Beto O’Rourke

O'Rourke Facebook page

Democratic El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke recently charmed the nation with a live-streamed cross-country town hall with Republican U.S. Representative Will Hurd. Now he hopes to win over the affection of Texas Democratic primary voters as he prepares for a possible challenge to incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. O’Rourke’s major Democratic primary opponent is expected to be U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro of San Antonio.

A contest between O’Rourke and Castro for the right to challenge Cruz is likely to serve as a defining moment for the state Democratic Party. El Paso always has been the stepchild of Texas politics, hundreds of miles west of other major cities and in a different time zone than the rest of the state. In the 2014 primaries, about 28,000 voters turned out in El Paso County, while almost 42,000 cast ballots in Castro’s home turf of Bexar County. Additionally, the Democratic primary is dominated by Latino voters who tend to first favor Latino candidates, so Castro’s starting advantage is dramatic. But, even in heavily Hispanic El Paso, O’Rourke pulled off an upset Democratic primary win in 2012 over incumbent U.S. Representative Silvestre Reyes.

While there was a boost of attention for O’Rourke in his bipartisan road trip with Hurd, Castro and his brother Julian have an established statewide identification. Julian was elected mayor of San Antonio and then became President Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and was mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate for Hillary Clinton last year. Twin brother Joaquin served San Antonio in the Legislature for a decade before winning election to Congress in 2012.

After a failed presidential bid last year, Cruz appeared vulnerable in his re-election bid—though mostly in the Republican primary. He appears to have stabilized and likely will win the Republican nomination for another term without major opposition. In recent general elections, Democrats have struggled to get more than 43 percent of the vote in Texas.

O’Rourke has been hinting for months that he would run for the Democratic nomination for Senate, and earlier today posted on Facebook: “Together, we can do something really big, and really powerful for the state of Texas—and for this country. I have a big announcement to make on Friday.” He plans to make the announcement in his hometown of El Paso. That also coincides with a Friday “meet and greet” in Dallas, followed by three public appearances Saturday in Waco and Austin, finishing up on Sunday in Houston.

A former punk rocker, Robert Francis O’Rourke comes from a political family. His father once was the El Paso County judge, and O’Rourke is a former member of the El Paso city council. O’Rourke survived a 2006 recall effort by opponents of downtown El Paso redevelopment that he supported. Then in 2012, he pulled off his upset defeat over Reyes. O’Rourke received the diminutive Spanish nickname of Beto, short for Robert, as a child.

One of his top issues has been to end the War on Drugs and legalize recreational marijuana. O’Rourke contends illegal marijuana sales form the financial foundation for drug cartels. He also has pushed for greater care of veterans and immigration reform.