The political momentum seems to be blowing in the direction of Beto O’Rourke. The Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate had a video go viral of him defending NFL players’ right to take a knee during the national anthem, prompting an appearance next week on Ellen DeGeneres’s TV show. There’s the growing crowds that have greeted him at each stop in the more than thirty days straight he has been on the road. And then there are yard signs everywhere—thanks to his $4 million investment in campaign merchandise and a willingness of enthusiastic supporters to buy them at $10 a pop. Free publicity is great publicity.
But there is a growing unease among some longtime Democrats that O’Rourke’s campaign is unprepared for the onslaught that Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and his well-financed allies are about to unleash.
The NFL video captured the hearts of DeGeneres and others on its way to becoming viral—and alienated many as well as provoking a swift counterpunch from the Cruz campaign with a response video featuring a Vietnam veteran whose legs were blown off during combat. Dallas-area Marine Corps veteran Tim Lee joined Cruz on the campaign trail this week in his wheelchair to emphasize the idea that he can no longer stand but he expects others to do it for him.
Then on Friday, President Trump endorsed Cruz and promised to come to Texas to campaign for him in October.
And riding to Cruz’s rescue, the national Club for Growth announced it will be making a major independent campaign expenditure on Cruz’s behalf to make Texans question whether O’Rourke really is the candidate they want. There was more bad news on Friday as the Houston Chronicle reported the details of O’Rourke’s 1998 arrest for DWI, painting a far more grim picture than what he called a serious mistake for which there is no excuse. This included information that O’Rourke hit a vehicle, causing his car to careen into the lane of oncoming traffic with a witness telling police O’Rourke tried to drive away from the scene.
The increased attention that O’Rourke’s growing celebrity is drawing has some Democratic stalwarts worried that O’Rourke has not built a campaign that has the ability to quickly trade jab for jab. This may be problematic because poll after poll—which show the race for Senate is close—suggests that a large number of voters still do not know O’Rourke. This low voter ID allows Cruz and his allies to help define his opponent leading into Election Day.
But many concede that O’Rourke is in unchartered social media territory as it relates to political campaigns—and he may not need that rapid response element that is the mark of a smart traditional campaign. It’s a world that O’Rourke has seamlessly navigated so far not because of any stroke of brilliance, said one Democratic operative, but because of dumb luck.
“This campaign is not prepared to fight a traditional campaign,” said one member of O’Rourke’s campaign who asked that his name not be used because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the candidate. O’Rourke, he said, made the decision early on to run a campaign independent of traditional party infrastructure because that party infrastructure is virtually nonexistent in Texas anyway.
The result: O’Rourke, through sheer force of personality on such venues as Facebook and Twitter, has gotten a lot of free media attention in one of the most expensive campaign media markets in the country. “It’s a phenomenon of having a nonstop town hall,” the adviser said. Recognizing a good thing, O’Rourke has followed through. So far, he has paid more than $4.7 million to Revolution Messaging for digital advertising, according to campaign records. This is the same firm that propelled Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, and it represents the largest expenditure of O’Rourke’s campaign.
By contrast, Cruz has an effective, traditional campaign structure, battle tested by a contentious 2016 presidential foray, that is supported by an effective statewide Republican infrastructure as well as a national one intent on keeping a GOP-controlled U.S. Senate. That was on display when the Cruz team was able to produce and distribute its own commercial that effectively distorted the O’Rourke NFL virus video and aimed at neutralizing any O’Rourke advantage—all within days of the O’Rourke video going viral.
Some Texas Democrats with ties to his campaign don’t think O’Rourke’s campaign is equipped to do the same. But in the age of social media, O’Rourke may not have to. The Republican Party of Texas learned Wednesday, for example, that if you’re going to troll O’Rourke, you better be prepared to get trolled in return.
The party’s official Twitter account tried to make fun of O’Rourke’s announcement that a tentatively scheduled debate with Cruz isn’t going to happen. O’Rourke said Cruz was making too many unreasonable demands. Gigging a candidate for passing on a debate is one thing, but the state party reached far into O’Rourke’s past to make fun of him. First, the Texas GOP made fun of a recent viral video of O’Rourke skateboarding in a parking lot.
Then there was the picture of O’Rourke in a punk rock band, a highlight of his life that he references at almost every campaign appearance.
More than 3,800 replies followed, either criticizing the Republicans for being juvenile or reminding everyone that Cruz’s Twitter account once linked to a porn movie. But one of our favorites was this photo of college Ted smoking a cigar.
Or posing as a mime.
Then there was this one of an Austinite named Rebecca—“a pissed-off, twenty-something hoping to help build a better world”—trolling Cruz by having a photo shot with him as she wore a message around her neck.
In politics, why take the high road when you can take the low one? The Texas GOP Twittermeister decided to double down with a mug shot from O’Rourke’s DWI arrest. (He also had a separate arrest for trespassing for jumping a fence at the University of Texas at El Paso.)
Mashable published a story with the headlined “Texas GOP attack on Beto O’Rourke completely backfires.”
But as the national media interest begins to mount, a candidate without an infrastructure can quickly become overwhelmed, said another longtime Democratic operative. This results in lost opportunities when a spokeswoman for Cruz, for example, compares O’Rourke to a “triple meat Whataburger liberal” and it takes O’Rourke more than a week to try and capitalize on the comments. Ultimately, however, it can squander even bigger opportunities: when true believers begin to show up to volunteer for the campaign and no one is there to effectively manage them.