The congressman from El Paso has raised $6.7 million with a genuine grassroots campaign.
One of 2018's most remarkable campaign stories is unfolding on the back roads and small-town squares of rural Texas, where Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a three-term congressman from El Paso, is within striking distance of unseating arguably the nation's most despised senator, Texas Republican Ted Cruz.
The most visible marker of O'Rourke's success is his announcement this month that he raised $6.7 million in small donations from 141,000 people, breaking a three-decade record for the most money raised in a reporting period in a Texas U.S. Senate race. O'Rourke isn't taking any political action committee money, because he's a progressive who doesn't want strings attached.
Even Cruz, who just launched his re-election bid, acknowledged O'Rourke's fundraising. But true to Cruz's negativity drenched form, his first statewide radio ad threw a litany of right-wing cliche's mocking O'Rourke for not being man enough to represent Texas. Nevermind that O'Rourke, a mild-mannered former punk rocker, tech startup founder, El Paso city councilman and congressman, has real western Texas roots stretching back four times as many generations as Cruz.
The success of O'Rourke's fundraising is a symptom of many things. But perhaps most importantly, O'Rourke seems to be everything that Cruz isn't: personable, positive, empathetic, averse to taunts and pettiness, and crystal-clear about his inclusive and empowering progressive agenda. And one more thing in a year when Democrats are energized: O'Rourke is a road warrior who is live-streaming his days online and is fully at ease both with the technology and the transparency. That backdrop allowed AlterNet to follow O'Rourke for a day this week, from the van ride after his Trinity County event to a student town hall in Houston.
This everyman approach is utterly anti-Machiavellian. While O'Rourke, who has a wife and three kids, obviously has a private life, he is openly doing exactly what most politicians usually hide: their laundry, getting a haircut, knocking on doors unscripted, even sharing what happened when the power goes out at a gas station men's room, leaving everyone, including him, a bit bewildered. Traveling in a van with young aides, O'Rourke recounted that almost TMI moment, paraphrasing Gram Parsons, a pioneering country rocker: "You don't miss your water until your well runs dry."
O'Rourke had just visited another rural county where he was likely to be told the last time a Democratic Senate candidate visited was Lyndon Baines Johnson, decades ago. What O'Rourke is doing is smartly mixing the old and the new. The old is showing up, briefly telling voters what he thinks on key issues, then hearing comments and taking questions. He pledges to try to solve problems by working reasonably with anyone who shares these concerns, regardless of party. The new, in contrast, is using live-streamed video, along with a complement of online communications and platforms, to give people a ringside seat to his life.
"What you have with Beto is not just somebody who is using all the tools that are available politically, through social media and other things, it's somebody who is absolutely open and understands them," a longtime Texas political consultant said, speaking on background. "And that's different from most politicians. Most politicians come to that world through necessity that they have to, and it's a struggle for them to understand it. Beto understands it in his bones. And gets it."
O'Rourke announced his long-shot Senate campaign a year ago. When he first ran for the House, he knocked on "16,000 or 17,000 doors" in his district, another political consultant said on background, and praising O'Rourke's dogged work ethic. The campaign knows Texas has 28 million people, an impossible number to individually reach. But it believes that by using the internet it can show enough voters that there's a positive alternative to Cruz, and a candidate who is working harder.
While he clearly knows he's on camera all the time, O'Rourke is entirely comfortable with it. On the issues, he presents a typical Berniecrat agenda without any of Sanders' abrasiveness. He's proud of El Paso's binational identity, stands with immigrants, wants affordable health care and higher education, living wages, reasonable gun controls and family-friendly policies. But unlike Sanders, who does not reveal much about his personal life, typically gets hustled in and out of events and avoids the public's questions, O'Rourke is mindful and considerate of the audience members who have taken to watching his live-stream.
"Okay, we're just gassed up. Thanks to everyone who pitched in to make sure we could put gas in the tank of this Dodge Caravan," he says, as he buckled his seatbelt and a 38-minute video began. "Some people will travel the state in a private jet. It's a big state. I can see why, if you have the resources, you'd do it that way. But we're traveling the state on the highways and byways, the roads and streets of Texas, and we're enjoying the heck out of it."
"It's a beautiful, beautiful day," he continues, pointing to the blue sky and green foliage. "We just left the Trinity County courthouse steps in Groveton, Texas, which is one of the more beautiful towns we've had a chance to be in. And the drive to Groveton was just gorgeous. And we're now headed to Houston and we've added a stop to our day, which means we're not going to have a chance to stop for lunch. And that's okay and I'm going to allow Cynthia and Chris [his traveling aides] to tell you why."
Now Cynthia chimes in, saying, "Everywhere we go, all the town halls, we meet the most amazing people." She recounts how a supporter named Terry gave them a brimming picnic basket and cooler. She pulls out the Wonderbread, a second whole-grain honey wheat loaf, plates and forks, mayo, mustard, sliced vegetables, deli meats, and cupcakes, and shows them all to the dashboard camera. It's a bit of a performance. But you get to watch how O'Rourke and his team do what they do, up close and personal, and how gracious O'Rourke is toward his grassroots supporters -- the very people many campaigns take for granted.