 electoral college votes in play, O’Rourke has a message for his one-time Democratic presidential rival. “We can see what’s happening in Texas and are screaming at Joe Biden from the roof tops. ‘Hey, over here! You can win this!’”
O’Rourke points to FiveThirtyEight’s poll tracker that has Donald Trump just one point ahead of Biden in Texas – an astonishingly close call for a state that has voted solidly for Republican presidential candidates since Jimmy Carter in 1976. He points to the state’s rapidly diversifying population that turned minority majority in 2005 and has seen 2m more new voters registered even since his paper-thin defeat to Cruz two years ago.
Winning Texas is the definitive answer to any dirty tricks Trump might be tempted to try were he to lose the election on 3 November, O’Rourke contends. “If Texas comes in for a Democrat for the first time in almost half a century the shock will be seismic. Trump may or may not accept those results, but the rest of the country absolutely will. It will forever reorder what’s possible.”
O’Rourke has been directly pitching his case to the Biden team that Texas is there for the picking, that it is a “must win” not a “nice to win” state. Has his argument had any traction?
“To be seen,” he said. “There’s an inertia. Without a Democratic victory in Texas for 44 years, the idea that the state is Republican has been baked into the consciousness of every consultant and campaign worker. They don’t believe their lying eyes.”
O’Rourke’s audacious ambition for Biden to take back Texas for the Democrats is typical of a politician who has consistently reached for the stars. Having been through iterations as a bass guitarist with the punk band Foss and a software entrepreneur, he appeared out of relatively nowhere to be sent to the US House of Representatives in 2012 and then came within a whisker of booting Cruz from the Senate, losing to him by less than three points.
Now he’s turned the enormous army of volunteers he assembled for the 2018 Senate race into a political campaigning force. Powered by People, as he calls his political action committee, has 6,000 volunteers who have in turn registered to vote about 80,000 Texans and made more than 25m phone and text contacts with potential Democratic voters.
Much of his work with Powered by People has focused on Latino Texans living along the Mexican border in the Rio Grande Valley. His aim is to mobilise their vast and largely untapped electoral potential.
The political soil of the Rio Grande Valley should be fertile for Democrats given that Texas’s largely Spanish-speaking border communities have borne the brunt of the Trump assault over the past four years. It was here that Trump’s brutal family separation policy was concentrated, that migrant families were held in cages, that six children died while in US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody, and that 23 Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals were gunned down by a white supremacist AK-47 wielding shooter echoing Trump’s racist language about a “Hispanic invasion”.
On top of all that, Latino communities in Texas have also been hit hardest by Covid-19, which has so far killed more than 14,000 people in the state.
Despite this rich territory, O’Rourke has been startled by how little enthusiasm for the Biden-Kamala Harris ticket he has found along the Rio Grande. “What we heard back from voters was really surprising to me. So many voters along the border said to us they had yet to decide.”
That’s an astonishing – and for Biden, worrying – finding. That Latino Texans who have been assailed by a whirlwind of Trump abuse, discrimination and neglect should still be undecided about who to vote for, or whether to vote at all, is an indictment of the Democratic presidential campaign that chimes with recent polling in key swing states with large Latino electorates including Florida, Arizona and Nevada.
O’Rourke recalled talking to one Spanish speaker who was working a shift at a Circle K convenience store close to the border.
“He told me he hadn’t heard from any campaign or candidate, and that I was the first one to contact him. I’ve heard the same thing from so many folks, who told me they hadn’t heard from Biden or been given any reason to vote for him. They just had not been engaged,” he said.
At this point in the election cycle, O’Rourke said, he was prepared to see the failure to reach out to the Latino electorate as an opportunity for the Biden campaign. But he added ominously that “if this persists much longer it will no longer be an opportunity – it will be an unrecoverable deficit”.
Then O’Rourke rolled out his other trademark – the F-bomb: “So what the fuck is happening if Trump has been responsible for disproportionately harming Texas Latinos and yet they are not overwhelmingly coming out for Biden?”
How does he answer his own question? “I think the fault is ours as Democrats for not connecting the dots and not reaching out to Latino voters. If the sin committed by Republicans is that they have sought to disenfranchise black and brown voters – and there’s no better example of voter suppression and intimidation than Texas – then the sin for Democrats is that they have taken the same voters for granted.”
O’Rourke starts mimicking a Democratic strategist: “If you’re black or brown you’re going to vote for Democrats. So let’s go to work on that mythical suburban voter.”
To hear O’Rourke speak about the lack of energy among Latino Texans might give the impression that he is pessimistic about the prospects in November. But that is not the case. “I have this irrationally optimistic view on politics and public life, I just think if you have the courage of your convictions and say what you know to be true, things will work themselves out,” he said.
O’Rourke is throwing much of his energies in this election cycle to giving a helping hand to a new wave of young Democratic candidates seeking to unseat Republicans at local level and capture the Texas state assembly. Having already snatched 12 additional seats in 2018, partly as a result of the excitement around O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, the Democrats now need only nine more seats to take control.
Just seizing the state legislature would have a dramatic impact not only for 29m Texans, but for the whole of America, O’Rourke believes. The state will redistrict next year, and Democratic control would allow them to begin rolling back gerrymandering which has given Republican-leaning white voters an unfair advantage.
A Democratic majority would also have an impact on how three additional Congressional seats, awarded to Texas because of its growing population, are drawn. “That will give Democrats an opportunity to strengthen a majority in the House of Representatives, so this is a huge national priority – or should be – for the party.”
It’s a strange experience talking to O’Rourke in the midst of the 2020 campaign. You get all the bushy-tailed enthusiasm and passion for change that made him such a Democratic darling in 2018 – and yet he is not even standing for election.
“It’s a real test,” he conceded. “Can I help have an impact on elections across Texas when I’m not myself a candidate? I think the answer is yes.”
Stranger still is that a politician whose trademark is old-fashioned shoe-leather retail politics – he famously schlepped to all of the 254 counties in Texas in the 2018 race – is now doing it virtually through Zoom. On a personal level, though, that’s had its unexpected benefits.
O’Rourke had been pretty solidly away from his family since he first ran for Congress in 2011. Now, thanks to a combination of his failed presidential run and coronavirus, he is pretty solidly at home.
“Uniquely, for the first time in eight years, my wife Amy and I are living week-in week-out with one another. We wondered if it would drive us apart, being stuck in the same place together, but it’s made us so much closer. It’s hard to remember a time I’ve been as happy.”
Inevitably the interview ends on the “what now?” question. What now for Beto O’Rourke? He said he is keen to hold Powered by People together as a campaigning force, but as for his own future he said, “I honestly don’t know.”
It would be interesting to see him run again in Texas, given that six months ago he went vegetarian. A non-meat eater in a state with 11m cattle – are you serious?
“Yeah, I know. That’s what two years eating 10 Whataburger meals a week will do to you.”
Whatever he does next, he said, it will be guided by his thoughts for the next generation. “You’ve got to be able to look your kids in the eye and tell them you gave it your all. This one is on all of us, and our kids will be judge and jury.”