The folks from the Gonzales area just will not let you forget they live where the Texas Revolution began in 1835, a time when local citizens stood in defiance of Big Government—or at least in defiance of a hundred Mexican dragoons who had arrived to remove the town cannon before it could be used in insurrection. The iconic “Come and Take It” cannon flag has now been co-opted by Second Amendment gun rights supporters across the country, and the folks I met in Gonzales are proud of that. The idea of the little guy standing up to big government is everywhere in Gonzales, and was evident as I attended a rally for Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in the “Baker Boys BBQ, Come and Taste It” restaurant.
This is really the heartland of Republican Texas. No statewide Republican candidate in the past two elections has gotten less than 70 percent of the vote here. This area once was represented in Congress by one-time Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul, and years ago, on the highway north of here, there was a sign reading: “U.S. out of the U.N.”—no globalists here. When Republican political consultants say the cornerstone of their campaign will be God, Guns and Country, places like Gonzales are what they have in mind.
Even as close as we are getting to the November election, I did not expect a large crowd to turn out for a rainy, Saturday-afternoon rally for Cruz. Experience told me there might be somewhere between 65 and 100 people here, but Baker Boys was packed, easily with more than 200 people, whooping and hollering for Cruz. Although this was not the thousand-plus people Democrat Beto O’Rourke had at a Collin County rally the same day, it does say Cruz’s rural Republican base is solid and as enthused as O’Rourke’s supporters.
To understand just how important that base is for Cruz, consider this: 4.2 million more Texans voted in the 2016 presidential election than in the 2014 election for governor. Despite that overall increase, Republican Governor Greg Abbott got more votes in 2014 than Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton did in 2016 in 211 mostly rural Texas counties. In total, Abbott got 538,431 more votes than Clinton.
O’Rourke’s path to victory rests in the 43 urban and South Texas counties where Clinton outpaced Abbott by about a million votes; however, Clinton carried only 25 of those counties over Republican winner Donald Trump. In those 25 counties, there were 887,000 Democratic votes that were not cast in the 2014 election. O’Rourke needs to get those voters to the polls without prompting an equivalent Republican increase in its voters. With superior fundraising, large crowds, and Beto-mania, that seems possible for O’Rourke.
What I saw in Gonzales on Saturday is that Beto-mania also is energizing Republicans. No one at Baker Boys went AWOL—asleep with open lids—and they reacted with enthusiasm to each of Cruz’s applause lines.
Something striking about the Cruz supporters I spoke with is how easily they dropped the word “socialist” to describe O’Rourke. For several decades now, I have heard Republicans refer to Democrats as “liberal,” and they sometimes used “socialist” to describe former President Barack Obama. Using this word to describe O’Rourke is a transitional demonization, ratcheting up rhetoric from the idea that O’Rourke has policies they don’t like to the concept that O’Rourke is a threat to their way of life. “He’s a socialist, and I don’t think our country needs to be socialistic,” said Jerry Akers, 82, who lives in the country outside of Gonzales. Karen Cochran, attired in a “God Bless Ted Cruz” T-shirt, took her assessment of O’Rourke a step further, “Very communistic. The things he’s running on is a very communist platform. It’s very scary for the country.” The objections centered on O’Rourke’s support for immigrant and abortion rights, and his call for firearm restrictions.
If there was a surprise at the meeting, it was that most of the people I talked to were not willing to turn their back on Willie Nelson just because he plans to play a concert for O’Rourke. There have been stories of fans telling Nelson on his Facebook page that they are dropping their support for him. Jordan Othold of Shiner said it makes no sense to him to quit listening to Nelson or to burn his records in protest. “I don’t think there’s a point in burning everything because he’s already got the money. It’s not like it’s going to hurt him any.” Akers told me he isn’t happy Nelson is playing a concert for O’Rourke, but that’s the American way of freedom: “I like Willie. I’ve been to a lot of his concerts. If that’s what he wants to do, that’s what he can do.”
Freedom was a recurring theme, with both Cruz and his audience. During a question and answer session, the crowd prompted a man from Albania to tell Cruz his life story. He was difficult to hear over a 15-inch fan that was intended to keep Cruz from turning into a pool of flop-sweat in the stuffy room. But the gist of what the man said was that Albanian communism was bad because the government controlled your life. Freedom from government interference in Texas is good. This is the kind of simple idea that Cruz used to end his pitch for votes: “In November we’re going to see record-shattering Democratic turnout. Here’s the good news, in Texas there are a whole lot more conservatives than there are liberals,” Cruz said. So politically our task is simple. This election comes down to one word, turnout. Turnout, turnout, turnout. If we turn out freedom-loving Texans, we’ll have a fantastic election.”
Nothing is guaranteed in politics, but at the moment, it looks to me like the Cruz advantage among rural voters is holding strong. The question is whether it will be stronger than Beto-mania in November.