In the spring of 2012, a crew of door knockers set off across El Paso, hands full of bilingual palm cards, part of an effort that would ultimately help propel Beto O’Rourke to an unlikely victory in his first congressional race.
But the door knockers weren’t part of O’Rourke’s legendary field operation. They were paid by a new super PAC backed in large part by Republican donors — and O’Rourke’s own father-in-law.
O’Rourke is now running for president with an informal slogan: “All people, no PACs.” In his race against Sen. Ted Cruz last fall, he swore off PAC money altogether, winning national attention for a grassroots campaign rooted in small-dollar fundraising and a prolific field operation — one that eschewed negativity and attack ads.
But in his first race for national office, in the 2012 Democratic primary in El Paso, a super PAC boosted O'Rourke with an onslaught of ads and door knockers whose sole job was to go negative and hammer his opponent.
The Campaign for Primary Accountability, a bipartisan group dedicated to unseating incumbents across the country, spent $240,000 to take down Rep. Silvestre Reyes, an eight-term incumbent, helping O’Rourke to an underdog victory. He beat Reyes that year by a margin of 3,000 votes, avoiding a runoff by a mere 200 votes.
“He wouldn’t be there without us,” said Jeff Hewitt, a veteran campaign operative who ran the arm of the PAC that focused on Democratic races like O’Rourke’s. Hewitt, an old hand who has worked on Democratic campaigns going back to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential race, says he can’t help but raise an eyebrow when he hears O’Rourke talk about eschewing PACS now.
“It’s silly,” Hewitt said. “A super PAC got the guy elected. I don’t want to say it’s the height of hypocrisy, but it’s silly.”
The PACs O'Rourke has publicly rejected, however, are different than super PACs, meaning the Campaign for Primary Accountability's involvement is not a sign of a reversal on O'Rourke's part. Candidates have no control over super PACs, and O'Rourke couldn't have rejected the CPA's involvement if he had wanted to.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Chris Evans, a spokesperson for O'Rourke's campaign, rejected the idea that the super PAC had made the difference in O'Rourke's race.
"Beto defeated a 16-year incumbent and received more than 50% of the vote in a five-person race because the people of El Paso wanted a representative who would put the interests of the community above special interests," Evans said.
The Campaign for Primary Accountability allowed O’Rourke to run the kind of campaign he did in El Paso, said Hewitt — one focused on grassroots outreach and change, the blueprint for his Senate and presidential bids. He mostly didn’t have to attack Reyes; the super PAC did it instead, and they did it relentlessly.
As O’Rourke was outspent by Reyes by significant margins, the Campaign for Primary Accountability ran ads, particularly digital ones, hitting Reyes as an out-of-touch member of the old guard in Washington — even alleging corruption and ethical violations. (The PAC never gave O’Rourke money or coordinated with him, which would have been forbidden by law.)
When Reyes lost, he blamed it, in part, on the PAC. He told supporters in El Paso on election night, “Tonight has been a wake-up call for us here in this community. A wake-up call for us to decide: ‘Are we going to let people in Houston decide who we send to Congress here?’”
The Campaign for Primary Accountability, now defunct, was a new and mysterious force in 2012, when it began taking on incumbents nationwide. Unlike most PACs, it didn’t care much about political party: With $3.6 million in funds, it took on 10 incumbents, Tea Party Republicans and far-left Democrats alike. The group’s first major victory was unseating a Republican incumbent in a primary in Ohio.
Many of the group’s major donors, however, leaned conservative. One of its founders was Leo Linbeck III, a Houston businessman who had given to GOP causes. J. Joe Ricketts, a Republican and the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade, gave $500,000 in 2012, as did Tim Dunn, a Texas oil executive. Some were more shadowy, including anonymous corporations.
One of those was Campr II Partners, a partnership with ties to O’Rourke’s father-in-law, William Sanders, a wealthy El Paso real estate developer. Campr II Partners gave $37,500. So did other wealthy El Pasoans, who gave $46,000 — significant sums, though a fraction of the millions the PAC raised that cycle. None of those donations went directly to the Reyes race, since super PAC money can't be earmarked, but rather into the group's nationwide slush fund.
Hewitt was recruited to go after Democratic incumbents on behalf of the PAC. The group’s small team in Houston had zeroed in on Reyes, he said, both because they believed he was vulnerable, and because he had “a viable challenger” — O’Rourke, a city council member with deep ties to El Paso.
But when they set out to unseat Reyes, Hewitt’s team had a steep task ahead of them. Reyes had his share of negatives, but he was an incumbent in a district that was 80% Latino. Reyes was endorsed by then-president Barack Obama; he got help from Bill Clinton too, who campaigned for him in El Paso.
But O’Rourke had all of the qualities that later helped him come within a few points of defeating Cruz in 2018: charisma, sharp political instincts, and an endless appetite for retail politics — he personally knocked on 16,000 doors, the El Paso Times reported, wearing out two pairs of shoes.
He also had the Campaign for Primary Accountability. Their ads hammered home negative messages about Reyes as O’Rourke zipped around El Paso, talking about change.
One ad focused on $600,000 Reyes had paid out to himself and his family members during the past two campaign cycles — more than any other member of Congress. Reyes decried the ad, accusing the Campaign for Primary Accountability of “attempting to buy a seat in Congress for Beto O’Rourke so he can represent those who want to buy El Paso.”
The CPA ran a mostly digital and TV-focused campaign against Reyes — a steady drumbeat that they dragged out throughout the entire primary, rather than simply spending heavily at the end of the race, as many outside groups do, Hewitt said.
They also hired “a local guy who ran a crew of people out knocking doors,” Hewitt said — though he felt the field campaign didn’t have nearly as much of an impact as the PAC's digital ads.
“There’s no way [O’Rourke] would have won without the [Campaign for Primary Accountability] on the outside, beating up Reyes and increasing his unfavorables,” Hewitt said. “Team Beto doesn’t think that, of course — they think it’s because of his magnanimous personality. But there’s no way they’d have gotten to 50.1% without us.”