2 Visions of Texas Vie for Its Ideological Future
Posted September 1, 2018 7:02 p.m. EDT
Updated September 1, 2018 7:15 p.m. EDT
LONGVIEW, Texas — Beto O’Rourke was racing left again, insisting he knew what he was doing.
“Hydroplaning there a little bit,” he said softly, doing 75 in the passing lane through an East Texas downpour, double-fisting beef jerky in his silver pickup.
This self-assurance was understandable. In his campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz, O’Rourke has been attempting the Texas equivalent of walking on water — winning statewide as a liberal Democrat — without yet losing his balance. There is bipartisan consensus, including from Cruz, that O’Rourke could actually prevail in November — maybe — if the blue wave crests just so. And now, 15 days into a 34-day road trip, O’Rourke was 50 miles from another disarmingly large crowd in a typically red county, primed to cheer his calls for brash progressivism deep in the heart of Trump country.
New gun restrictions. Fifteen-dollar minimum wage. Marijuana offenses expunged from arrest records.
“This moment, this year, this time is not easy,” O’Rourke thundered once he reached the stage, by turns swearing playfully in two languages to make his case. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
But why not try? This is Texas, he reminded them. Or it can be.
For a quarter century now, a blue Texas has seemed both inevitable and impossible, the central political contradiction in a state defined by them — where conservatives joke that the best thing about Austin, the left-leaning capital, is its proximity to Texas; where the largest American flags are often flown by those agitating for outright secession.
Any breakthrough, Democrats have long believed, would be borne of demographics and triangulation: Focus on the cities, with their surging Hispanic populations and creeping cosmopolitanism. Edge to the middle a bit to bring in wary moderates. And impress upon voters just how extreme the incumbents had become.
O’Rourke, a 45-year-old congressman from El Paso, has resolved to ignore basically all of this. He says relatively little about Cruz on the logic that everyone already knows about him. He has visited each of the state’s 254 counties, he says, because he would not vote for a party that never showed up in his town, either.
More than anything, O’Rourke has made clear that he will not modulate his politics, betting that he can energize and activate nonvoters from past years, particularly younger ones, with left-wing authenticity and genial hustle. It is a model being pursued by progressives across the country, often with considerable success. Most recently, Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, Florida, won an upset victory in that state’s Democratic primary for governor with a similar message of unflinching liberalism and generational change. O’Rourke has defined the philosophy with a line borrowed from Jim Hightower, a prominent activist and commentator who was once Texas agriculture commissioner: “The only thing you’ll find in the middle of the road,” O’Rourke said in Houston recently, “are yellow lines and dead armadillos.”
Later that day, after a bit more driving, there it was, between a shuttered general store and a giant roadside cross: a dead armadillo, hugging the yellow line.
If proved true, O’Rourke’s theory of the case, as much as any strategic gamble in these midterms, would have the effect of reshaping his state’s very political identity. In the short run, voter enthusiasm for O’Rourke is expected to boost Democratic congressional candidates this fall in districts in and around the state’s largest cities, where O’Rourke’s popularity can help down-ballot even if he loses his own race. Recent public polling shows Cruz leading by mid- to low-single digits, though the senator has argued that these estimates undersell his edge.
In the long run, Democrats still believe that Texas will eventually move their way for good. President Donald Trump won here by 9 percentage points, barely better than his showing in Ohio — and 7 points worse than Mitt Romney’s margin in 2012.
“The winds have quit blowing from the right,” said Bill Miller, a veteran lobbyist who has worked with members of both parties. “They haven’t begun blowing the other way. But the winds are shifting.”
Many Democrats in Washington remain skeptical of O’Rourke’s chances, even as they marvel at his fundraising totals — over $10 million last quarter, more than double Cruz’s haul. The party sees riper pickup opportunities for Senate seats in Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee and is expected to spend its money accordingly — to say nothing of its efforts to defend incumbents in several states that Trump carried in 2016.
Still, in public and in private, Cruz, 47, has expressed something approaching genuine alarm, enough that Trump, once his bitter rival for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, plans to come campaign with him. (In a tweet Friday, the president pledged to fill “the biggest stadium in Texas we can find” for a rally in October.) Cruz has also impressed upon his colleagues that the threat from O’Rourke is real, requesting the party’s financial help during a recent Senate lunch.
“The extreme left, they’re energized,” Cruz told supporters at a bar in Brenham, where a floorboard splinter stuck to one of his ostrich boots. “They’re filled with rage and fury.”
“This is Texas,” he said, three times in an hour, as if to reassure. Or it has been.
In an interview later at another bar, Cruz got to talking about Texas stereotypes — what outsiders get wrong about the place, in his view, and about this race.
“Texas is America on steroids,” Cruz said, citing his constituents’ “frontier independence.” “The ethos of our state is, ‘Give me a horse and a gun and an open plain and we can conquer the world.'”
This sounded a lot like the stereotype.
“Sure,” Cruz conceded. “It’s a stereotype that Texans like barbecue. It also happens that pretty much all Texans like barbecue.”
And this, as much as any campaign turnout projection or messaging tactic, feels like the core question: How true is the stereotype of Texas, still, in 2018?
Cruz reached for his Texas-brewed beer, in a room decorated with a longhorn logo and a Texas flag. All around him, people seemed to be enjoying their barbecue.
— Changing to a Liberal Texas?
For much of the 20th century, there were effectively two parties in Texas.
“Conservative Democrat,” said Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to George W. Bush, “and progressive Democrat.”
Things changed. Former aides to Bush, who in 1994 beat Ann Richards, the last Democratic governor, doubt that he would survive a Republican primary today. His successors rejected an expansion of Medicaid, the program signed into law by a Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Before O’Rourke, the last great liberal hope for Texas was Wendy Davis, four years ago. A former state senator, Davis ran for governor after attracting a national following for her filibuster in pink running shoes during a debate over abortion rights. She hoped to galvanize progressives while hedging enough on gun policy to fit the changing electorate better than her ultraconservative opponent, Greg Abbott.
She lost by 20 points. She believes she recognizes her mistakes now.
“One of those was talking far too much about everything that was wrong with my opponent. One of those was trying to take a qualified position on gun regulation, gun safety, because it was perceived as such a hot-button issue,” Davis said. “You have your speechwriter, and you have your pollsters and your message architect. And somewhere in the midst of that you lose yourself.”
Davis’ failure has been invoked often lately, by Republicans who see parallels in O’Rourke’s rise and by Democrats who tell themselves that this time is different.
“Part of it is convincing people it’s OK to trust again,” said Mike Siegel, the Democratic nominee in a long-shot race to unseat Rep. Michael McCaul from Austin. “It’s still David versus Goliath, but Goliath is vulnerable this year.”
Democrats speak hopefully about how far the state has come, how the old and new can coexist — rural, urban, cowboys, hipsters, capitalists, livestock.
Oil fortunes have spiked and receded — from $30 a barrel, to $140, to points in between — as technology jobs have flooded in. Hurricane stormwaters have pooled high, swamping areas represented by people dubious of climate science, and taxes have stayed low.
Four of the nation’s 11 largest cities are now in Texas. Houston, the biggest, is considered the most diverse major city in America. Its last two mayors are a black man and a lesbian. Its most famous politician in office is Cruz.
Then there are the politics of the border, amplified by Trump’s immigration policy of family separations. Even before that, some residents had long chafed at Republicans’ suggestions that they were overrun with crime. “They think we’re in a war zone,” said Alonzo Cantu, a prominent developer and Democratic donor from McAllen. “I’m in my house right now, the keys are in my car. My front door is open.”
Democrats acknowledge that any electoral road map for O’Rourke, through a maze of entrenched red, will require voters in blue splotches of South Texas to turn out in record numbers. O’Rourke must also dominate in the large counties where Hillary Clinton beat Trump — Harris, Bexar, Travis, Dallas — outrunning her even in areas where she won by more than 100,000 votes and persuading Democrats, particularly black and Hispanic voters, to show up at presidential-year levels. The most difficult heave may be mobilizing new registrants, including new arrivals to the state who have settled in suburban areas and residents in rural counties where Democrats have often lost by more than 50 points. O’Rourke likes to say he is visiting areas so red “you can see them glowing from outer space.” He sees his crowds — several hundred people, consistently, in places where a Democrat might generally expect to draw tens — as evidence that the approach is working.
Cruz sees it differently. “It’s a ‘Field of Dreams’ strategy: ‘If you build it, they will come,'” the senator said. “Perhaps in Massachusetts.”
He pointed out that Abbott, the Republican governor, remains a heavy favorite for re-election against Lupe Valdez, a former Dallas County sheriff.
But at the very least, O’Rourke’s efforts have helped build, or rebuild, Democratic infrastructure across the state, attracting volunteers and attention not only for his own campaign but also for his peers. Some Republican-held House districts had already been targets, particularly after Clinton carried a handful of them. These include one around Dallas, where Colin Allred, a former Obama administration official and professional football player, is challenging Rep. Pete Sessions, and another in Houston, where Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a lawyer, is facing Rep. John Culberson.
Local Democrats agreed that expectations had never been higher, for better or worse. O’Rourke was introduced recently as “senator-elect.”
“He’s already won,” said Art Pronin, a 38-year-old activist. “It won’t ever be the same again.”
— Becoming Ted and Beto
The irony is not lost on either candidate.
Cruz, whose given name is Rafael, is a Cuban immigrant’s son who speaks middling Spanish and wants to build the wall.
His opponent, whose given name is Robert, is a white man from a border city who speaks perfect Spanish with an accent impressive for an O’Rourke (and not bad for a Beto) and calls the family separation policy the moral stain of our times. It can be hard to imagine either man becoming exactly who they are as Rafael or Robert. Cruz has been more explicit in raising this point. In March, his campaign released a jingle-attack on O’Rourke that said, “Liberal Robert wanted to fit in, so he changed his name to Beto and hid it with a grin.”
Cruz was asked about this, after saying his guiding political principle has always been to focus on substance. “Look,” he said, “you can have a sense of humor.”
And O’Rourke has had his own. While his campaign has been less negative than Cruz’s, he occasionally likes to have it both ways, flagging the senator’s wandering political eye. “Visited every single one of the 99 counties of Iowa,” O’Rourke often says of Cruz, “instead of being here.”
On the drive through East Texas, O’Rourke was asked if his opponent is sincere. He turned to his communications director in the back seat. “How do you want me to answer this?” O’Rourke asked, which was its own kind of answer. “Do you want me to tell him the airport story?”
They decided no. He cursed theatrically, feigning torment at withholding this nugget in the name of high-mindedness.
The candidates dwell little on their surface similarities, but there are a few. Both left Texas for the Ivy League; both have fans who would welcome their promotion to president. (“No,” O’Rourke said in the car, waving off the growing speculation that he could seek the White House even if he loses this race. “I don’t want to do that. No.”)
But where Cruz’s former classmates and colleagues remember a man who seemed to imagine himself in high office since his teens — Princeton debate champion, Harvard Law, Supreme Court clerkship, the 2000 Bush campaign — O’Rourke’s path has been unusual.
He moved from Columbia University, where he captained the crew team, to a loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He played in a punk band. He found odd jobs: a publishing gig in the Bronx, another hauling art for a company called Hedley’s Humpers. And occasionally, he got into trouble — spending a night in county jail in his early 20s for attempted forcible entry (he says he jumped a fence at the University of Texas, El Paso) and getting arrested three years later on a charge of drunken driving.
O’Rourke said he steadied himself, in time, upon his return to El Paso in the late 1990s. He started a technology company, joined the City Council in 2005 and took down a Democratic incumbent in 2012 to get to Congress. Until recently, he had not generally been considered a budding superstar within the caucus.
But back home, he developed a reputation for taking on all comers, making himself ubiquitous with regular constituent forums and social media savvy. Now, as he and Cruz travel the state, the most instructive contrast between them may come in the questions voters think to ask.
For Cruz: Why isn’t Hillary Clinton in jail? When can we defund Planned Parenthood?
For O’Rourke: What can we do for intersex rights? What do you make of protests during the national anthem?
“I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights,” he told the questioner, in Houston. Predictably, the moment became the latest viral turn for a candidate who livestreams everything from speeches to burger runs.
At least as predictably, Cruz seized on the remarks instantly.
“Wildly out of touch with Texas,” he said.
This remains true, Cruz suggested, even in a new Texas. More than any political argument, he has taken issue with the assumption that minority voters will flock to O’Rourke. Cruz said he won about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, when Romney earned 27 percent of it nationally. His supporters vacillate between allowing that change will come, just slowly, and insisting it is still the state they knew.
“I pray it is,” said Mary Ann Chelf, 61, waiting for Cruz in Brenham. “But I don’t really get around much.”
“The demographics are going blue,” said Bill Odom, 60, sitting a few feet away. “Probably next 10 years. Not this year.”
Even the most dedicated Democrats suspect he may be right. Seated in the Houston crowd for O’Rourke was Sissy Farenthold, now 91, who ran twice for governor in the 1970s and was once the only woman in the Texas House of Representatives.
Pushing a walker afterward, she spoke of the xenophobia that persisted after the election of Barack Obama, which she had expected to augur an end to such nastiness. “I thought that was going to be the change, the transformation,” Farenthold recalled.
But maybe it could be Beto, she said. Maybe the time was now.
“You finally accept,” she said, stopping for a moment to let younger guests pass, “that things will happen after you’re gone.”