Beto O’Rourke is a prolific, prodigious sweater. We’re talking shirt-soaking, chin-dripping sweat, most visible as he takes questions from the audiences that have gathered to see him across Texas. When I first saw pictures of O’Rourke, the El Paso congressman currently vying for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat, soaking through his blue dress shirt at the Houston Juneteenth Parade, I thought: This is the most Texas thing I’ve ever seen.
It’s increasingly become a Beto Thing. On the campaign trail, Bernie had his disheveled hair, Trump had chants of “Lock Her Up,” and O’Rourke has his sweat-drenched button-down shirts. Most politicians would mask the sweat with suit jackets, but O’Rourke, who’s already audacious enough to think he could become the first Democrat to represent Texas in the Senate in over 25 years, poses for hundreds of selfies looking like he just got pushed into a pool. On a Sunday morning at the Hill Country Veterans Center in Kerrville — a town of around 20,000 in Texas Hill Country, and the first of three stops for the day — there are 600 people’s body heat to outstrip the air conditioning. Ten minutes after O’Rourke takes the stage, the first signs of sweat start expanding like continents on the back of his shirt.
Rather than recoiling, his supporters see it as a badge of honor — proof of how relentlessly he’s campaigning to win over every voter in the second-largest state in the union. “You’ve got to work to sweat!” one captioned a photo on Instagram. “Ted Cruz don’t sweat like Beto does!”
A Beto O’Rourke speech makes people believe that a Democrat can win a major statewide race in Texas.
When O’Rourke speaks on the stump, he punctuates his points by moving his left hand up and down, like he’s directing traffic. His voice isn’t particularly melodic; he’s Lincoln-lanky; he lacks the preacher’s cadence that marked former president Obama’s speeches. But O’Rourke’s energy is palpable, infectious; his sweat is the physical evidence of that energy leaving his body. And it seems to be working. Even as he struggles with a continued lack of name recognition, in a state that has consistently voted Republican for the past three decades, recent polling places O’Rourke just two to six points behind Cruz. Among volunteers, there’s cautious yet barely contained glee: Could O’Rourke pull off an upset that, just six months before, seemed impossible?
By the time O’Rourke reaches the peaks of his stump speech in Kerrville — advocating for better treatment of Texas’s teachers, arguing for universal health care, and decrying family separation at the border — his shirt is full-on stuck to his back, and the crowd feels ready to ignite. When he announces that he hasn’t taken any money from PACs, instead raising $10.4 million (with an average donation of $33) to Cruz’s $4.6 million over the last quarter, the audience explodes.
Afterward, an endless line forms to meet and take selfies with the candidate. One man makes small talk with O’Rourke’s communications director, Chris Evans, who’s filming the entire thing — as he does every town hall — for Facebook Live. “You’ve got to get that man another shirt,” the man says. “He knows he only gets one shirt for the day,” Evans responded. “He sweat through this one early.”
A politician’s stump speech has the same effect as a good sermon. For those who already believe, it reenergizes the faithful. But a truly great stump speech also appeals to the skeptic — and provides moments of near-spiritual conversion. That’s what a Beto O’Rourke speech does. It makes people believe: believe that the country doesn’t have to feel the way it does right now, that people who think differently can still have a conversation, that you can be conservative and vote for a candidate without an “R” beside their name. While we’re 30 years removed from the election of a Democrat like Ann Richards to run the state — current governor Greg Abbott is a hardline conservative — a Beto O’Rourke speech makes people believe that a Democrat can win a major statewide race in Texas again. And these believers can help make it happen.
O’Rourke has taken to calling the coming election “the most important of our lives,” which, depending on one’s age, may or may not be an overstatement. But it’s an expression of how many people, including the 10,000-plus who’ve volunteered for his campaign, conceive of it. In supporting O’Rourke, they’re supporting a different vision of both Texas and the United States — one, as O’Rourke emphasizes, in which politicians show up to listen to all citizens, no matter their political inclination, or the size of their town, or their ability to donate to the campaign. One in which Texas — one of the most diverse states in the nation — models an empathetic, progressive way forward for a divided country.
An unofficial O’Rourke sticker, modeled on an advertisement for Texas fast-food staple Whataburger, encapsulates the qualities voters are responding to: “WANT-A-BETTER TEXAS / BETO FOR TEXAS,” it reads, followed by an ingredient list that includes integrity, grit, empathy, and punk rock, and concludes with: “All People, No PACs. Made for Those Who Love Texas.”
It’s not just about convincing voters to swing O’Rourke’s way. It’s about convincing people to vote, period.
That more or less sums up the O’Rourke image, refined by grassroots messaging and relentless campaigning over the last 18 months. In June, he completed a tour of all 254 counties in Texas before heading right back out on the road to do it again. The campaign proudly employs no pollsters or traditional consultants; until very recently, they’ve rejected the traditional wisdom of focusing money on television advertising. They reject PAC money, even from Democratic funding sources. Instead, they lean heavily on small donations, first-time donations, and Facebook, where livestreams from the campaign trail regularly attract between 20,000 and 80,000 viewers.
This sort of campaign philosophy is appealing, but it’s also contingent on the idea that the more people who hear O’Rourke’s message — no matter how red the county, no matter how rural — the more they’ll spread it for him. Yet the campaign faces a daunting reality: To win, O’Rourke has to spread that Beto message in a way that doesn’t just energize Democrats and attract moderates, but activates millions of voters — many of them black and Latino — who, for years, haven’t felt compelled to vote in Texas, either out of apathy or a feeling of futility.
That’s a problem that afflicts most of Texas, and flummoxes Democratic organizers. If everyone in Texas voted, the state would almost certainly swing Democrat. But not everyone in Texas votes. For midterm elections, barely more than a third cast a ballot. O’Rourke uses that low turnout like a motivating club: The state is 47th in the nation in voter turnout. The implicit instruction: It’s up to all of you to make us better.
O’Rourke may actually be the once-in-a-lifetime candidate his supporters claim he is. He has a distinct presidential aura, and there’s a certain romance to his campaign, as Frank Bruni recently put it in the New York Times, that has earned him an ever-increasing national following. “There’s a reason people compare him to a Kennedy,” Sam Hatton, who’s running a scrappy campaign for the Texas House District 71, told me. “And it’s not just those Kennedy teeth.”
Speaking with dozens of hopeful supporters over five days in West Central Texas, it’s clear that the enthusiasm and organization around O’Rourke’s campaign is there. And based on conversations with independent and Republican voters at his events, his message is traveling beyond progressive bubbles. He’s in small towns like Iraan, population 1,236, talking to a dozen people about rural issues like broadband internet; he’s filling theaters in bright red cities like Abilene. He has a veritable army of volunteers. But there’s a gap between energy and obtaining the kind of power that can effect change, and it’s one that it’ll take more than a “blue wave” to fill. It’s not just about convincing voters to swing O’Rourke’s way. It’s about convincing people to vote, period.
Like so many other blue-wave candidates across the US during these midterm elections, O’Rourke must convince nonvoters that voting actually matters — that they have the capacity to change their own lives and the lives of those around them. Texas is an enormous and varied state, and one that — no matter how purple its political demographics might seem — still votes red. How many shirts must O’Rourke sweat through to win its heart?
Abilene is the biggest city for two hours in any direction, the heart of what’s known as “The Big Country.” It’s also the buckle on the Texas Bible Belt, ruled by three major Christian denominations: Methodists, Baptists, and the Church of Christ, each of which has a college and sprawling following across town. Writing in 1975, A.C. Greene explained how difficult the politics of Abilene were to untangle, or conquer, especially if you didn’t belong to one of those congregations: “I still haven’t figured out how you score a win on a town that belongs to God.”
Forty years later, the church holds slightly less sway here — students at Abilene Christian University are now allowed to dance, a right they earned in 2012 — but conservative Christianity still defines its political ethos. The Church of Christ doesn’t disseminate politics explicitly from the pulpit, but Baptists do: Every year, the pastor of the biggest congregation preaches a sermon in which he encourages his flock to remain single-issue voters. That issue, of course, is abortion.
“I’m not a Democrat, but I’m sure as heck not voting for Ted Cruz.”
“We’re not as conservative as, say, Lubbock, but it’s close,” Cheryl Mann Bacon, a retired communications professor at Abilene Christian, told me. According to Bacon, there are three types of conservatives in Abilene: 1) traditional conservatives, with a solid foundation in the political philosophy of conservatism; 2) Trump conservatives, who buy into his more reactionary ideologies; and 3) religious conservatives, who've become increasingly uncomfortable with the way Trump has painted the conservative movement.
Bacon thinks the people in the third category are the ones O’Rourke has a chance of converting. Many of these Christian conservatives are active in programs, facilitated through their church, that assist in refugee resettlement; many local churches have large Latino populations and bilingual services. “I’d never ask someone if they’re here illegally,” Bacon told me. “They’re just someone I worship with. But being that close with them, it helps you realize: These are real people [Trump talks about], and these are real issues.”
The first time Bacon realized she might not be a Republican was when she attended the state GOP convention in the ’90s and saw vendors selling Confederate flags lining the wall. Then Karl Rove — the infamously effective political strategist for George W. Bush — sealed the deal: “I could not abide his attitude towards the press,” she told me. “The term ‘compassionate conservative’ has become hackneyed, but that’s where I felt comfortable,” she said.
“I always say I’m a raging moderate,” she continued. “And there’s a place for a moderate in the electorate, but there’s not a place for them to get elected — at least not without selling a little bit of their soul. A moderate in West Texas couldn’t get elected dogcatcher.” That hasn’t stopped O’Rourke from campaigning here. Bacon said she’s received texts and calls from Beto volunteers, and if not for a funeral, she’d be checking out the rally. “I’m not a Democrat,” she said. “But I’m sure as heck not voting for Ted Cruz.”
Back in 2012, Cruz, then an insurgent tea party candidate, won his Republican Senate primary by doing exactly what O’Rourke is doing now: crisscrossing the state, visiting even the smallest of towns. Texas conservatives generally prioritize preserving small government, “Christian values” with a focus on abortion, and the Second Amendment. Cruz’s tea party politics convinced them he was their man. But in the Senate, he became infamously unlikable, known for being smarmy and condescending; he wasted time with dead-end legislative proposals and, true to his debater roots, loved to grandstand. Cruz spearheaded the 2013 shutdown of the government over the Affordable Care Act. He antagonized Democrats and his own party: During Cruz’s unsuccessful bid for president in 2016, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham famously quipped, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”
Back in Texas, Cruz seems to have developed a reputation, especially among disenchanted conservatives, as a pompous politician who doesn’t really care about the state. “They hate him in Washington,” one Abilene woman who’d voted for him in 2012 told me. “So how’s he supposed to get anything done?” Multiple people criticized his use of his Senate seat as a stepping-stone to the presidency. Others told me that, well, they just didn’t like his face. And then there’s the way he’s kowtowed to Trump — recently asking the president to campaign for him in Texas — even after Trump disparaged Cruz and his wife, and insinuated Cruz’s father was party to the assassination of JFK (he was not).
If O’Rourke were running against a more beloved, or even likable, GOP incumbent, the race would likely not be as close as it is. But he’s not running against a likable conservative. He’s running against Ted Cruz. “I don’t think people are energized around the Democratic Party,” Hatton told me. “I think they’re energized around justice. And people around here? They just want a reason to not vote Republican.”
In downtown Abilene, two dozen Beto volunteers have been prepping the Paramount Theatre for the last two hours. Kristina Campos-Davis, the newly elected head of the Taylor County Democrats, helps run communications for the local Baptist college — she knows exactly how to make an event run. One of the volunteers, Linda, told me that this was the fourth time O’Rourke had come to Abilene; the first time, last year, there’d been 27 people. Then 40 people. Then 300. This time, they knew they’d need the Paramount. (They ended up with around 800 people — filling the main seating and overflowing into the balcony.)
“A lot of people in this town, Democrats especially, had kinda given up,” Campos-Davis said. “They’d thought that it just didn’t do any good to fight.” Another volunteer told me that Cruz doesn’t even have a district office west of Austin, even though a million people live in El Paso. “East of I-35, politicians just don’t care about us. They think they know what our vote is.” (Senator Cruz's campaign did not respond to requests for comment).
But such predictability is increasingly in question. Dianne Morphew has short, spiky gray hair and is wearing a “CLEAR EYES FULL HEARTS #TEXAS BLUE” shirt. Like many volunteers here, her political activism started the day after Trump’s election. “When I turned around the corner earlier this year and saw 200 people lined up for March for Our Lives, I got goose bumps,” she told me. “That doesn’t happen here.”
In the back row, a retired state worker named Patsy watched the band play a version of Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.” “I’m a Christian, and I don’t believe in gay marriage, and I don’t believe in abortion as a form of birth control,” she told me. “But I think what Christians really want is freedom to impose their beliefs on everyone else, and that’s wrong.” She likes George W. Bush, despises Trump, and voted for Cruz when he ran for Senate in 2012. This time, though, she’s for O’Rourke. “I think he can persuade anyone who’s willing to listen with an open mind,” she said.
“Look around,” Campos-Davis said as she welcomed the crowd. “Who’d have thought?!” O’Rourke took the stage amid thunderous, rock-star applause — which started up again when he talked about working across the aisle (“That’s the way we bridge differences and divide”), high-quality universal health care (“All of us are beneficiaries when we invest in all of us”), treating teachers with respect (“Teachers haven’t seen a cost-of-living increase in 13 years”), and child separation (“Imagine how bad things would have to be for you to leave everything you know on foot”).
There was no mention of abortion or bathroom bills or NFL protests. Instead, O’Rourke offered a holistic alternative to what he describes as the nastiness of Washington and the discourse that flows from it. “Texas is going to be the big, bold, inspirational answer to all of that,” he said. The crowd, it seemed, agreed.
There are a lot of places in Texas that claim they’re both in the middle of nowhere and the center of the universe, and Del Rio — a border town two and a half hours west of San Antonio — is one of them. In the historic town square, a group of volunteers are stringing up a banner for O’Rourke next to a sign for funnel cakes from another event. They’re expecting around 100 people to show up. It’s a Saturday night, which, in most towns where O’Rourke shows up, would guarantee an overflow crowd. But Del Rio is different. Demographically, it’s solidly Democratic, like so many areas where Latinos are the majority (82% of the county identifies as Hispanic or Latino). But those Democrats just don’t show up.
In many of the places O’Rourke has visited, people don’t vote because they’re already convinced that Republicans will win local and statewide races; in San Angelo, where he stopped on Saturday, turnout for the March primary was just 14.5%. In Del Rio, voters are apathetic for a different reason: They know Democrats will win locally — but believe their votes will do little to swing larger state races. Val Verde County attorney Ana Markowski Smith says there’s a massive lack of general voter education. “No one knows the difference between a state senator and a US senator, or even if they do, they don’t realize who Beto’s running against,” she told me. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘Oh, but I really like John Cornyn [the other sitting senator from Texas], I can’t vote for Beto.’ But that’s not even who he’s running against!”
O’Rourke speaks fluent Spanish, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s connecting with all Latino voters.
There are bigger and nicer venues O’Rourke could visit in Del Rio, but the campaign chose a community center in the largely Latino section of town, with a purpose. O’Rourke, who is white, goes by his Mexican nickname — acquired as a child, like many kids who grow up in border towns, regardless of race. (The Cruz campaign has taken to referring to him as “Robert.” As of yet, the O’Rourke campaign has resisted calling Cruz by his given name, “Rafael.” They have, however, posted a picture of O’Rourke wearing a “Beto” sweatshirt as a baby, in an attempt to counter claims that he’s pandering to Spanish-speaking voters.)
O’Rourke speaks fluent Spanish, and regularly dots his speeches with Spanish phrases like “más o menos” instead of “more or less.” On Facebook, campaign event information is posted in both English and Spanish. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s connecting with all Latino voters.
“Politics are different in Del Rio,” said Kim Canseco, who lives in Del Rio and runs a cattle ranch across the Mexican border. Unlike many state and national races, where winning primary candidates — like Cruz — are the ones who’ve situated themselves at the extremes of the political spectrum, candidates in Del Rio gravitate toward the great middle. “There’s the old Anglo Democrats, the type that used to be all over Texas, that are actually conservative. And there’s the people who run as Republicans but are actually really moderate, because they’re trying to win those Democratic votes.”
And then there’s the politics of the border. The town operates in symbiosis with the Laughlin Air Force Base, and a solid percentage of its residents are employed directly or indirectly by the border patrol. Thousands pass between Del Rio and its Mexican sister city, Acuña, every day — to work, to shop, to visit family. When a volunteer from Austin told Canseco about spotting a border patrol truck on her way into town, she said, “That’s fucked up.” “No,” Canseco replied. “That’s just a border town.” Unlike in other border towns, there’s no detention facility for those who’ve crossed the border illegally; as Canseco explained, the Democratic resentment of ICE simply doesn’t track here.
To successfully campaign in Del Rio, in other words, is to thread a very fine needle. When O’Rourke talks about immigration, he talks about the injustice of family separation — but he also emphasizes his respect for the work of the border patrol, and the safety of border towns, like his hometown of El Paso, where communities cooperate to keep the peace. After initially voicing support for progressive calls to abolish ICE, he’s backtracked: “Abolishing ICE does nothing to resolve any ... issues,” O’Rourke said in July. “It is the practices, it is the way in which we are treating our fellow human beings that needs to be changed, and that won’t come with a slogan or a bumper sticker or the abolition of one department.”
Inside the Del Rio community center, Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez — tall, swaggering, with a pistol on his hip — leaned against the back wall. He shook hands with Bruno Lozano, the newly elected (and openly gay) mayor, dressed in tight black jeans and a maroon polo shirt. Juanita V. Martinez had driven up from Eagle Pass, another border town, to see O’Rourke with her daughter, who told me that their family was so Democratic that when she was growing up, her grandmother took a photo of Bill Clinton meeting with a local official, cut out the official, and framed the picture on their wall.
“We need to work on voter apathy in Maverick County,” Martinez, who is the secretary of the Maverick County Democrats, explained. “I want to make a shirt that says ‘LOS PENDEJOS NO VOTAN,’” she said, and then on the back it’ll say “NO SEAS PENDEJO.” (Pendejo loosely translates as “little shit” or “stupid asshole.”)
In Eagle Pass, Martinez knows where political signs are and aren’t allowed, the most effective places to put them, the neighborhoods that need door-knocking and rides to the polls on Election Day. But as much as the O’Rourke campaign touts its outreach efforts, it hasn’t been in touch with the Maverick County group, and Martinez hasn’t known whom to contact to get yard signs.
Martinez’s frustration points to one of the larger, less visible problems facing the O’Rourke campaign. The amount of liberal political energy in the air, since Trump’s election, is unprecedented. But a lot of it is new, and untrained, and unfocused. From the beginning, O’Rourke’s volunteer force has largely been composed of first-time political organizers, including people like Canseco, energized by the 2016 election. That lack of experience, combined with O’Rourke’s refusal to take PAC money — including union money — has created a divide: on one side, volunteers who’ve been behind the campaign for six months or even a year. On the other, Texans who’ve been working to organize and rally and fundraise for Democrats for decades. As the retired political consultant J.D. Gins — who helped spearhead Obama’s 2008 campaign in Texas — recently told the Texas Observer, “There are definitely folks who are the traditional gatekeepers, the churches and community leaders,” he said. “And if those people aren’t fired up for you, it’s hard to mobilize people.”
In Del Rio, Markowski Smith told me that the people who usually come out to knock on doors in Latino neighborhoods to get out the vote for local elections are just not out there for Beto yet. Whether that’s because they haven’t been connected to the campaign or they don’t care about O’Rourke as a candidate remains unclear.
There’s also concern that O’Rourke has not endorsed a local Democratic favorite, Gina Ortiz Jones, a retired Air Force captain running for Congress. O’Rourke explains his refusal to endorse Ortiz Jones as part of a larger project to promote bipartisanship: When an ice storm shut down flights from DC, he and Ortiz Jones’ Republican opponent, Rep. Will Hurd, decided to drive to DC together, livestreaming the entire thing. Their “ride,” as it’s become known, was followed closely by the Texas press; for many Texans, it was the first they’d heard of him, and it helped create an aura of willingness to work for bipartisan solutions around him. O’Rourke capitalizes on this part of his image, and frequently expands upon on it on the stump, especially in Republican areas. “Working with Republicans, it can be frustrating,” he said back in Abilene. “But it’s the only way.”
At the community center in Del Rio, O’Rourke received a warm, if not raucous, welcome. The crowd nodded along at comparisons between Del Rio and O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso, which he heralded as “one of the safest places in America, not in spite of being a city of immigrants, but because of being a city of immigrants.” Afterward, a woman who’d tried to interrupt O’Rourke’s speech halfway through posed the first question: “You’re in a neighborhood where a large number of people work for the border patrol,” she warned him, underlining that the current situation is the result of the “rule of law.” “I guess my question is, how much of a socialist are you going to turn into?”
The crowd groaned, but O’Rourke took her question — at least the first part of it — seriously. “Amy and I are raising our three kids in El Paso,” he said. “Who would care more about the security of the border and our community than those of us who live here? So I actually think we’re on the same page.” He praised the “fine service of those agents and officers” in the border patrol. “I am grateful that you’re here,” he went on. “I’m grateful that you’re a Republican. And I’m grateful even if you don’t vote for me in this election, you and I should be able to have this civil conversation.”
Canseco told me, afterward, what she thought was the most consequential moment of the evening: Later in the Q&A, a rancher took the mic. “I’m going to speak in Spanish,” he announced, before telling the audience that he’s been asked who Beto is, and where he comes from. “I know his mother. I know his grandmother. And he comes from one of the best families in El Paso — and you should consider that. I hear him talk, and I think he’s worth voting for.”
That man, Canseco said, is a well-known Republican.
“Is this a good crowd for Kerrville?” I asked a woman with gray, curly hair, a visor, and a Families Belong Together shirt. “Are you kidding?” she replied, trying to raise her voice loud enough to be heard over the folk band and 600 people around us at the veterans center. “This is amazing!”
Kerrville is in the Texas Hill Country, an area that sprawls west of Austin and San Antonio, long popular for weekend escapes: to float the river, to go antiquing, to visit the renowned Gruene Dance Hall, a relic of the area’s German roots and the sort of thing you show to out-of-town guests. It’s not actually any cooler here than it is in the nearby cities, but it feels like the temperature drops 10 degrees. Hill Country’s population has exploded over the last decade, largely with retirees — from California, from the Northwest, from anywhere — looking for a mild climate in a place with a bit more culture than Florida or Arizona.
Ask someone from nearby San Antonio or Austin, and they’d probably guess that Kerrville was conservative — but not that the county went 76.1% for Trump. “Even with all those hippies out there?” one San Antonio resident said when confronted with the statistic. But like so many places where people are moving at rapid rates — looking for a bigger or more affordable house, or, in the case of the thousands of Californians who’ve made their way to Texas, an escape from liberal politics — the area is grappling with the effects of unfettered expansion and transplanted political ideologies. (Between 2011 and 2015, an average of 60,000 Californians arrived in Texas every year.)
As of 2017, an estimated 27.4% of the county population is over 65. As one attendee described it to me, “there’s a lot of gray hairs out here.” But these fixed-income retirees aren’t the same brand of conservative as those in Abilene; a Kerrville restaurant that put up a Beto banner outside has weathered complaints for months. The county is also very white, especially compared to the campaign’s last stop in Del Rio: 69.1% white, just 26.8% Latino.
“Most of the Latinos around here work service jobs, at restaurants and places like Walmart,” a woman who didn’t want to be identified told me. “And they don’t post about politics on social media, or show up at a rally where they could get their photo taken. They’re scared of reprisal from their managers.”
At the rally, a mix of retirees and twentysomethings filled the chairs, then filled the aisles, then got bounced by the nervous fire marshal. This is where Beto soaked through his shirt for the first time that day, and the audience was thrilled: by him, but also by their own turnout. The walls of the hall were papered with vintage World War II posters, and the ceiling was high and echoey, which had the exhilarating but perhaps deceptive effect, like so much of the campaign, of making every cheer sound like a roar.
O’Rourke prides himself on how much of the driving he’s done during this trip across the state — a good portion of which has been livestreamed. He speeds, but has only been pulled over once (by a cop outside Cooper, in East Texas, who later showed up to the O’Rourke rally). This weekend, O’Rourke’s wife, Amy, is with him in the extended-cab Toyota Tundra, and before the town hall in Del Rio, they picked up their three young children, Ulysses, Molly, and Henry, from summer camp. In Kerrville, I switch places with Ulysses and hop into the truck. A box of carnitas tacos, purchased from the taco truck run by Beto supporters outside the veteran’s hall, gets balanced on my lap.
“Will you fold me up a taco?” O’Rourke asks, as he checks the navigation app on his phone and pulls ahead of a slow-moving car at 75 mph. “Amy, you’re gonna like these.” Periodically, one of the kids will ask for clarification on a word their father uses. “What’s ‘swarmed’ mean?” Henry asks. Or, when someone brings up the name of one of O’Rourke’s fellow congressmen, notorious for body-slamming a reporter, “Is he a good guy or a bad guy?”
“They said there were 600 people back there in Kerrville, and another 100 outside,” O’Rourke said. “How cool that Robert Earl Keen was there?”
I’d spotted Keen, a well-known, old-school country singer, on the side of the crowd before the event: Dressed in a navy suit jacket, with a well-trimmed beard, he stood out. “I was trying to put in a reference to [Keen’s song] ‘The Road Goes on Forever and the Party Never Ends,’” O’Rourke says, “but I couldn’t figure out where to do it. I didn’t want to make him feel awkward. He’s like Texas music royalty.”
I ask how, when so much of GOP campaigning focuses on “purity tests” to show who’s more conservative, he’s appealing to Republicans. “Somebody played me a clip of a Cruz speech from last week, where he’s like, ‘We’re gonna make Texas bright red!’” he says. “I dunno, maybe that’s successful with the base.” But those GOP voters concerned with purity tests aren’t the ones O’Rourke is courting. Instead, he’s going after voters like his parents and his in-laws.
“They’re all lifelong Republicans,” he says, toggling his phone to play a Keen song. “I introduce my mom sometimes, and I kid her a little bit, like ‘my mom’s a lifelong Republican, but we got her to vote for us in this race.’ One day, she came up to me, and she said, ‘You know, that’s just not right: I would describe myself as an independent now, not a Republican. Definitely not a Democrat.’ I don’t know what the size of that universe is, but anecdotally we’re meeting a lot of people who have described themselves that way.”
The shift is part of a larger story in Southern states, where the gradual, decadeslong conversion of Southern Democrats into GOP voters transformed that section of the US political map into the solid red block it is today. “That’s my dad,” O’Rourke says. “He was an elected county judge from ’82 to ’86, a Democrat. And then by ’88, ’90, he’d changed his party affiliation to Republican. But he’s the same person. Maybe it’s like how we’re seeing with Republicans today — he just didn’t see himself in the Democratic Party.”
“LBJ Democrat” might be a more useful term for the older Texan O’Rourke is courting. For all of Texas native Lyndon B. Johnson’s cantankerous demeanor, he was responsible for what we now consider some of the most pivotal (and liberal) governmental accomplishments of the last 50 years: combating poverty, fighting for civil and voting rights, education reform, major conservation efforts, and more under his Great Society agenda. “And here we are headed to Johnson City,” O’Rourke says — just miles from where LBJ was born.
“People say he’s leaning Republican in the way he’s appealing to people. But I don’t think so. I think he’s trending human.”
O’Rourke adds that he was just reading Lawrence Wright’s new book God Save Texas, which explores the cultural and political past, present, and future of Texas. “I just read the passage where it talks about how LBJ was actually responsible for more liberal legislation than JFK,” he said. “Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, all that big-time, like, FDR-style stuff.”
“Remember how that person in Del Rio asked ‘How socialist are you gonna be?’” O’Rourke says, pulling ahead of a string of cars with Beto stickers, all headed toward Johnson City. “A while back, we were in this small town in West Texas, and someone talked about how Lyndon Johnson and FDR established the Rural Electrification Administration. That’s an idea that really comes from Texas populism — that we’re gonna figure out how to do stuff that big business doesn’t see a profit in, or that small towns can’t do on their own.”
Two days before, in the tiny town of Iraan, O’Rourke had responded to a question about health care access in small towns by connecting it to the Rural Electrification Act — it’s one of his favorite talking points. Back in 1936, the federal government provided federal loans to expand electricity to thousands living without it, effectively modernizing rural life across the state. It wasn’t a profitable enterprise — the cost of extension outweighed the revenue from new customers — which is precisely why government intervention was needed. “It’s not profitable for rural hospitals to come in here,” O’Rourke said. “But it’s necessary if we’re going to take care of each other. It’s one of the things that government is for.”
“I’ve been a registered Republican all my life,” the president of the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce told a sweaty group of around 500, packed under live oak trees at a swanky winery off the highway. “Welcome!” came a yell from the crowd. “But I’ve never voted along party lines. I’ve always supported candidates based on their positions on the issues. And it was an easy choice for me to support Beto.”
When O’Rourke took the stage, he went over the same points about LBJ we’d discussed on the drive over: “We may be the ones to lead over the next six years,” he said. “Remember it was Lyndon Baines Johnson who declared a war on poverty. It was Lyndon Baines Johnson who shepherded through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. And it was Lyndon Baines Johnson who ensured that those who had worked every single day of their lives could look forward to a retirement where they could be healthy and live a life of dignity through the Medicare program.”
At this point, his cadence started speeding up, shifting into a kind of football locker room rallying cry. “What if, in this state — and these other folks don’t know their history, they won’t see it coming from us — what if we led the way to ensure universal, guaranteed, high-quality health care for every American in every single part of this country? What if we led the way?” The crowd clapped through the entire second half of the message: for O’Rourke, but also for the idea that a vote for him could return the state, and its citizens, to their progressive, populist roots.
Inside the winery, Don Mathies, known in nearby New Braunfels as “The Malingering Malcontent,” introduced me to Lydia Rogers, who’s taken over the Democratic Women of Comal County like a whirlwind. “I’m the first Latina to hold this position,” she told me, “And we’ve grown the organization from 15 to 100.” There’s a misconception, she says, that all groups like hers need to do is go out and register people. “That’s not our problem. People are already registered. But with the fearmongering of this administration, and all that ICE is doing, people are scared. They’re scared voting will somehow draw attention to them — and, by extension, their family members, who might not be citizens.”
Pam Campbell is a retired school teacher and a new Democrat, with all the coiled energy of the newly converted. “I was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative,” she said. She even voted for Cruz the first time around. But now she’s out door-knocking all over New Braunfels. “People will be like, ‘I’m the only Democrat in this entire neighborhood!’ and, you know, I have all the information on people who’ve voted in the Democratic primary, so I’ll be like, ‘You’re right, there are two down the block, and one a street away.’ People think they’re alone, but they’re not. And when we go out and door-knock, we prove it to them.”
Campbell counts herself as a Beto fangirl: She loves watching the travel livestreams and always wants to yell at him to put two hands on the wheel when he’s driving. “People say he’s leaning Republican in the way he’s appealing to people,” she said. “But I don’t think so. I think he’s trending human.”
At the entrance to the gym at San Antonio’s Second Baptist Church, a historically African American church on the east side of the city, the first thing you could see was a cluster of women in flamboyantly large hats and matching black shirts that read “Adiós, Ted.” “We’re just a bunch of grandmas trying to get stuff done,” one of them told me. “We got these shirts made so we can sell them and get yard signs to areas that can’t afford to pay for them. We sold out in 20 minutes.”
For the majority of O’Rourke’s campaign, most of his San Antonio support has come from the more white, more affluent parts of the city, which is one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country, currently hurtling past 1.5 million residents and overflowing with transplants from Austin, California, and Arizona. The campaign chose this East Side location with the hopes of attracting more of the black residents in the area. O’Rourke tailored his stump speech accordingly, opening with the story of the first person to desegregate the public schools in his hometown of El Paso, and decrying the disproportionate incarceration rate among black men.
After the speech, two women in elegant church wear stayed seated in the second row, breaking down O’Rourke’s remarks. “The statistics and the stories he had in that speech, they were targeted to the African American community,” Carolyn Tanner Cohen told me, “and we appreciate that, but that was not his audience here. There are some African Americans here, but look at how many Latinos there are. He should’ve flexed and expanded that data to the other people who were here.”
Cohen is a fourth-generation San Antonian and a career civil servant who worked for the Department of the Interior under former president Bill Clinton. “You know, I was just telling my cousin here that I see four things in his message,” she said. “He’s talking about health care, he’s talking about equality, he’s talking about economic change in a way that will pay a fair wage, and he’s talking about education. I just wish the Democratic Party would get that message together in a clear and concise way, and then say it over and over and over again. That’s what’s gonna resonate, but the message has to be so clear, and it’s not yet.”
The next day, I met six of the volunteers heading up the O’Rourke volunteer effort in San Antonio at a beer garden just north of downtown. When the campaign first started visiting San Antonio, most of the volunteers were driving down from Austin. “We realized, why aren’t we, the people who actually know this city, in charge?” Alta Compton told me. The core group of volunteers comes from various walks of life: Some are grad students, others are artists, filmmakers, and computer programmers. Some are leftist in their politics, others more centrist. One had her month-old daughter strapped to her chest for the night.
“He’s taking our money, our time. So who does he owe? Us.”
Ernest Gonzales is a graphic designer, and spreads out a cornucopia of unofficial Beto stickers he’s made, playing on the logos for the San Antonio Spurs and beloved local grocery store H-E-B. There’s even a Beto-themed car air freshener. Drinking a can of cider, Gonzales’s wife, Devyn, broke down the areas of San Antonio for me: the Northeast, for affluent whites and “passing” Latinos; the largely African American East Side; the neighborhoods where second- and third-generation Mexicans live, compared to the ones where more recently immigrated, largely Spanish-speaking ones make their homes. This group is targeting all of them. “Digital stuff is great, Facebook is great. But what we really look for is that face-to-face interaction,” she said.
This nucleus of campaign volunteers is relatively new to activism, but they understand that they need to collaborate with the people who’ve been doing the work in the community for years. “We approach them with respect,” Devyn said, “and ask what we can do to work together.” As for actually compelling shy “resistance moms” to get out there and canvass, their plan is simple: “We know the areas with a high number of registered Democrats and low turnout,” Devyn explained. “We have them block-walk there, and then we recruit people from those neighborhoods, follow up with them, and get them to go out and block-walk.”
That means educating Beto volunteers, too. “There are people who are just for ‘Bay-Toe,’ Devyn continued, pronouncing O’Rourke’s name in a caricature of an enthusiastic but slightly clueless Anglo. “And they don’t know anything about Lupe Valdez.” (Valdez is running against Gov. Greg Abbott.) Gonzales points to a postcard with the Democratic slate for Texas — where Beto is just one among many. “This can’t just be about Beto getting the Latino vote out. It’s gonna be Latinos who got the Latino vote out.”
As I left, another round of beers and fried food was arriving at the table. They had plans to make, strategies to solidify, tasks to delegate. The campaign’s effort to counter Cruz’s attack ads, launched Friday, had passed $1.27 million, with an average donation of $33. I learned about the push not from O’Rourke, but from Facebook. O’Rourke hadn’t asked for money on the stump. Instead, he focuses his asks on human effort. “It’s gonna take every single one of us,” he’d told the crowd in San Antonio, “and you decide what you can give. Say, ‘I’m gonna give two hours of my life each week to the future of this country.’”
“One of the things about him not taking PAC money is that he’s taking our money, our time,” Devyn had told me. “So who does he owe? Us.”
If O’Rourke makes it to the Senate, it will be, at least in part, because voters just flat-out dislike Ted Cruz. But he’ll also owe his victory to those 10,000 volunteers and those millions of energized voters. As the 2016 election demonstrated, most Democrats don’t just want to feel political alignment with a candidate, they want to be enthralled. O’Rourke has generated so much enthusiasm and harnessed so much hope around him, and inspired the incredibly romantic idea that Texas could once again be, if not blue, then at the very least purple — that things could be different. In that way, he’s not unlike another young, first-time, long-shot Senate candidate who grabbed the national imagination a decade ago.
That energy is different from what collected around Trump’s campaign in 2016, which was, and remains, rooted in exclusion: the idea that only some people deserve the freedoms and opportunities this country, at its best, can offer. The O’Rourke energy — and that of the blue wave, generally, is about inclusivity: in the identities of the candidates running, in their messaging and policy positions, and in the attempt to get more, not fewer, people to vote.
Of course, national energy and support can only do so much to move the needle in a statewide race. In previous elections, the people who do reliably go out and vote in Texas have voted conservative. And Cruz knows it: At the Republican State Convention, he told a state senator that “November is about one thing: Turnout, turnout, turnout.” As longtime Texas political analyst R.G. Ratcliffe elaborated, “the party that does the best job of whipping up its base will win.”
As the 2016 election demonstrated, most Democrats don’t just want to feel political alignment with a candidate; they want to be enthralled.
Right now, that seems to be O’Rourke’s party. Their primary turnout (1 million) was less than the Republicans (1.5 million), but 27% of those who voted in the Democratic primary had not voted in the last two midterm primaries. “That suggests there are a lot of Democrats who usually don’t turn out for midterm elections who might be inspired by their anger at Trump to show up at the voting booth in November,” Ratcliffe explains. Still, for O’Rourke to win, he needs to take the rhetoric of inclusion and expand it into strategy, creating a coalition of voters who, even if their views line up with Cruz on abortion and economics, can’t abide the rest of what he and Trump stand for.
Objectively, it shouldn’t be this hard for a Democrat to win this race. O’Rourke shouldn’t have to sweat through this many shirts. But voter apathy is not a uniquely Texan problem — and no candidate can persuade every potential voter to believe that their participation matters. What I saw on the ground, then, was O’Rourke’s best attempt to tailor his appeal to so many different types of Texans, including, especially, ones who don’t fall into the neat categories of Republican or Democrat. His message: You matter. Your town matters. Your problems matter. And to convince them, he didn’t alter his own message so much as alter the way he conveyed that he has been listening to their worries all along.
On the stump across Texas, it certainly feels like the “election of our lifetimes” that O’Rourke likes to evoke. The stakes feel so much higher than this one political office. At its heart, his campaign is less about vanquishing Republicans than regaining what had once, accurately or not, felt like the core of our national identity: that we are a country of decency, a place where people care for one another. For supporters of O’Rourke or any of the dozen other candidates hoping to make up a “blue wave,” taking back the House — or the Senate — has become a tangible means of returning to that understanding of who we are as Americans. Within this understanding, if O’Rourke wins, some piece of that identity will be redeemed. But what about the very real, even probable, chance that he loses?
For thousands of O’Rourke’s volunteers, people who told me that their political lives began when they woke up on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, this is their first campaign. When they wake up after Election Day, if their candidate has lost, will those political lives and the energy that fuels them be over? It’s easy to convince people to fight a battle. It’s much harder, and requires a different sort of endurance — from both leaders and those who support them — to try to win a war. ●
Graphic sources: population and demographic data from 2017 US Census estimates. Election data from the Texas Secretary of State: 2016 presidential election (county by county); statewide historical turnout; 2014 midterm turnout (county by county). Photo: Getty Images.
The city of Del Rio, Texas, is west of San Antonio. An earlier version of this post misstated where it is.