Does Beto O’Rourke Stand a Chance Against Ted Cruz?
The El Paso congressman is waging a long-shot campaign to prove a Democrat can win in Texas.
This story originally appeared in the January 2018 issue with the headline “What Makes Beto Run?”
It had been two days since Hurricane Harvey made landfall, and the wind and rain continued to lash a wide swath of Texas, leveling houses, flooding cars, and leaving millions without power, clean water, or food. The news reports had gone from bad to catastrophic, with the National Weather Service declaring, “This event is unprecedented and all impacts are unknown.” And Beto O’Rourke was headed toward the storm.
When Harvey hit, O’Rourke, a three-term congressman from El Paso, had been in the midst of his month-long “Town Haulin’ Across Texas” tour, introducing himself to voters during the House’s August recess as part of his long-shot bid to unseat Ted Cruz and become the first Texas Democrat to win a statewide race since 1994. But as the reports of the destruction mounted, O’Rourke decided to leave the campaign trail. After speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of some 180 in San Angelo, he’d cancelled his upcoming events in Cisco, Graham, and Abilene and started the journey southeast. His destination was uncertain.
Now, on the Monday morning of August 28, O’Rourke’s new Toyota Tundra pickup was driving down Texas Highway 181 toward Victoria, cutting through misty gusts and passing the growing signs of devastation—scattered branches, an overturned tree, traffic lights dangling perilously over intersections, the flat metal roof of a gas station lying on the shoulder. The bed of the pickup was filled with bottled water and Kirkland-brand nonperishables that city officials in Victoria had suggested might make for a helpful contribution. O’Rourke’s chief of staff, David Wysong, was behind the wheel. Another senior aide, Frank Pigulski, called out directions from the backseat, trying to find a navigable route through the cresting rivers and washed-out roads. The congressman himself was sitting shotgun, checking in on new friends from Houston he’d met on the campaign trail.
“Miss Ramona, this is Beto O’Rourke, I met you in your living room. I’m callin’ to see how you’re doing!” he said over the speakerphone, greeting Ramona Tennyson Toliver, an 89-year-old neighborhood leader in the Fifth Ward. “I’m doing fine,” she told him. “I do want you to be careful,” she added. “Wear boots, rubber boots, and don’t go out there and be no hero, hear?” O’Rourke promised he wouldn’t do anything rash.
“Iván, this is Beto—tell me, how is Houston?” he asked Iván Sánchez, a caseworker in the office of congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Sánchez said he’d been trying to help a family of six with a foot of water in their house, but he’d been struggling to find anyone who could get to them. “I feel useless,” he sighed.
Like Sánchez, O’Rourke felt a kind of restless energy. He knew it would be foolish to go barreling into the eye of the storm. He wasn’t a first responder. He probably couldn’t get into Houston anyway, and if he did, it wasn’t hard to imagine the parody-worthy sight of the would-be valiant congressman who needs to get rescued himself. But he couldn’t sit the moment out, either.
O’Rourke’s old friend David Guinn told me that the congressman has always been driven by a “let’s make this an adventure” spirit. That was what had guided him on cross-continental punk-rock tours in his early twenties, and it had carried him through his insurgent congressional campaign in 2012, in which he wore out two pairs of shoes walking the streets of El Paso knocking on some 16,000 doors. Sure, O’Rourke was happy to deliver a few supplies to a government office in Victoria that was already receiving items by the semi load. Sure, O’Rourke knew that letting people in Houston know that he cared had value. But the whole reason he’d gotten into politics in the first place was because he wanted to actually do something.
So when O’Rourke called Shirelle Franklin, a mother of four whom he’d met at a shelter in Austin, and she told him that her brother, Kerry, and her sister-in-law, Stephanie, were marooned in the town of Cuero, O’Rourke saw a chance to make a difference. The roof of Kerry and Stephanie’s house had caved in, and they’d temporarily moved in with a family friend. They had six children, a dwindling supply of food, water, and toiletries, and, so far, had received no help from local authorities. “Don’t worry,” O’Rourke told Stephanie once he got her on the phone. “We got you covered.”
As Pigulski looked up the location of the nearest Walmart on Google Maps, O’Rourke received a text from his district director, Cynthia Cano. “Check it out,” O’Rourke said. “It’s Stephanie’s birthday. We’ll get her a cake.”
Two hours later, the Toyota Tundra pulled up to the curb in front of a beige bungalow on Main Street in Cuero. After delivering grocery bags full of supplies to the house, Wysong stayed inside to stealthily ready the cake while O’Rourke went out to the driveway to chat with Stephanie and Kerry about the storm and the challenges of parenting. Suddenly, the familiar “Happy Birthday” melody rang out, all six Franklin children popped out from a side door in song, and Wysong carried the cake to the surprised mother.
O’Rourke and his team spent a few minutes in the kitchen, munching on the birthday cake and talking with the family, but they still needed to make the drive to Victoria, so they couldn’t linger. O’Rourke took his leave, as he always did. He told Stephanie and Kerry that he admired their resolve. He scrawled his personal cellphone number on the back of his congressional business card, handed it to the couple, and told them to please call or text him if they needed anything. Then there was the generous handshake, the big smile, and the booming baritone “Adiós!”
Over the next three days, O’Rourke hopscotched the southeastern part of the state, delivering diapers and socks to a hospital in Port Lavaca, helping an elderly evacuee pack up his belongings from the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, spending an evening hanging out with volunteer firefighters in Rockport, and handing out his cell number to just about every single person he met. During this time, O’Rourke never talked politics, contorted himself to avoid the subject of his Senate campaign, and refrained from uttering the name “Ted Cruz,” except in private to his staff. This didn’t prove very difficult: outside of a few supporters in Houston who greeted him with cries of “Beto!” or “We’re going to do this!” no one on the road even recognized the congressman. To them, O’Rourke was just “Beto from El Paso,” the amiable six-foot-four stranger in a blue button-down, designer jeans, and a West Texas A&M baseball cap.
Still, for long stretches of those post-landfall days, O’Rourke couldn’t quite decide why he’d come to southeast Texas in the first place. He wanted to act boldly and meaningfully, but he couldn’t avoid the creeping realization that, in the chaotic aftermath of the storm, he could make only a small impact. One afternoon, after visiting the hospital in Port Lavaca, O’Rourke had his team pull the truck over to the side of the road while they discussed where to go next. “I think what we’re doing is the best I can think of,” he said, “but I don’t know what it amounts to.”
When O’Rourke announced his Senate candidacy on March 31, the Texas Tribune wrote, “it is hard to overstate how unknown this third-term Democrat is in both Texas and Washington.” Indeed, many longtime Democratic operatives and state legislators only met him in 2017, and the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that the majority of registered voters in the state either have no opinion of him or don’t know who he is. But there are also signs of a nascent Beto-mania taking hold.
Since the beginning of 2017, O’Rourke has been profiled in the Washington Post, the Texas Observer, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone. His time playing in punk-rock bands during his high school and college years has proved irresistible for headline writers, who have identified him as “Ted Cruz’s Punk-Rock Problem” and asserted that his “Punk-Rock Past Could Help Him.” An in-production documentary titled Beto vs. Cruz promises that the coming Senate race will be the “most outrageous and consequential political fight of 2018.” O’Rourke’s fund-raising has been robust, with $3.8 million raised in the second and third quarters of 2017—more than Cruz—and his campaigning has been relentless. O’Rourke plans to visit all 254 counties in Texas before the election, and his traveling town halls have drawn surprisingly large crowds in traditional Republican strongholds like Midland, Amarillo, and Tyler, where he attracted so many people to the restaurant Don Juan on the Square that he had to move the meeting out onto the sidewalk to comply with the fire code. (He answered questions for twenty minutes through a bullhorn.) Even if you weren’t at Don Juan, you might have seen this. Like many of his public events, O’Rourke’s staff broadcast it in real time on Facebook Live.
O’Rourke’s growing profile has been driven largely by social media. In June 2016, in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, O’Rourke live-streamed a sit-in by House Democrats to protest Republicans’ refusal to bring gun-control legislation to a floor vote. When Speaker Paul Ryan called a recess and C-SPAN’s cameras went dark, the network used O’Rourke’s feed. In mid-March, O’Rourke and Republican congressman Will Hurd, whose West Texas district includes part of El Paso County, were touring VA hospitals and medical centers in San Antonio when an East Coast blizzard cancelled their flight back to D.C. O’Rourke joked that they should rent a car and drive together. Hurd said he thought it was a great idea. O’Rourke filmed 29 hours of the ensuing road trip for Facebook Live, footage that showed the Democrat and Republican singing along to Johnny Cash, stopping at Whataburger, and talking about everything from first girlfriends to Russian electoral interference. The kumbaya bipartisanship proved a hit on the internet, racking up some 2.5 million views.
O’Rourke is more than a decade into his political career, but he continues to portray himself successfully as a fresh-faced outsider. Part of this is due to O’Rourke’s approach to the political process: he’s refusing to take donations from political action committees, favors congressional term limits, shuns outside campaign consultants in favor of trusted El Paso friends, and extols the potential of working across the aisle in an era of partisan knife-fighting. But it’s O’Rourke’s charisma that sells his pitch. He is 45 but comes across as a decade younger. He has a full head of hair and a toothy, boyish smile, and evidence suggests that he has the metabolism of a 16-year-old in the midst of a growth spurt. (O’Rourke is trim and athletic, but his campaign eating habits are more Trump than Obama, with meals that can consist of a burger, a full order of chicken nuggets, and a brownie.) O’Rourke seems to relish saying “fuck” on the stump. He speaks fluent Spanish. He looks like a Kennedy. (Massachusetts congressman Joe Kennedy III, Bobby’s grandson, jokes that O’Rourke is “known as being the best-looking Kennedy in Washington.”) Add to this the fact that O’Rourke’s wife, Amy, is nine years his junior, that his three children are all elementary-school-aged, and that he chose to name his oldest son Ulysses (stump speech joke: “We named him Ulysses because we didn’t have the balls to name him Odysseus”), and O’Rourke overwhelms you with a sense of his vigorousness.
But politics, despite the old adage, isn’t a popularity contest, particularly not in an era when party identification is so entrenched. O’Rourke could have the personal appeal of Jesus, J. J. Watt, and Sam Houston rolled up in one, and he’d still be a Democrat running in Texas, which would make him the heavy underdog and the inheritor of the longest statewide losing streak of any Democratic party in the country. As Texas’s senior senator John Cornyn told Politico: “I know Beto, and he’s a good guy, but I think this is a suicide mission.”
Since the Democrats last won a statewide race more than two decades ago, hallucinations of a coming restoration have been frequent and fantastical, with a series of would-be saviors vanquished by consistently large margins. Key to this cycle has been an ability to forget and a repeated hope that this time it’s different. And going into the last big Texas election, in 2014, Democrats seemed convinced that they finally had a chance to stage a real comeback.
“After crawling on its belly for two dismal decades, the Texas Democratic Party has suddenly found a spring in its step,” Robert Draper wrote in this magazine in August 2013. Barack Obama had won reelection. San Antonio mayor Julián Castro had delivered a widely praised keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Jeremy Bird, field wizard of Obama’s 2012 race, had decamped to Austin to turn Texas blue, forming a political action committee called Battleground Texas. The Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate, Fort Worth state senator Wendy Davis, was amassing some of the same hype as O’Rourke is now. In the end, Davis lost to Greg Abbott by a 20-point margin, and Democrats took to calling Bird’s organization Battlescam Texas.
Talk to political scientists, pollsters, operatives—both Democratic and Republican—around the state and you’ll hear plenty of reasons why, despite the surprising crowds in places like San Angelo and Tyler, O’Rourke is almost certain to go down in defeat, even if he manages to improve on Davis’s numbers. O’Rourke’s first problem is that he’s the only high-profile Democrat running for any statewide office, which means that he won’t be able to count on, say, the Joaquin Castro for Governor campaign to help mobilize volunteers and turn out new voters. His second problem is that the national Senate map in 2018 will force the Democrats to defend 26 seats, including 10 in states that Donald Trump won. The priority of the party’s Senate campaign committee and its major donors and super-PAC financiers will be to save vulnerable incumbents. Their choice will be easy: they can either fund a Lone-Star Hail Mary or—for the same price—help sitting U.S. senators in Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Indiana.
O’Rourke’s third problem is simple arithmetic. As of the 2016 election, Republican voters still significantly outnumbered Democratic voters in the state. Trump performed terribly in Texas, posting the worst results for a Republican presidential candidate since Bob Dole, in 1996. Trump did particularly poorly with the kinds of suburban, college-educated voters who helped turn Texas into a Republican state in the first place. But he still won by 800,000 votes.
O’Rourke knows all of this, and he can’t tell you exactly how he’s going to beat the odds. When I asked him about what it would take to put together the kind of winning coalition that Obama did nationwide, the congressman said, “I’m not that smart or strategic, I’m not very tactical, I’m not into carving up the state. I think there’s a lot of energy right now everywhere in Texas.”
There are three phrases that O’Rourke repeats at nearly every campaign event: The first is “Texas isn’t a red state or a blue state, it’s a nonvoting state,” which is O’Rourke’s way of saying that he needs a lot of first-time voters to come to the polls in order for him to have a chance. The second is “There’s clearly something happening right now,” which reflects O’Rourke’s belief that the Trump presidency and the radicalization of the Republican party are initiating a tectonic shift in the state’s political orientation. The third is “I’m here,” and it’s O’Rourke’s game plan: if he shows up everywhere that he can, he will convince voters—even longtime Republicans—that he cares, that he’s capable, and that he might just deserve a shot to represent them.
Hurricane Harvey didn’t pause O’Rourke’s campaign for long. He had too many people to meet, too much money to raise, too many traveling town halls in Mexican restaurants and middle-school auditoriums to attend.
On a Wednesday in mid-September, O’Rourke was making the rounds of college campuses in the Dallas–Fort Worth area. After a morning kaffeeklatsch with Texas Christian University’s fledgling College Democrats, O’Rourke drove east to address a crowd of about two hundred in an auditorium at the University of Texas at Dallas. His jacket was off, his shirt sleeves were rolled up, and after he strode onto the stage to hearty applause, he spoke clearly and concisely, with nary an “um,” forgoing notes and occasionally dropping his g’s in a folksy cadence.
O’Rourke’s standard stump speech checks off all the boxes for a liberal politician in the aftermath of the 2016 election, which is to say it’s the kind of speech that you’d expect to slay on a college campus. O’Rourke is pro–universal healthcare, pro–universal background checks, pro-Dreamer, anti–border wall, and in favor of restraint in foreign policy and a clear end to America’s decade-and-a-half-long wars. (His most heterodox position for some on the left is his support of free-trade agreements.) He rarely mentions Cruz, but when he does—to criticize his hyperconservative rigidity, to skewer him for running for president from his first day in office instead of representing the people of Texas—the senator’s name is sometimes met with audible hisses.
But the heart of O’Rourke’s appeal to Texas voters—and the reason he’s running—is grander than policy positions or political attacks. As he spoke to the students, he framed the coming election as an epochal moral choice.
“Everything that we care about is on the line for this country today,” O’Rourke said. “We know exactly what direction we’re headed in when the president of the United States of America says he wants to ban all people of one religion from coming into this country. We know where things are going when, given our relative security and safety on the border, he wants to spend $25 billion of your money building a thirty-foot-high, two-thousand-mile, pure-concrete wall to separate us from Mexico. We know where things are going when he attacks the press as the enemy of the people.”
We needed to think about how the future would judge us, O’Rourke said, and he painted a scene. One day, he imagined, when his three children were old enough to understand the full weight of this historical moment, they would ask, “Dad, when all this stuff was going on, where were you? What did you do? Did you stand up? Were you counted?” O’Rourke suggested the students imagine themselves in a similar scenario and ask themselves those questions. Would they be part of the so-called resistance? Or would they stay home and watch as Cruz and Trump continued to impose their will on America?
After O’Rourke finished, more than one hundred audience members lined up to come onstage and get their photo taken with the candidate. The procession took over 45 minutes, with O’Rourke turning each interaction into a short conversation. He heard the concerns of a disabled veteran and told him that the G.I. Bill owed him more. He thanked a John Kasich supporter for pledging his vote. He recommended Elvis Costello’s song “Alison” to a girl named Allison. O’Rourke is savvy enough to know that these interactions can have a compounding effect. “When we take a picture, share it on Facebook,” he told more than one student. “Let them know why you were here and what you heard.”
One thing O’Rourke doesn’t talk about in detail during campaign appearances is his life story. He can’t offer an inspirational, up-from-his-bootstraps tale, like Wendy Davis, nor can he point to the grueling journey of an immigrant parent, like Ted Cruz. Instead, at UT-Dallas O’Rourke championed the border city in which he was born and has lived for most of his life, an “incredibly magical place” that forms a “truly binational community” that he frames as a metaphor for everything Trump’s vision of America is not.
O’Rourke has grown into this deep appreciation for El Paso over time. He was born in the city in 1972 as Robert Francis O’Rourke, but despite his Irish American heritage, he was known from infancy by the Spanish nickname Beto, a way to distinguish him from his maternal grandfather, Robert Williams, and a nod to El Paso’s biculturalism. O’Rourke’s mother, Melissa, ran a high-end furniture store that her own mother had opened in 1951. O’Rourke’s father, Pat, was an entrepreneur who served a term as El Paso county judge in the mid-eighties.
Pat, who was killed in 2001 when a motorist struck his recumbent bicycle, was an instinctual politician, and when O’Rourke was growing up, his father offered him an education in his future career. Pat would bring his son to election night parties and invite famous friends over to the house, among them Governor Mark White and presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. (Pat was Jackson’s Texas co-chair.) Dinners out often meant watching Pat, the small-city macher, make the rounds to each table, shaking hands, telling jokes, promising to follow up.
“There was no one he did not know or who did not know him,” O’Rourke told me about his father. “I can’t tell you how many people since he died have told me, ‘I was your dad’s best friend.’ ”
Pat’s gregariousness made him fun to be around, but he wasn’t always an easy father to have. He was brash and opinionated, and he didn’t soft-pedal his high expectations for his son. After spending his freshman year at El Paso High School, O’Rourke transferred to Woodberry Forest, a traditional all-male boarding school in Madison County, Virginia. Woodberry offered rigorous academics, but, O’Rourke told me, the move was also driven by a desire to defuse growing tensions with his father. “It was a way to get some distance from someone who was so dominant.”
As O’Rourke left El Paso for Woodberry, he was in the midst of discovering a new passion that would dominate his life over the next decade: punk rock. O’Rourke’s immersion into the music began as a fan. He and two El Paso friends, Mike Stevens and Arlo Klahr, would pore over issues of the subculture fanzine Maximumrocknroll, send away for albums from Washington, D.C.–based Dischord Records, and, when O’Rourke was home on breaks, attend shows at a ramshackle club called Sound Seas. They occasionally got out instruments and made their own music, but, Stevens remembered, “We spent most of the time designing flyers and coming up with band names.”
By the time O’Rourke entered Columbia University, in the fall of 1991, he and his friends had learned to play well enough to get gigs, particularly after they recruited a younger El Paso musician named Cedric Bixler-Zavala as their drummer. (Bixler-Zavala would go on to be the front man of the popular rock groups At the Drive-In and the Mars Volta.) The summers after O’Rourke’s sophomore and junior years, the quartet, known as Foss, staged North American tours, driving in Klahr’s father’s Plymouth Satellite station wagon to play dates in the U.S. and Canada.
During the school year in New York, O’Rourke was playing music too, mixing with a scene that produced the bands Jonathan Fire*Eater and the Walkmen. But O’Rourke wasn’t a typical punk rocker. He was clean-cut, wore button-downs and slacks, and captained the Columbia rowing crew. During the season, he would wake up at 4:30 a.m. to pick up the team’s van and drive his fellow rowers the six miles from campus to the boathouse at the top of Manhattan.
O’Rourke graduated with a degree in En-glish in the spring of 1995, and for the next several years he lived a kind of artsy, aimless post-collegiate existence. While Cruz, his future Senate opponent, was completing prestigious judicial clerkships, including one for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, O’Rourke was holding down a series of entry-level and temp jobs. He did a few-month stint as a live-in, part-time nanny for a family on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, helped his maternal uncle grow a small internet-service provider, and worked as an art mover for a company called Hedley’s Humpers. (“We’d have a Picasso or marble or an ancient samurai sword,” O’Rourke remembered. “I can’t believe they trusted us with that stuff.”)
Not long after O’Rourke graduated, he’d fallen into a funk, feeling lonely and struggling with what to do next. “I was the most depressed I’ve ever been in my life,” O’Rourke told me.
But that period wasn’t long lived. In early 1996, Stevens and Klahr moved to New York, and along with O’Rourke’s college friend David Guinn, the three former Foss bandmates found a two-thousand-square-foot factory loft in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that cost each of them only $130 a month. The space needed work, but that was the fun of it. They erected walls to create bedrooms, installed the toilet and appliances, and cleared out stacks of waist-high debris.
O’Rourke’s ambition at the time was to write fiction, essays, maybe something else—“I had a vague notion that I wanted to be in publishing”—and he got a job as a proofreader for the H. W. Wilson Company, a publisher of reference books for libraries, to get his foot in the door of the industry. In his off hours, he worked on short stories and jotted stray thoughts and song fragments into notebooks.
But after a few years, O’Rourke felt restless once again. The long commute to his publishing job in the Bronx was getting to him, and so was the DIY Brooklyn loft, where nothing quite worked. The air-conditioner-less summers were humid and sweaty. The winters were cold and harsh. O’Rourke often woke up to what he called “breathe it and see it” mornings, when the building’s landlord hadn’t turned on the heat.
When O’Rourke left El Paso for Woodberry in tenth grade, he hadn’t imagined that he’d ever return. By the summer of 1998, he was ready to go home.
“I think by that point, it really came into focus for me how exceptional El Paso is. I missed family, the way of life in El Paso,” O’Rourke said. “And it was becoming clear to me that I was not a New Yorker.”
On a Friday in late October, O’Rourke was back in El Paso, doing the work of a congressman in his district. That morning he’d presided over a ceremony to rededicate the federal courthouse to R. E. Thomason, a former Democratic congressman and district court judge. In the afternoon, he departed downtown, driving southeast on Texas Highway 375, winding just above the dry bed of the Rio Grande and the high chain-link fences on both banks that delineate the U.S.-Mexico border. A little before 2:00 p.m., he arrived at Del Valle High School to host the eighty-fifth town hall of his congressional career.
Since O’Rourke entered Congress, in January 2013, he’s held at least one town hall per month, and while the events are well-organized, they’re appealingly scruffy for anyone whose sole experience of a politician responding to everyday Americans comes from quadrennial presidential TV spectacles. Constituents line up to tell the congressman about their problems at work and the aspirations of their children. They ask him arcane, rambling questions. Sometimes they rise simply to rant. The production values are low: at Del Valle, O’Rourke was bathed in sallow light and stood in front of a set for the school’s production of Little Shop of Horrors, a “Scrivello DDS” sign framing one side of the stage.
O’Rourke is a Gen Xer who seems engineered to appeal to young voters, but he’s also a congressman whose district includes the headquarters of Fort Bliss. Veterans’ issues have become his bread and butter, an area where, even as a member of the minority in a do-nothing Congress, he can actually get something done. And as O’Rourke finished summarizing his recent Washington business to his constituents at the town hall, it was mostly veterans who rushed to the front of the aisles for their chance to speak with their congressman.
One of the veterans was a grandmother of four named Lisa Turner, and once she’d inched her wheelchair to the microphone, she wasted little time before picking a fight. She was a Second Amendment absolutist and a proud NRA supporter, and she decried the “hullabaloo” around armor-piercing bullets and marveled at the fact that people would blame gun violence on guns themselves, not the “idiots” who pulled the trigger.
“All I can say is stay away from my constitutional rights,” she told O’Rourke. “I put my life on the line for this country for that.”
O’Rourke listened patiently, thanked her, and then pushed back. “We don’t have a greater proportion of idiots in this country than they do in other countries, and yet our rate of gun violence and gun deaths and gun suicide is far greater than any other country in the world.” Then he told her he needed to move on to the next question.
Turner wasn’t satisfied. “There is somewhere between 80 and 100 million gun owners, 300 million guns . . . If guns were the problem, you would have known about it by now,” she called out. “It’s not the guns—”
“You’re not hearing me,” O’Rourke said.
Turner was not. “We do not outlaw cars because somebody gets drunk and drives!”
Turner seemed eager to continue the discussion, but the congressman cut her off and called on a woman waiting at the mic in the other aisle. Turner turned and moved toward the back of the auditorium.
At the end of the event, I found Turner near the stage, talking with O’Rourke staffer Cynthia Cano. Turner told me that she’d been to most of O’Rourke’s town halls. “He’ll tell you I’m a royal pain in the butt,” she said. But she had come to respect him.
“We have issues that we disagree on,” she said, smiling, “but I hope he beats Cruz. I think he can go all the way.” She meant the presidency.
A few years after O’Rourke moved back to El Paso, he committed himself to what his friend Susie Byrd calls “the El Paso project.” The city had long been characterized by brain drain, and census data would show that El Paso was exporting many of its most highly educated young people. “The pathway was ‘Do really well in high school, go away to college, and don’t look back,’ ” Byrd told me.
O’Rourke, Byrd, and a growing generation of civically engaged twenty- and thirty-somethings sought to buck the trend, and soon after O’Rourke returned, he launched his own company, Stanton Street. The business was two-pronged. One side built and maintained websites at a profit (and still operates today under different ownership). The other side, which lasted only a few years, published a newspaper—first online, then also in print—that O’Rourke styled after alternative weeklies like the Village Voice and the New York Press, mixing cultural boosterism, serious reportage, and personal essays. (Pat O’Rourke filed dozens of dispatches from a cross-country bicycle trip he took during the summer of 2000.) Much of the content was earnest, but O’Rourke didn’t shy away from provocation. The cover of one of Stanton Street’s print issues depicted an El Paso Times newspaper box, under the headline “Down the Tubes.”
This would prove to be the last time O’Rourke publicly gave the finger to the Man. In 2001 El Paso experienced a political upheaval in the mayoral candidacy of Ray Caballero, a trial lawyer who pledged to revitalize downtown, create more robust public transportation and city infrastructure, fight against cheaply built sprawl, and de-emphasize industrial production. “There was this reawakening that Caballero was able to articulate: that we’re a great city and we need to act like a great city, and we should expect greatness out of ourselves,” O’Rourke remembered. “I had heard my dad say things like that, but I had never heard someone make that the essence of their campaign. It was this massive catalyst for young people.”
Caballero won with over 60 percent of the vote, but as mayor he was seen as heavy-handed and aloof, and he lost his bid for reelection. Out of the wreckage of the Caballero administration, Byrd, O’Rourke, and several other like-minded young professionals—among them lawyer Steve Ortega and former Caballero staffer Veronica Escobar—began meeting regularly to discuss how they could do grassroots work to achieve the policy goals Caballero could not: more conscientious urban planning, a more diversified economy with more highly skilled jobs, and an end to the kind of systemic corruption that had long permeated the city leadership.
Up to this point, few of O’Rourke’s friends had pegged him as a future politician. Stevens remembered O’Rourke in high school and college as friendly but introverted. “He’s basically a shy person who has gradually become what he is now,” Stevens told me. But as O’Rourke became more civically engaged in El Paso with Byrd, Ortega, and Escobar, he and the rest of the group began thinking about running for office. First O’Rourke set his sights on county judge, the position his father had held. But the rest of the group talked him out of it.
“I will never forget—Beto, Steve, Susie, and I sat around a table at a coffee shop, and I remember telling Beto you can get so much more done as a slate on city council than you can as county judge,” Escobar told me. O’Rourke said he’d think about it. Caballero followed up with a phone call. (“I told him, ‘No, no, no, we need you on city council,’ ” Caballero remembered.) O’Rourke agreed to run, taking on incumbent Anthony Cobos in the South-West District.
The race quickly turned personal. O’Rourke had been arrested for attempted forcible entry on the UTEP campus in 1995 and stopped for a DWI in 1998. Both charges were dismissed, but Cobos, who was later found guilty of corruption and embezzlement, hammered O’Rourke with them.
“They were debating on Channel 7, and Cobos was like, ‘You’re an alcoholic—why don’t you tell people about your alcohol problem?’ ” Anthony Martinez, an El Paso lawyer who wrote for O’Rourke at Stanton Street, remembered. “Beto was completely cool, and that’s one of the moments that I realized: he can do this.”
O’Rourke, Byrd, and Ortega all won their races (Escobar, who is now running for O’Rourke’s seat in Congress, would later become county judge), and the group quickly became known as the Progressives, an accurate moniker that their critics often used derisively. Like Caballero, they believed unapologetically in using government power to bring about change, whether that meant advocating for the development of walkable communities or pushing to give benefits to the domestic partners of gay city employees. And like Caballero, they ran into fierce resistance from people who viewed them as know-it-all upstarts.
In 2006, the group championed a public-private redevelopment that would welcome a sports arena, hotels, big-box retailers, and an arts walk to downtown and southside El Paso. O’Rourke saw the plan as a way to “bring life and energy and vitality” to an area of the city that had long been characterized by abandoned buildings and shuttered stores. But entrenched property owners believed the plans represented an existential threat to their businesses; Chicano activists saw an aggressive gentrification that would “de-Mexicanize” the historic Segundo Barrio neighborhood, some of which was slated to be razed and rebuilt; and soon both groups mounted an offensive against the council members, accusing them of doing the bidding of a cabal of billionaire developers. O’Rourke responded by attending forums hosted by the business owners and walking door-to-door in the Segundo Barrio neighborhood to hear residents’ concerns—he found that most of them supported some kind of redevelopment—but the battle lines had already been drawn, and his opponents saw his listening tour as a cynical act.
“He was the young Kennedy progressive going to slums, offering a better perspective,” David Romo, a historian and activist who fought against the plan, told me. “That was the narrative that he was very good at promoting, but it was all false, it was all a mask. He made himself the absolute good guy and everyone who was fighting against displacement was the bad guy.”
That May, another El Paso activist initiated a recall campaign against O’Rourke. When the recall fizzled, the downtown property owners filed two ethics complaints against him, citing conflicts of interest because his father-in-law, prominent real estate investor William Sanders, was one of the key businessmen behind the plan. After an independent ethics-review commission dismissed the charges against him, O’Rourke denounced what he saw as a coordinated campaign of “character assassination and political intimidation.”
To this day, the fight produces strong reactions. Romo refuses to call O’Rourke Beto, because he sees the name as an act of cultural appropriation by “someone who betrayed our trust.” O’Rourke’s many supporters see him as someone who genuinely, even idealistically, thought the plan would be good for the city and got badly mischaracterized. “They slandered the heck out of Beto,” Martinez said. “Beto was somebody who believed in downtown. There isn’t a gentrification bone in his body.”
Parts of the proposed downtown plan have come to fruition, but the full scope of the redevelopment never happened, felled principally by the 2008 financial crash. By then, O’Rourke’s path out of the insular world of city politics and toward the U.S. Congress was beginning to take shape. In January 2009, the city council took up a purely symbolic resolution pertaining to cross-border relations, and O’Rourke offered a purely symbolic amendment encouraging an “honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics.” After the city council unanimously voted in its favor, O’Rourke’s amendment made headlines and earned scorn from the city’s congressman, Silvestre Reyes, who called up individual members to pressure them into removing their support. (Reyes claimed that the federal government might withhold stimulus funds from the city.) The next month, O’Rourke heard Reyes liken the out-of-control drug violence in neighboring Ciudad Juárez to the Bruce Willis movie Last Man Standing. Afterward, O’Rourke said to the El Paso Times that Reyes’s idea “that we stand back and let people duke it out is not showing leadership.”
O’Rourke talked openly about running against Reyes in the Democratic primary in 2010, but he decided against it. Over the following year, O’Rourke co-authored with Byrd the book Dealing Death and Drugs, which argues in favor of marijuana legalization; left the council at the end of his term; and began to prepare for his next political act. By 2012, he was ready to take on Reyes, and the race rehashed much of O’Rourke’s political career to that point. Jesús “Chuy” Reyes, the congressman’s brother and campaign manager, wrote on Facebook, “We are going to kick some drug pushing, drunk driving, burglarizing ass,” taking up the line of attack that Cobos had deployed unsuccessfully. Ads and online videos—one was called “Billionaires for Beto Campaign Video (Beto & Bill’s Big Adventure)”—recycled the accusations from the downtown fight. With Byrd running O’Rourke’s field operation and Escobar running communication, Reyes modified the old “Progressives” slur and likened O’Rourke and his friends to pacoteros, a slang term that the congressman defined as individuals who will “gang up on one person because they can’t do it one-on-one.”
Reyes had served in Congress since 1997, and although he eventually picked up endorsements from both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, there were plenty of reasons to think that he was vulnerable. Reyes was seen as distant by many constituents, he had mostly stopped holding town hall meetings, and while he had seniority in Congress, he could be less than impressive, whiffing on a question about whether Al Qaeda’s ideology was Sunni or Shiite after he was named chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Facing the first serious challenge of his congressional career, Reyes ran a lackluster campaign. His ads enlisting children to shout “No!” at O’Rourke’s supposed plans for wholesale drug legalization were misleading, over-the-top, and tone-deaf. He didn’t like block-walking. He rarely showed up at campaign forums, sending staffers to take his place in debates against O’Rourke. Meanwhile, O’Rourke was knocking on every door he could find, he was citing a Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington report questioning Reyes’s payment of $600,000 in campaign funds to himself and his family members, and an anti-incumbent super PAC was spending $240,000 on the race, largely to fund an anti-Reyes advertising push.
But O’Rourke’s greatest advantage in the race proved to be timing. With Texas’s redistricting maps being challenged in federal court, the 2012 state primaries were pushed back from March 6 to May 29. When the votes were counted, O’Rourke had won 50.5 percent, just enough to avoid a runoff. In the heavily Democratic Sixteenth District, he cruised to victory in the fall.
“Those two additional months provided Beto with a little bit more time to knock on doors and engage people, and he just barely got that majority to win outright,” Gregory Rocha, a University of Texas at El Paso political scientist, said. “If the election had been held in March, then I think Reyes would have won.”
There was another upstart candidate challenging the party establishment in a primary that year who also benefited from the extended election to pull off a surprising victory. His name was Ted Cruz.
By the time O’Rourke delivered the birthday cake to Stephanie Franklin in Cuero, he had been on the road for 31 consecutive days, and he hadn’t seen his family for a couple of weeks. O’Rourke has been a congressman for five years, which means that he has grown accustomed to spending most weekdays away from El Paso, but the Senate campaign had transformed his life into an almost completely itinerant existence.
“You can anticipate the rules of the road, travel, everything else, but not the emotional toll,” O’Rourke said that night. “We’re still a family, but we don’t see each other anymore.”
O’Rourke had just gotten off of a video call with his younger son, Henry, who had been crying hysterically after getting whacked by a gate in the family’s yard. O’Rourke had done his best to calm him down and then said a quick good night to Amy. “Sometimes I call and can hear the exasperation in her voice,” O’Rourke sighed.
O’Rourke was staying in a small cottage in Karnes City, preparing to return the next morning to Harvey-ravaged Southeast Texas. He had brought along a copy of the Odyssey, which he’d loved in college and was marveling at anew. “I read something like this, and I’m like, ‘Why am I not reading this once a year?’ ” he said.
Lately O’Rourke had been trying to interest his son Ulysses in some of his all-time favorite books, but the ten-year-old hadn’t taken to them. Then, while O’Rourke was on the road, Ulysses had called and said that he was reading Ursula Le Guin’s O’Rourke-recommended Earthsea Trilogy. “It made me really happy,” O’Rourke said. The congressman was planning to reread the books himself so he and Ulysses could discuss them.
When O’Rourke considered a run against Reyes in 2010, he’d viscerally experienced the clash between ambition and family. “I remember I was in Steve Ortega’s office, and I was real angry about all the stuff going on in Juárez and how the congressman was treating it, and Steve said, ‘You should run,’ ” O’Rourke said as we sat in the cottage. “I had never consciously thought about that, and it just hit me. I remember Amy was picking me up, and I went down from Steve’s office and I said, ‘Hey, Steve says that I should think about running for Congress,’ and she just immediately started crying. It was so hurtful to her.”
Two years later, Amy had come around to the idea of her husband going to Washington. But, O’Rourke said, the Senate race was the “first one where I felt like we both made the decision together.” Still, it had proved taxing. “Unlike city council or Congress, I’m physically not there anymore. When a gate falls on Henry, Amy’s like, ‘It would be nice if you were here.’ ”
O’Rourke may very well be spending a lot of time at home soon. His path to victory is narrow. He needs to flip even more voters in the Houston and Dallas suburbs than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. He needs to run up the score in Texas’s increasingly large, increasingly diverse cities. He needs to spur greater turnout among Mexican American voters. He needs to hope that his frequent trips to rural Texas will loosen the GOP’s stranglehold on those precincts. In short, he needs to excite voters whom no recent Texas Democrat has excited and appeal to voters who have proved impossible for any recent Texas Democrat to reach.
For this to work, O’Rourke will need help. He will need the groundswell of volunteers that has come to his campaign so far to continue to grow during 2018. He will need the Trump administration to sink to unprecedented levels of unpopularity and take down the entire GOP with it. He will need to be proved eerily prescient in his sense that “there’s clearly something happening right now.” When the dust clears, O’Rourke needs to be historically right, and the Castro brothers and every other Texas Democrat who might want a higher office and sat out the 2018 elections need to be historically wrong.
If O’Rourke were to win, his political star would supernova. He would almost certainly be riding a wave of other improbable Democratic victories, but his victory would be the most improbable, and from the morning of Wednesday, November 7, 2018, onward, he would be viewed as presidential timber.
If O’Rourke loses, his future looks a lot murkier. Would he leave political life behind, or would he stick around? If he improved on Clinton’s performance, would he use his defeat as the foundation of future campaigns? Would he have the fortitude and persistence of Ralph Yarborough, the East Texas liberal who lost three races for governor before emerging victorious in a 1957 Senate special election, eventually earning the honorific “the People’s Senator”? Would O’Rourke step up and become the kind of inspirational leader the Texas Democratic Party hasn’t had since Ann Richards?
When O’Rourke hosts out-of-town press in El Paso, he likes to take them across the border to Ciudad Juárez. When BuzzFeed came to write about him in 2014, O’Rourke led a trip to El Tragadero, a Juárez steakhouse where “the staff know the American congressman by name.” When the Washington Post visited earlier this year, O’Rourke took the reporter to the Kentucky Club, the Juárez bar that reputedly invented the margarita and to which O’Rourke took Amy on their first date.
O’Rourke is a devotee of border history. He and his family live in a historic mission-style home that was the site of a 1915 meeting between U.S. Army General Hugh Scott and the famed Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Despite the bad blood during the downtown redevelopment fight, O’Rourke recommends to friends David Romo’s book Ringside Seat to a Revolution, an “underground history” of the El Paso–Juárez region around the time of the Mexican Revolution. When Ciudad Juárez took on the awful distinction of the world’s murder capital in 2010, O’Rourke continued to visit, and as the city has become safer, he has embraced it as central to his platform.
“If Juárez is thriving, El Paso is thriving. And vice versa,” he told BuzzFeed. “So we have a selfish interest in what happens in Juárez economically, and we have a human interest because it’s who we are.”
So it wasn’t surprising that on a chilly late-October morning, O’Rourke got into running clothes and lined up at the start of the U.S.-Mexico 10K, which winds through both El Paso and Juárez.
When the race began, O’Rourke tried to capture the experience for his social-media followers, filming snippets of the action to put on Instagram. But as he cut through downtown, he put his phone away, picked up the pace, and charged up Stanton Street toward the Santa Fe Bridge.
“Beto!” a few people lining the thoroughfare shouted.
“Senator!” others called as he climbed the bridge and passed down into Mexico.
The route was full of memories. O’Rourke pointed out the Plaza de Toros Alberto Balderas, recalling the years when he would attend the bullfights there almost every week, writing a column about the experiences for Stanton Street. Less than a mile later, he ran in front of historic sites he’d visited as a boy: the Catedral de Ciudad Juárez, the Mercado Cuauhtémoc, the Museo de la Revolución en la Frontera.
The home stretch of the race was the wide expanse of the Avenida Benito Juárez, and by the time O’Rourke reached it, his mind was locked in a competitive zone. Every few seconds he would bellow out a battle cry, and as he ran past the famed Kentucky Club, with the finish line coming into view, he psyched himself up for the final push.
“Motherfucker,” O’Rourke muttered to himself. And with that, he broke into a sprint, powering past a series of runners, vaulting up the incline of the bridge, and reaching the border, where the course ended. “That was my life force,” he said after he’d caught his breath.
O’Rourke was the eighty-seventh out of more than a thousand runners to complete the race, but he stayed at the finish line until every competitor was done, talking with journalists, telling a Mexican TV station, in Spanish, that this 10K had shown that the border wasn’t a threat but “una oportunidad,” and posing for photos with admirers, constituents, Mexican politicians, Border Patrol agents, his congressional staff, and anyone else who wanted to capture a little bit of the Beto phenomenon. After 45 minutes of chatting and shaking hands and smiling, a Border Patrol agent told O’Rourke that they needed to clear the area. So O’Rourke found Amy, and they walked down the bridge, back to El Paso and America and a rare weekend at home. There were still twelve months left to go.