At historically black Prairie View A&M University near Houston, students lined up to see a middle-aged politician who many of them referred to simply as Beto.
That’s Beto O’Rourke, a liberal Democrat from El Paso, in the far western corner of the state. It’s a description that should eliminate him as a serious contender for the U.S. Senate in Texas, which hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.
Yet prodigious grassroots fundraising, quirky or iconoclastic viral videos and a carefully curated image of authenticity, have vaulted O’Rourke into a surprisingly close fight for the Senate seat held by Republican Ted Cruz for the past six years.
Cruz has countered the challenge by questioning O’Rourke’s ideological and cultural bona fides as a Texan. He’s accused the Democrat of wanting to make Texas “just like California,” a deep cut in a state where natives point with pride to its independent Lone Star identity. Cruz’ campaign motto is 'Tough as Texas.'
“Born and raised in Texas,' O’Rourke countered before taking the stage at Prairie View A&M. “Only one candidate in this race has been to every one of the 254 counties of Texas.'
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has moved the contest into the toss-up category, a remarkable step that has Democrats giddily throwing money at a race that is still a long-shot. Although Cruz has held a lead in almost every poll since the Texas primary in March, the margins are narrower than would be expected in such a deeply Republican state.
Even if O’Rourke falls short, Democrats can benefit. The party’s candidates in a handful of competitive House races scattered around the state are banking on the enthusiasm for O’Rourke turning out more voters in their own districts, which in turn would help Democrats in their drive to take control of the House.
'I do think Beto will win my district,” Democratic House candidate Colin Allred said at an event in Dallas. “Just because of the support that’s he generated, the level of enthusiasm -- and that’s going to help us.'
A lawyer and former football player at Baylor and for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, Allred is executing his own surprisingly competitive campaign against 11-term Representative Pete Sessions. The Dallas-area district leans Republican, but demographic shifts in recent years have made it more favorable ground for Democrats.
Sessions said he’s too focused on his own campaign and winning his own race to worry about the Cruz-O’Rourke impact, even if there are almost 2,000 O’Rourke signs decorating lawns within in his district.
The Sessions-Allred contest is just one of at least four heavily contested campaigns for House seats now held by Republicans, according to Texas Republican officials and independent analysts.
Republican Representatives John Culberson of Houston and Will Hurd of San Antonio also face tough re-election fights against Democratic challengers Lizzie Fletcher and Gina Ortiz Jones. In a district just outside of Austin, Democrat M.J. Hegar, an Air Force veteran who’s biographical video became a viral sensation, has become a threat to incumbent Republican Representative John Carter.
Cruz’s response to his own surprisingly precarious re-election prospects has been to attack O’Rourke as being propped up by liberal interest groups and reliant campaign dollars from Hollywood, and elsewhere outside of Texas.
O’Rouke has drawn in more donations that Cruz, putting him in the unusual position of having more cash on hand than the incumbent as the campaign entered the homestretch, $14 million versus $9.3 million at the end of the second quarter. More than 40 percent of O’Rourke’s money has come in donations of $200 or less.
Cruz also mocks the gauzy profiles of his challenger in national media.
'Their favorite adjective is ’Kennedy-esque’ -- usually with his hair blowing in the wind. And none of the profiles talk about his extreme policy positions,' Cruz wisecracked to laughter at a jam-packed rally at an Italian restaurant outside of Houston, near the Johnson Space Center. 'They just say he’s got really good hair. Apparently we’re electing a clump of hair!'
‘Out of Step’
Two hours later, cooling-off in the passenger seat of an air-conditioned pick-up truck, Cruz elaborates. 'My point on the hair actually is that the glowing media profiles ignore substance. That they’re designed to hide that his record is out of step with the people of Texas,' he said.
'If you look at his policy agenda, if Beto O’Rourke were running in Massachusetts, he would be running to Elizabeth Warren’s left,' Cruz said.
The contest isn’t always about policy issues, though. Cruz’s backers have tweeted out old photos of O’Rourke in a punk rock band and details of a decades-old drunk driving arrest have surfaced in Texas media. Cruz has said O’Rourke is trying to turn the state into a Texas into a version of California “right down to tofu and silicon and dyed hair.”
On Monday, O’Rourke apologized for writing an article in the student newspaper at Columbia University almost 30 years ago about actresses in a Broadway show “whose only qualifications seem to be their phenomenally large breasts and tight buttocks.” In a statement reported by the Associated Press, O’Rourke said, “There is no excuse for making disrespectful and demeaning comments about women.”
During their first face-to-face debate, in Dallas Sept. 21, Cruz said the choice was stark. This election, he said, reflects what 'we’re seeing nationally, socialists like Bernie Sanders, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and indeed Congressman Beto O’Rourke, advocating for those same policies: full-on socialized medicine.'
O’Rourke has taken stances that put him at the opposite political pole of Cruz and make him something of an anomaly among statewide candidates in Texas. He’s for curbing the sale of assault rifles, abortion rights and legalizing marijuana. O’Rourke opposed President Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court even before recent allegations of sexual misconduct, which have been denied by the nominee. He’s against President Donald Trump’s border wall and the administration’s hardline immigration policy.
'We have nearly 200,000 Dreamers who call Texas home. Ted Cruz has promised to deport them,” O’Rourke told reporters at Prairie View A&M. 'Small business owners and large business owners alike tell me immigration is critical to the future of the state.'
He accused Cruz of bowing to Trump rather than standing up for Texas on trade, saying that no state will be hit harder by retaliatory tariffs that will hit farmers, ranchers and manufacturers.
O’Rourke has succeeded in generating significant buzz in Texas and beyond. Snippets of his speeches and responses at town halls have ricocheted around YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, particularly his defense of NFL players who protest police brutality by kneeling during the National Anthem. After debating Cruz, he posted to his Facebook page a video that included him at the drive-through of a Whataburger, blasting the Who’s 'Baba O’Riley' and air-drumming to the song.
On Sunday, O’Rourke took the stage at a free concert at a packed auditorium in Austin to sing “On the Road Again” with Texas icon Willie Nelson.
Paul Brace, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, said O’Rourke’s background -- a one-time punk rock bassist, a small-business owner and a liberal politician in West Texas -- doesn’t suggest he would be the candidate to mount a significant challenge to Cruz.
“Beto is not politics as usual in Texas,' Brace said
But the Democrat “is banking on the young and minority voters, typically the least inclined to vote,” Brace said. “For now, O’Rourke has become a political rock star gaining uncommon attention in Texas and nationally, despite the doubts about whether it will result in backers showing up on election day.”
Cruz openly discusses O’Rourke’s momentum and fundraising during rallies to motivate his own supporters. He’s also countered O’Rourke by embracing Trump, who defeated Cruz in the bitter 2016 Republican presidential primaries.
During their debate, O’Rourke used that embrace to jab Cruz, saying that Texans 'wonder where our junior senator is' when Trump defends Russian strongman Vladimir Putin as he seeks to undermine American elections and institutions.
Is Cruz now a 'Trump Republican?'
Cruz said he’s not worried about such labels or whether he looks like he’s suddenly changing course by aligning himself with a president he once called a “pathological liar.” He said he made a choice after the primary that what’s best for Texas is working with Trump.
Trump, at a rally in Johnson City, Tennessee, on Monday night, predicted that Cruz would win by 'a lot.'
Policy and Image
The public images of O’Rourke and Cruz are as starkly different as their policy positions. The Democrat has crafted a public persona of youth and optimism -- even though at 46 O’Rourke is just under two years younger than Cruz. The Republican has long been stuck with the label of being less than likable, even among colleagues.
Cruz says it’s not for him to say how he matches up with O’Rourke in the likability column -- 'but I can tell you I got elected because of tens of thousands grass roots activists.'
Cruz attends to those activists. After the event at the Houston restaurant, he stuck around for photos and autographs for scores of lingering well-wishers, including many young adults and teens. It was among 22 such events that he held over three weeks.
'He does have his affability issues -- and he will admit to that,' Brian Marks, a Dallas County Republican Party precinct chairman, said of Cruz. 'But if you look at how he exhibits and personifies the ethos of Texas, that is where is he gets up and steps apart.'
At Prairie View A&M, graduate student Xante Wallace, 22, who sits as an independent member on the Prairie View City Council, wonders whose Texas is being referred to, when he hears such talk?
Wallace praised O’Rourke, who would go on to speak to the students about criminal justice reform, as someone he could vote for, but said he hasn’t decided how he’ll cast his ballot.
“But to see someone speak out so passionately to the African American community, a community that feels like our voice hasn’t been heard in a while,”’ Wallace said, “it makes us perk up our ears to listen to what else he has to say.”
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