The anti-Trump: Could this Obama-style Texan turn the tide?
Democrats hope Beto O’Rourke will beat Ted Cruz to the Senate in the US mid-terms
It’s Saturday night in downtown Austin and along the banks of the Colorado river tens of thousands of people have gathered for an open-air concert. The gig, which is being headlined by country music legend Willie Nelson, is packed to capacity. But the real star of the show is Beto O’Rourke. Shortly after 10pm the tall, tanned Texan strides on to the stage.
Clasping the microphone, the 46-year-old congressman addresses the crowd.
“The people of the future, our kids and our grandkids, are depending on what we do at this moment,” he says as the crowd falls silent. “We will be defined, not by our fears – when we allow that to happen we build walls, we ban people based on their religion, we describe the press as the enemy of the people,” he said. “We should be defined by our ambitions, our aspirations.”
The comparisons with Barack Obama are clear. “This is what it was like in 2008,” says one local, his young son atop his shoulders. Like all of the supporters here, he refers to the Democratic candidate on first-name terms. “Beto, Beto, Beto,” the crowd chants.
The rise of Beto O’Rourke has become one of the most riveting – and potentially most significant – stories of the current election cycle. With less than four weeks to go before Americans go to the polls in the mid-term elections, O’Rourke’s bid to win a Senate seat in Texas has emerged as a national talking point.
Texas has long been strong Republican territory and wields outsized influence on US politics. With its gun-loving, government-light approach, it has reliably delivered 38 electoral college votes to Republicans in every presidential election since 1976.
Texans have always been more progressive than people think. It’s never been as solidly republican as Montana or Kansas. There is a lot of buzz around Beto
But Democrats have long harboured hopes that this reliably red state could turn blue. The reason? Changing demographics.
There are an estimated 11 million Hispanics in the state, with Latinos expected to outnumber non-Hispanic whites by 2022. The state also has a growing number of Asian and African-American population. With Hispanics tending to vote Democrat, many strategists predict a political shift to the left in the coming years.
There are provisos, however. Presuming that all Hispanics will vote Democrat belies the complexity of voters’ political affiliations. Many Hispanic Catholics are uncomfortable with the Democrats’ stance on abortion, for example. A more serious challenge for Democrats is low turnout. A recent study found that only 28 per cent of Texas voters voted in the last three mid-term elections, with registration particularly low among Latinos.
His Irish roots go back four generations. He has reached out to the influential Friends of Ireland caucus on Capitol Hill in recent months, and is proud of his Irish heritage
Democrats are hoping that Beto O’Rourke could just turn the tide in this reliably Republican state in November.
The 46 year-old married father of three was born and raised in El Paso, in the far west of the State on the Mexican border. His distinctive name stems from his early years. Growing up in a heavily Hispanic area, “Beto” – a Latino nickname for “Robert” – soon stuck. His Irish roots go back four generations, and though not currently a member of the Friends of Ireland caucus on Capitol Hill, he has reached out to the influential group in recent months, and is proud of his Irish heritage.
After graduating from Columbia University in New York, O’Rourke worked in IT. He moved back to Texas in 1998, winning a seat on the El Paso city council in 2005. After more than a decade in Texas politics, he was elected to the United States Congress in 2013.
Though O’Rourke has kept a low profile during his time in Washington, his decision to take on incumbent Ted Cruz for a Senate seat has caused a political storm in Texas – and has senior Republicans in Washington worried.
While Democrats look likely to regain control of the House of Representatives next month, their path to the Senate looks less secure. Texas, along with Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee, is one of a handful of States that they hope to flip.
Senior Republican Mick Mulvaney, Donald Trump’s federal budget director, reportedly told Republican donors at a closed door meeting last month that Ted Cruz’s seat could be in danger.
The result has been a deluge of ads by the Cruz side attacking his Democratic rival, focusing on everything from his support for NFL players who kneel during the national anthem, to his liberal views on marijuana. His conviction for drink-driving while in his 20s has also been raked over – and could cause long-term problems for his political ambitions.
Even Donald Trump – a bitter rival of Ted Cruz during the 2016 presidential campaign – is being brought in to campaign later this month.
Here at the outdoor concert, supporters are convinced that the Democratic candidate could pull off an improbable victory next month. Luann Wilkerson, originally from Corpus Christi Texas, believes that O’Rourke has what it takes.
“He’s so well informed, he’s articulate, and he listens. I love the fact that he is not bad-mouthing Cruz. He is focusing on what we can do, not what we can’t,” she says, noting that O’Rourke has visited all 254 counties in Texas.
Others believe that Donald Trump’s presidency means that voters are more likely to endorse O’Rourke.
Abie Holland, Nicole Archambault and Elizabeth Deluca moved to Texas from the east coast in recent years. All three are in their late-20s and come from Republican families. Their parents all voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and Archambault says she has voted Republican previously. But they believe that this election is different for American voters because of Donald Trump.
“In one sense Trump’s policies are not too bad – what he’s doing on tax, on trade – but his ridiculous rhetoric, his language . . . ” sighs Elizabeth Deluca, trailing off. Archambault agrees that the Trump brand of Republicanism is a problem, and one reason why she is fully behind O’Rourke. “I voted for McCain in 2008. It depends on what’s happening in the world, and what kind of candidate there is. Beto represents something authentic. Trump is an idiot.”
While Austin is a liberal enclave within Texas, O’Rourke will also need to win support in more rural parts of the state if he is to unseat Ted Cruz. As in many parts of the country, Texas voters’ voted along an urban-rural divide in 2016, with Donald Trump winning broad swathes of the state, and Hillary Clinton winning urban areas around Austin, Houston and Dallas, and southern counties near the Mexican border.
Leaving Austin and driving into the rural towns heading towards San Antonio, the picture is more mixed.
The small town of Lockhart, a picturesque southern town in Caldwell County, captures the political divisions that characterise Texas. Just over 55 per cent of voters in Caldwell County voted for Trump in 2016, and just under 40 per cent voted for Clinton.
At Black’s Barbecue, one of the state’s best-known eateries, a trio of country-music stars entertains diners and huge pick-up trucks are lined-up outside. This is Ted Cruz country. But walking around the town it becomes clear that politically the picture is more complex.
Ben Sparks and his wife, Jen, run Rollfast Ranchwear, a store specialising in American-made western attire. Ben believes there is huge energy about this Senate election, more so because Donald Trump is such a divisive figure. “Texans have always been more progressive than people think. It’s never been as solidly republican as say Montana or Kansas, parts of the midwest. There is a lot of buzz around Beto.”
Further down the street, Democratic officials are busy gathering American flags and bunting ahead of a Beto rally due to take place the following day. The small group of local party officials are realistic about their prospects – this is after all a Republican area – but they are quietly confident about a trend they have not seen before: a steady increase in voter registration.
“Registering Democratic voters has been our focus in the last few weeks. I’m registering an average of six or seven each day. That’s significant,” says one party operative. She also highlights O’Rourke’s formidable online fundraising campaign (O’Rourke has refused to accept funding from political action committees or corporates).
With polls showing Ted Cruz slightly ahead, many Democrats believe that increasing voter turnout is the only real way O’Rourke can win the seat.
Democrats have long trotted out the mantra “Texas is not a red state. It’s a non-voting Democrat state.” The Senate battle between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke will show whether that’s the case.
But even if O’Rourke is not successful this time round, he has seen his national profile swell and many see a presidential run in the offing. As a candidate who insists that everyone is welcome in his fold, Beto O’Rourke’s brand of optimistic inclusiveness might be just the salve that is needed to heal this bitterly divided country.