After more than 20 years of losing every statewide election, Texas Democrats are eyeing 2018, searching for a candidate who can finally beat the odds. Right now, their hopes are pinned on El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke. He’s the Democrat likely to face Republican Ted Cruz, who’s running for reelection to the U.S. Senate. Both Cruz and O’Rourke were featured speakers during the Texas Tribune Festival on the UT campus last weekend. We asked both for interviews and O’Rourke agreed.
He’s drawing on his punk rock past as he tries to break the Republican lock on elected offices.
O’Rourke pulled in $2.1 million in the second quarter this year, compared to Cruz’s $1.6 million. Cruz, overall, however, has millions more in the bank. And in case you’re wondering, the former punk rocker hasn’t decided what his campaign theme song will be. His wife Amy says at home he listens to Bob Dylan, White Stripes and the Clash.
Minutes before the first of three appearances in front of festival crowds, Beto O’Rourke sips coffee and chats with voters. A campaign staffer is broadcasting the unscripted moment on Facebook Live with her cell phone.
On stage the 45-year-old Congressman from El Paso tells the audience that candid conversation is a central theme powering his campaign as he travels the state and meets with voters.
“No pollsters no focus groups no special interests our faith is 100 percent with the people of Texas,” he says.
O’Rourke, with his lanky, boyish looks says he authors his own tweets and doesn’t use speech writers. He founded a technology company, but says it’s his 1980s stint as a bass player in the punk rock band Foss that has inspired his campaign style..
“Rock and roll had become very slick and very produced,” he says. “It was filling arenas and stadiums. It had light shows and all this kind of production glitz. Punk rock brought rock and roll back to where it started and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
On stage, O’Rourke admits occasionally slipping and using profanity when he’s enthusiastic about something.
Listening, 67-year-old Blake Williams, a Democrat, isn’t too sold on what he’s hearing.
“We discussed the rock and roll metaphor and we’re not sure that’s enough for us,” Williams says.
But younger listeners line up to meet O’Rourke. Mitch Harris, who is 27, says he can relate to the message.
“The way he gleans his past experience and translates them into a connection to everyday people I think is powerful,” Harris says.
UT student Hebbul Rizvi thinks swearing a little bit makes O’Rourke real.
“I don’t understand why it’s an issue he dropped an f-bomb because it just happens,” Rizvi says.
O’Rourke has campaigned for immigration reform, improving instead of ditching Obamacare and keeping DACA protection for young immigrants. He slams Ted Cruz as the senator who deserted Texans to run for president.
During his Tribune Fest appearance, Cruz talked about his priorities – repealing Obamacare, cutting taxes, and reducing business regulations. He barely acknowledges his likely Democratic opponent.
“I think Texans want a senator who fights to defend free market principals and the Constitution,” Cruz said. “I don’t think Texans want a far-left Democrat in the Senate.”
Six years ago, it was Cruz who campaigned as the grassroots outsider with straight talk. He beat the favored Republican and won the Senate seat.
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, says O’Rourke’s effort this time may be appealing, but Cruz had a GOP advantage that helped him win last time.
“He could bill himself as fighting the underdog, the establishment being the insurgent but there was a robust Republican environment he could tap into even as he was rejecting it. O’Rourke does not have that,” Henson says.
And Henson says despite upheaval caused by the election of Donald Trump, voter trends in Texas haven’t changed.
“We haven’t seen marked increases in Democratic Party identification or turnout,” Henson says. “We haven’t seen major defections from the Republican Party. We haven’t seen major declines in Republican turnout. So at least in looking at fundamentals we don’t see things that are very different.”
Still, O’Rourke points to the fact that he outraised Ted Cruz in the second quarter of this year as proof he’s generating excitement.
With 14 months before the election, he says he believes his straightforward, take-it–to-the-people campaign is connecting. He says it feels like “real rock and roll.”