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Beto tries to change political game

Beto O'Rourke.jpg

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke has done what no El Paso politician has ever done before. He's being taken seriously as a statewide candidate in Texas as he runs for the U.S. Senate. He’s also getting a lot of media attention in the process.

I caught up with the Democratic congressman in early February as he got a haircut at Chema's Barbershop near downtown El Paso. It was 10 months after he announced he was giving up his safe local House seat to take on Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

I asked O’Rourke how the journey’s been so far. "It's been the most amazing thing that I've had the opportunity to be a part of outside of family," he told me.

O'Rourke began his race with some big disadvantages: No Democrat has won a statewide office in Texas since 1994. He refuses to accept big campaign contributions from political action committees.

In a state like Texas, with 28 million people, that so-called PAC money has been a key ingredient in winning statewide races. But O'Rourke has a different strategy. He plans to visit every Texas county during his campaign, and has already been to more than 220 of the state's 254 counties.

O’Rourke said, "They want to know that someone is listening to them and paying attention to them and not focused on corporations or PACs or special interests." He also hasn't hired outside political consultants or pollsters.

But his strategy has worked before. In 2012, O'Rourke mostly went door to door and relied on social media to get his message out, when he defeated powerful eight-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes of El Paso, who had a lot more campaign cash.

O’Rourke’s been greeted by large, enthusiastic crowds as he's campaigned across Texas. "People won't know us,” he said, “until we show up in their community, listen to them and hold these town halls."

In the first six weeks of this year, O'Rourke's Senate campaign raised $2.3 million, nearly three times as much money as the Cruz campaign, without taking any political action committee money.

I asked Cruz about that, when he visited El Paso to address the local Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner. "You're right. my opponent is raising a ton of money,” Cruz told me. “Now, it doesn't hurt that (Sen.) Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) came down to Texas and brought his liberal buddies with him and they would love to see the state of Texas have an anti-gun, big government, pro-amnesty, liberal Democrat represented. Now, I don't think that's the values of most Texans.”

O'Rourke has also been getting a lot of media attention. Texas Monthly put out dueling covers for its January issue, one featuring O'Rourke, the other Cruz. In addition, The New York Times recently profiled O'Rourke's unconventional campaign.

I traveled to Dallas in January, when O’Rourke was scheduled to make a series of campaign appearances. Unfortunately, my timing was bad because the congressman got stuck in Washington, D.C., dealing with the partial government shutdown that weekend.

But I went to the Women's March in downtown Dallas to try and gauge O'Rourke’s potential support in the state’s largest metropolitan area. I noticed Beto supporters scattered throughout the crowd of thousands, but not a large number. Then at the park where the march ended, while other candidates had set up tables to hand out campaign literature, O'Rourke's campaign was missing. One of the marchers, Roger Latham of Dallas, said, “He needs to get more out there, but we know who he is because we pay attention." But when I asked if he supported O’Rourke, Latham was emphatic, "Oh, yes! Yes, for sure."

O’Rourke later told me, "The organizers in North Texas have done this all on their own. We haven't paid them. We haven't told them what to do."

When I noted his different approach to this senate campaign, O'Rourke agreed. "Yeah, I mean a lot of this campaign is being run out of a truck,” he said, “on the road going town to town, county to county. A lot of it's being delivered through Facebook Live, to hundreds of thousands of people who are tuning in as I get a haircut, or at a town hall." He even posted our barbershop interview on Facebook Live.

Still, the drama that's now unfolding on the political stage feels familiar: early enthusiasm for a Texas Democrat who ends up losing in November. Texas' other Republican senator, John Cornyn, said O'Rourke's on a “suicide mission if he thinks he can beat Cruz.”

But Dr. Jose Villalobos, a UTEP political science professor, said O'Rourke can find inspiration from none other than President Donald Trump. “First of all, going up against 16 Republicans in a primary, 16 more seasoned politicians and beating all of them,” Villalobos told me, “and then, going up against the Clinton machine in the main election and having most forecasts say, 'Oh, he's not going to get all the way there,' and he proved a lot of the predictions wrong."

Villalobos also pointed out that O'Rourke has recent presidential history on his side, because the president's party usually loses seats in Congress during their first mid-term election in office. He said, “So if there's ever sort of a timing when you could come in as a Democrat, with a Republican president and a Republican House and Senate, this is the time to try to make that challenge."

“This is on us,” O’Rourke said, “we've got to win this election." I asked, “What if you don't?" He responded, "I can't even go there in my head. I'm so focused on this, doing everything that's necessary to win."

But Cruz believes there's a Texas-size gulf between O'Rourke's ambition and what’s likely to happen come November. "I fully expect Chuck Schumer and the far left to do everything they can to agitate the extreme left.” Cruz said. “But at the end of the day, we're going to be just fine in Texas, so long as conservatives show up to vote."

While they're both expected to easily win Texas’ March 6 primary election, O'Rourke and Cruz each face opponents. In the Democratic race for U.S. Senate, O'Rourke is taking on Sema Hernandez and Edward Kimbrough.

On the Republican side of the ballot, Cruz faces four opponents: Mary Miller, Stefano de Stefano, Geraldine Sam and Bruce Jacobson Jr.

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