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Who Is Beto O’Rourke?

Robert “Beto” O’Rourke is quickly becoming a household name after coming within three percentage points of ruining Ted Cruz’s reelection in Texas. It is hard to overstate the enthusiasm O’Rourke’s campaign generated statewide and nationally. His record-breaking fundraising reached over $40 million, while he nominally refused corporate cash, and he received a series of high-profile celebrity endorsements, including from Beyoncé and LeBron James.

Renato Flores

November 12, 2018
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Photo: Joe Raedle—Getty Images

Now that his political career is bound to skyrocket, we must understand O’Rourke’s campaign in its wider context. O’Rourke has attracted the attention of prominent liberal activists such as Shaun King and is surely eyeing a 2020 presidential run—he’s not sharing the cash he raised. O’Rourke is a Democrat who almost squeezed out a victory in the most populous red state. Democrats dream of turning Texas blue, since this could be a new strategic path to the White House. Securing Texas’s 38 Electoral College votes (equal to those of Ohio and Pennsylvania combined), in addition to the reenfranchisement of Florida’s ex-felon population (which is disproportionately black), could change the electoral map. The Rust Belt propelled Obama’s win in 2008-12 and was instrumental in giving Trump his victory in 2016. Texas’s Electoral College votes would mean Democrats could afford to lose the Rust Belt and still win. This new strategy means that O’Rourke’s relative success is bound to give him a large platform for the next two years.

O’Rourke’s campaign has also attracted the attention of leftists nationally, who have overstated his progressiveness, seeing a ray of light in what northerners believe to be cowboy country. But this is not the case for two reasons: The Texas of today is not a deep red state, nor is O’Rourke a progressive. Like Obama in 2008, O’Rourke is a screen onto which people project their hopes. His Senate campaign was based on his personality, featuring him skateboarding at a Whataburger parking lot and singing along with country star Willie Nelson. He also voiced empty platitudes that do not match his voting record but score political points with the wider audience. As Marx wrote in the “18th Brumaire,” history repeats itself, first as a tragedy and then as a farce. O’Rourke’s presidential run could be the farce to Obama’s presidential tragedy.

El Paso Gentrifier: Robert O’Rourke’s Early Years

To fully understand where O’Rourke is now, it is important to understand where he comes from. O’Rourke is an Irish-American from El Paso from a relatively well-off family. His father was a county commissioner and later a county judge. He started his political career in El Paso, where he returned to live and work at an internet services company after living in New York. Although he lacks Latinx heritage, he sat on the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and adopted his childhood nickname “Beto,” given to him by his family housekeeper. In mid-2005, O’Rourke ran for City Council on a platform of downtown development and border reform. He was elected as a wider wave of “progressives” and defeated two-term incumbent City Councilman Anthony Cobos.

His development plan included converting a historic working-class area of El Paso into a modern, gentrified district. The plan was to include major retailers and an art walk. This was opposed by both local Chicano activists and small-business owners. O’Rourke tried to rally support for his campaign by holding local meetings, but he ended up facing a failed recall campaign and two ethics complaints because his father-in-law was involved in the plan. William Sanders, O’Rourke’s father-in-law, is a billionaire real estate developer and one of the richest people in the United States, while his mother-in-law, Louanne Sanders, is one of the directors of a charter school in El Paso.

The redevelopment plans were eventually downsized as they became unrealizable, and O’Rourke threatened to use eminent domain to dislodge activists. O’Rourke had no problem targeting the community he purported to represent. Despite using the nickname Beto for political purposes, he promotes policies that harm the Chicano community. His political career was built on putting on “brownface” while colonizing historic neighborhoods.

A Centrist Voting Record on the Texas’ 16th Congressional District

In the 2012 election, O’Rourke jumped from the El Paso City Council to Texas’s 16th Congressional District, which encompasses El Paso. The district is solidly Democratic, having elected a Republican only once (1963-64) since its creation in 1902. O’Rourke ousted Silvestre Reyes in the primary. Reyes, a former Border Patrol agent, had held the seat since 1995 and had received the endorsements of Obama and Bill Clinton. O’Rourke ran an insurgent campaign based on opposition to Reyes’s corrupt political machine and on marijuana legalization to end the drug war. O’Rourke was familiar with legalization, having coauthored a book on it, and he raised it several times while serving as a city councilor in El Paso. As the election closed, O’Rourke pivoted to the center. “He’s backed off a lot on the talking points about the need to legalize marijuana or the impact it has on this border community,” said Richard Pineda, associate director of the Sam Donaldson Center at University of Texas El Paso, at the time. “I think that it’s unlikely he’s going to be a champion for that issue.” As Pineda predicted, O’Rourke never took action on behalf of marijuana legalization. But he did bring it up again when campaigning in 2018, and he could make it a big issue for a presidential run.

This is part of a larger pattern with O’Rourke, as it is with other liberal Democrats: big promises and big talk, but no action. O’Rourke’s voting record has been solidly centrist even though he comes from a solidly Democratic district. Hardly a progressive, O’Rourke opposed Obama’s policy on DACA/DAPA based on procedural arguments, and as a superdelegate he backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries. Even if he initially voted against funding the Israeli Iron Dome, his votes are now consistently pro-Israel. He never signed on to the Medicare for All bill, despite attempting to make health care a primary issue of his campaign. The largest stain on his record is his vote for the Protect and Serve Act, known as the Blue Lives Matter act, despite publicly expressing approval for black athletes kneeling.

What Did His 2018 Campaign Actually Achieve?

On March 31, 2017, O’Rourke announced that he was running for Senate. Texas has not elected a nonincumbent Democratic senator since 1970. Because the race is seen as a long shot, strong Democratic candidates tend to avoid it, and this inflates the vote difference between the parties in off-years. O’Rourke was relatively unopposed in his primary, his opponents being Sema Hernandez, a leftist activist from Houston, and Edward Kimborough, an African-American pastor from Dallas with a reactionary religious platform of moral rejuvenation. Even though the other two candidates had almost zero name recognition, O’Rourke, the establishment favorite, barely cleared 60% of the vote. Hernandez won 24% of the votes, carrying most of the border counties even though she barely campaigned there. Latinx-sounding names have a raw capacity to gather votes in Texas, especially in border counties, and this puts O’Rourke’s adoption of the nickname Beto in context.

The campaign picked up momentum after the primary. A storm was brewing; the election could be competitive for three reasons. First, O’Rourke had the full backing of the establishment. Second, demographic changes meant that racially diverse urban populations could now play a role in Texas. This is the new base of the Democrats, in both the North and the South, and it was energized with anti-Trump and anti-Cruz sentiment. Third, popular dislike of Cruz from Republicans drove the pre-electoral polling closer, and energized the campaign even more.

O’Rourke was the perfect candidate to target the new Democratic base with his largely apolitical motivational speeches, breaking fundraising records in the process. While it is hard to analyze the Texan subconscious, the statewide will to both oust a notorious figure like Cruz and move past its solidly Republican history surely contributed. Just as Alabama elected Doug Jones, so could Texas. In the main cities, “Beto for Senate” signs were commonplace, canvassing was at an all-time high and phones burned with get-out-the-vote texts. O’Rourke also managed to grab national attention with a few calculated speeches, like the one on athletes kneeling down for the national anthem, but he refused to take more concrete stands, such as committing to abolishing ICE.

As November approached, Republicans were expected to fall in line behind Cruz, especially after the Kavanaugh hearings. Trump scheduled several campaign stops for Cruz to ensure his win. In the final tally, Texas’s percentage point spread between Democrats and Republicans—comparing the 2016 presidential election result and that of the midterm Senate race—shrank by three points in favor of the Democrats. This has more to do with the 350,000 votes lost by Cruz when compared to Trump than the 150,000 votes gained by O’Rourke when compared to Clinton. O’Rourke’s winning of 4 million votes represents only a 4% increase over Clinton’s number (3.78 million) in 2016. It does seem that the race was tight mainly because Trump supporters dislike Cruz, not because of extraordinary support for Beto.

O’Rourke as a Secondary Phenomenon: The Wider Shifts in Texas and the Country

This brings up an important point: Texas is seen in the national imagination as a solidly red state, but this is not true. Demographic change and the changing Democratic coalition means Texas will become a swing state. In this wider context, O’Rourke is not an outlier. Cities already came out solidly for Clinton in 2016: The counties of Harris (Houston), Bexar (San Antonio), Dallas and Travis (Austin) had double-digit Clinton wins in 2016, including a 39 percentage point spread in Travis County. The margins in the Senate race of 2018 were larger, but that result cannot be attributed to just O’Rourke’s galvanizing effect. It reflects a changing Texas and a changing country. O’Rourke did not significantly outperform other Democrats in this election cycle. There already is a general slow statewide shift to the Democrats, who in the midterms flipped two national House seats and 12 more at the state level.

O’Rourke’s charisma-based campaign hides the trends of the changing Democratic coalition. Similar trends were seen in Florida and Georgia in the campaigns by Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams largely propelled by urban voters, as was Doug Jones’s Senate win in Alabama. Today, the North-South divide is better described as an urban-rural one, which reinforces the Democratic hopes of a new road to the White House. In the medium term, Democrats could focus on this urban constituency using largely apolitical messages as long as the Republicans are seen as a greater evil.

The Future of Texas

As Austin organizer Andrew Dobbs writes in detail [1], no actual institutions speak for the most exploited layers of Texans, especially outside of major cities, but the time is ripe for change. Meanwhile, before O’Rourke rose to fame, indications of change were evident in ballot measures and local initiatives. For example, “Proposition B”, a ballot initiative in Houston to raise firefighter pay was approved by a wide margin after a strong firefighter union campaign over the mayor’s objections who actively campaigned against it. And this year, grassroots campaigns in Austin and San Antonio won paid sick leave ordinances, the first in the South.

The political shift in Texas can be seen more starkly within the electoral framework of the capitalist parties. The Democrats flipped Harris County, meaning that among other things a completely new slate of Democratic judges were elected after decades of Republican control. Expectations for criminal justice reform are high, after decades of punitive justice and abusive cash-bail systems. The elected judges include Franklin Bynum, an open socialist and Houston DSA member, elected to the 8th County Criminal Court. Bynum’s campaign is inevitably contradictory: He ran for a position in the punitive arm of the state as an open socialist advocating radical prison reform and did so within the capitalist party that started mass incarceration. But the campaign has been sincere and focused on the issues, and it has included outreach efforts at and outside the local jail to end cash bail. Thanks to this, Bynum earned national attention from “Jacobin” and the “New York Times,” as well as insistent red-baiting from the local GOP. Bynum managed to outperform other Democrats on election day, signaling active support for his policies.

Texan politics is slowly changing, but O’Rourke is more of the same. His campaign represented a mixture of misplaced illusions and future Democratic electoral strategy. He will surely run an Obamaesque campaign in the Democratic primaries and follow up the same way in a 2020 presidential run if he gets the chance. He has repeatedly performed the same act throughout his career. In the primaries, he will point to his vote tally in Texas as his main asset. Whether it is enough to distinguish him in the large pool of centrists remains to be seen.

1] Andrew Dobbs, “[There’s No apathy Problem in Texas Politics,” Medium, May 24, 2018.
2] Tim Murphy, “[The Political Fight That Launched Beto O’Rourke’s Career—and a Barrage of Attack Ads,” Mother Jones, October 3, 2018.

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