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