Beto-ma­nia The Texan sen­sa­tion who could shape the fu­ture of the Democrats

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Ed Pilk­ing­ton

When Beto O’Rourke, the punk rock gui­tarist turned US con­gress­man for the dis­tant bor­der town of El Paso, an­nounced in March 2017 that he was go­ing to run for Ted Cruz’s Se­nate seat in Texas, the spokesman for the state’s Repub­li­can party quipped: “Who?”

No one is ask­ing who O’Rourke is now. He lost his plucky bid to be the first Demo­crat to win a statewide elec­tion in Texas since 1994 but he came close enough to wipe the smirks off Repub­li­can faces.

Less than three per­cent­age points sep­a­rated the sen­a­tor and his chal­lenger – 50.9% for Cruz, 48.3% O’Rourke – 222,922 votes out of 8m.

It is a phe­nom­e­nal achieve­ment for O’Rourke, 46. In just 19 months, al­most unas­sisted, he took the Texas Demo­cratic party from its near­mori­bund con­di­tion and brought it back to life. For Texas and the US, the fact that O’Rourke came within strik­ing dis­tance rep­re­sents some­thing even big­ger: the hope that the sec­ond largest state might fi­nally be free­ing it­self from the iron grip of the Repub­li­can party.

That in turn raises a tan­ta­lis­ing prospect for pro­gres­sives – if O’Rourke could do it in Texas, a place syn­ony­mous with the mod­ern hard­line Repub­li­can party, what could he do in other parts of the US?

“If you look at the top line and see O’Rourke los­ing, you’re miss­ing the point,” said Bethany Al­bert­son, a pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at Austin. “No Demo­crat has come close in Texas in decades, voter turnout was way up, and young peo­ple who have never voted be­fore were drawn for the first time into the demo­cratic process.”

It’s a for­mula that the Demo­cratic party na­tion­wide is des­per­ate to repli­cate. But how did he do it? What was the se­cret of the Beto magic?

O’Rourke set out on his un­likely mis­sion with the con­tem­po­rary equiv­a­lent of a horse and cart. As Rolling Stone pointed out, he had two aides, both of them old friends from El Paso, and a hire car. By elec­tion day he had a vast army of 25,000 vol­un­teers and raised $70m (£53m) – all of it through small

do­na­tions through the on­line por­tal Ac­tBlue, not a penny through big cor­po­rate donors – more than any US Se­nate cam­paign in his­tory.

O’Rourke criss­crossed Texas – from his home town of El Paso to its eastern bor­der is 900 miles – vis­it­ing all 254 coun­ties. His mes­sage was: “I wouldn’t vote for a politi­cian I had never seen ei­ther.” Wher­ever he went, he sprin­kled seeds of Demo­cratic re­birth. Us­ing apps, he em­pow­ered vol­un­teers in each county to mo­bilise their neigh­bours. It was de­cen­tralised, with next to no qual­ity con­trol, which meant trust­ing vol­un­teers im­plic­itly. But it un­leashed huge re­serves of un­tapped en­ergy.

Car­rie Col­lier-Brown, a lawyer from the sub­urbs of Austin, was one of Beto’s new su­per-vol­un­teers. She de­scribed what it was like this year cre­at­ing a team of 150 vol­un­teers in her area out of noth­ing. “We built the in­fra­struc­ture out of scraps and with no in­struc­tions,” she said. “It feels like we’ve been fly­ing by the seat of our pants all year.”

To­gether with a “bunch of pissed­off sub­ur­ban women”, she set up a group of vol­un­teers they called “Blue Ac­tion Democrats”. Ev­ery week­end they knocked on hun­dreds of doors, li­ais­ing with cam­paign staff. In the fi­nal weeks they were sup­ported by “pop-up of­fices”, more than 700 of which mush­roomed across Texas. They were in spare rooms, stud­ies, garages, sheds – any space where the get-out-the-vote drive could be spear­headed.

The num­bers tell the story: 68% of reg­is­tered vot­ers in Col­lier-Brown’s area turned out to vote – twice the pro­por­tion in the last midterms in 2014 and even more than in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Col­lier-Brown said it came at a cost – “My kids are very close to call­ing me Aunty Car­rie” – but there were huge gains. “The Beto cam­paign has taught us an im­por­tant les­son: that con­nect­ing with your neigh­bours is how to en­gage ev­ery­one, how to take back our democ­racy and ul­ti­mately how to win elec­tions.”

She is be­longs to one of two key elec­toral groups that O’Rourke fo­cused on – white women. Exit polls show he was backed by 39% of white Texas women – up from 29% who backed Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016. Mark Jones, a pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor at Rice Uni­ver­sity, thinks that swing was partly ex­plained by a fe­male back­lash to the vul­gar­ity, pos­tur­ing and sex­ual im­pro­pri­ety of Don­ald Trump. But that was not all. “Beto O’Rourke wasn’t just cam­paign­ing against Trump. He was cam­paign­ing for a dif­fer­ent kind of pol­i­tics that are op­ti­mistic, pos­i­tive,” said Jones.

Af­ter O’Rourke con­ceded de­feat on Tues­day, he ad­dressed thou­sands of sup­port­ers in El Paso. He told them: “We are not go­ing to de­fine our­selves by who or what we are against, or what we are afraid of or scared about. We are great peo­ple.”

That mes­sage also spoke to the sec­ond key group mo­bilised by his cam­paign: young peo­ple. In 2016, Clin­ton at­tracted the votes of 55% of the 18-29 age range in Texas, to Trump’s 36%. This week, O’Rourke won a stun­ning 71%, to Cruz’s 29%.

Not only did he win over young peo­ple in far greater pro­por­tions, he un­locked a door that has been closed to pro­gres­sives in vast ar­eas of the US for years. He per­suaded young vot­ers who usu­ally stay at home in midterm elec­tions to vote.

Fig­ures for over­all Texas turnout have yet to be com­pleted but early vot­ing data is stun­ning. The num­ber of 18- to 29-year-olds cast­ing an early bal­lot this year was five times greater than in the 2014 midterms.

One ex­pla­na­tion is that he talks to Tex­ans in their own lan­guage. He speaks Span­ish and flips be­tween id­ioms, hav­ing grown up in El Paso, an 80% Latino city. He is also flu­ent in In­sta­gram and Snapchat, and has a flair for pro­duc­ing vi­ral videos, whether air-drum­ming to The Who or skate­board­ing.

When the Guardian talked be­fore to Karl Rove, who helped turn the state Repub­li­can in the 1990s, he was dis­mis­sive about O’Rourke’s most vi­ral video. In it, he de­fended NFL play­ers who knelt for the na­tional an­them in protest at po­lice bru­tal­ity, say­ing there was “noth­ing more Amer­i­can”. For Rove, that video proved O’Rourke would never win over main­stream Texas vot­ers as he was too lib­eral. What Rove may not have counted on, how­ever, was how elec­tri­fy­ing such a state­ment may have been for younger Tex­ans.

O’Rourke am­pli­fied his affin­ity with younger vot­ers through so­cial me­dia. Much of the $70m he raised through small do­na­tions – twice the sum brought in by his op­po­nent – went on dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing, es­pe­cially on Face­book, where ads were kept to six sec­onds at the most.

The Texas Tri­bune said for much of 2018 he put more po­lit­i­cal ads on Face­book than any other cam­paign. Some $6m of O’Rourke ads on the site were viewed al­most 20m times.

Per­haps in­evitably, whis­pers of “Beto 2020” can be heard in Texas. “Beto has done the near im­pos­si­ble,” said Mark Jones. “If he wants to run for the White House, there’s def­i­nitely a lane open for him.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS

Beto O’Rourke at a rally in Austin. He raised more money than any can­di­date for Se­nate had done be­fore

▲ Ted and Heidi Cruz. He re­tained his seat by barely two per­cent­age points

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