Beto O’Rourke: The great Democratic hope in the race for Texas

The charismatic politician is closing in on Governor Gregg Abbott, who is seeking a third term in a state that has been Republican for almost 30 years

Luis Pablo Beauregard
Beto O'Rourke
Beto O'Rourke, candidate to Texas governor, at a rally in Midland on July 20.Eli Hartman (AP)

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke says that punk concerts were always magical for him. It was liberating for an out-of-place kid in high school to be with other people who didn’t feel like they should follow trends, wrote the Texan politician in his foreword to ELPASO, a story by Benjamín Villegas about the musical movement in this border town in the 1980s and 1990s.

O’Rourke, who is running for governor of Texas in the midterm elections next November, played guitar in various bands during his younger years. One of these was called Foss, where he met fellow musician Cedric Bixler-Zavala. Years later, Bixler-Zavala would make his mark on indie-rock with the influential band At the Drive-In, O’Rourke, the son of a wealthy family, unsuccessfully ran for the presidency of the United States in 2020.

There’s still something punk about one of the country’s most recognizable Democrats. He has closed the gap in the electoral race and is six points behind Governor Greg Abbott, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. Texas hasn’t had a Democratic governor in nearly three decades, and the impression is that if anyone can pull it off, it’s the 49-year-old rebel O’Rourke.

One of his campaign highlights came in May, when he interrupted a press conference Abbott was giving in Uvalde just hours after an 18-year-old killed 19 children and two teachers at a school with an assault rifle. “This is your fault, this is the time to stop the next slaughter and you’re doing nothing,” said O’Rourke, a former congressman who was in Washington for six years and is in favor of gun control. In his brief presidential bid in 2020, he suggested the government should ban assault rifles and take them off the streets. His words in Uvalde provoked anger among Republican leaders, who last year eliminated the need to have a license to carry a weapon. “You’re a sick son of a bitch,” the conservative mayor of a city stained by tragedy told him.

“That press conference was a cathartic moment,” says César Martínez, an advertising, media and political marketing consultant. “Time has proven him right, because now the Republican idea that there is nothing better against a bad guy with a gun than a good guy with a gun has been dismantled. There were dozens and dozens of good guys there who couldn’t beat the shooter,” says Martinez, who campaigned for Rick Perry and George W. Bush in Texas.

Martinez believes that Abbott’s star has begun to wane. The Republican has been in office for seven years and is seeking a third term, but his approval ratings have declined from 56% in April 2020 to 43% last June. The idea of renewal is beginning to weigh on the minds of voters in a state of 30 million residents whose electoral dynamics have changed significantly. Big cities like Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin and El Paso, are now Democratic strongholds. Rural Texas remains deeply conservative.

Beto O'Rourke rebukes Governor Abbott in Uvalde on May 25.
Beto O'Rourke rebukes Governor Abbott in Uvalde on May 25.Jordan Vonderhaar (AFP)

O’Rourke seems called upon to capitalize on the discontent. And not only because of the widespread unease caused by the repeal of abortion, whose prohibition in Texas was promoted by Abbott and his attorney general long before the Supreme Court’s decision. Also because of a local issue with a huge impact: failures in the electrical grid that left four million homes without power in February 2021 and caused 246 deaths during the worst winter storm in the history of the state. O’Rourke has admitted that this is what convinced him to enter the race after two failed attempts: one when he tried to take the seat in the Senate from the controversial Ted Cruz in 2019, an election he lost by 215,000 votes (2.6%), and again when he fought in the primaries for the presidential race.

“The issue of the electricity grid brings together several problems in one: the corruption of state politics and Republican leaders, who have received millions of dollars in donations from energy and oil companies, regulating the system and benefiting from a model that allows raising prices if demand rises, creating an incentive to reduce supply,” explains Mike Siegel, a former Democratic candidate for Congress in 2020 and political director of Ground Game, an organization that champions progressive causes, such as the legalization of marijuana.

O’Rourke’s life has been marked by his return home. The son of a Democratic county judge who later switched sides and an antiques store owner, Robert Francis O’Rourke first left El Paso to attend an all-boys boarding school in Virginia, near Washington. The young man then made the leap to Columbia University in New York, where he spent four years holding various jobs and ended up suffering from depression. He worked taking care of children, in an art moving company and on a website for his uncle, Brooks Williams, one of his great influences for his bohemian life and for his taste in music. One day, his mother received a call. “I need to get out of here,” O’Rourke, then 23, confessed. His family lent him money and he set up a digital design agency at home.

“I thought I would never go back,” he told the AP agency in 2019. Upon his return, in 1998, he found “a reason for being” that he did not have back East. He also found love on a blind date. Amy Sanders had recently arrived in the city, and O’Rourke took her to Juárez, on the Mexican side, to see the half of El Paso hidden behind the border wall. Sanders’ father, William, is a businessman and one of the richest men in the region thanks to the real estate company he founded, Jones Lang La Salle. His father-in-law has been instrumental in attracting donations to his political campaigns, which began in 2005, when he entered the State Council.

Beto O'Rourke and Joe Biden at a Whataburger after O'Rourke endorsed Biden's campaign for president in Dallas
Beto O'Rourke and Joe Biden at a Whataburger after O'Rourke endorsed Biden's campaign for president in DallasELIZABETH FRANTZ (Reuters)

Money is vital to winning Texas, one of the jewels on the US electoral board. In four months, O’Rourke has raised $27.6 million (about €26.9 million), a record. The Democrat has surpassed his rival in donations received, although the claims to have more money in the coffers, as much as $45.7 million, according to the most recent report presented at the local ethics commission.

The funds, Siegel explains, are needed to build voting infrastructure in Democratic cities. "If we increase participation in five or six cities by 7%, we can get about 30,000 more votes in each city, which could give us a good chance of Beto winning," he says. The betomania experienced during his Senate campaign led 200,000 people to join the Democratic Party.

The key will be in Latino voters, a population that represents 40% of Texas. “Especially in the area of the Rio Grande Valley. Much of that vote in the last presidential election went to Donald Trump, so Beto, who speaks very good Spanish, should go campaign there,” says consultant César Martínez, who believes that the debates will be the great moment for O’Rourke to leapfrog over his rival.

Although the charismatic politician is making Democrats dream of caressing the impossible, Siegel prefers to be cautious. He says experts in Washington estimate Texas won’t change course until 2026 or later, in part because Republican control has allowed them to shift electoral districts and make it harder for minorities to vote. “The Republican party has invested in Texas for 40 years and the Democrats have not. If you look at what has happened in Georgia and Arizona (states that recently changed from Republican red to Democratic blue), they are 15-year processes. When has the clock started ticking for us? Probably in Beto’s campaign for the Senate in 2018. From that point of view, it is not realistic to expect a victory before 2027.

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