HOUSTON (CN) – Beto O’Rourke’s long, zig-zag campaign for Senate through all 254 Texas counties recalls for many Texans the populist appeal of the state’s last Democratic governor, the late Ann Richards.
O’Rourke, 46, a two-term congressman from El Paso, was given little chance of unseating first-term Senator Ted Cruz when he set out on his political odyssey in March 2017. But he’s shown himself to be an adept campaigner in a state characterized by values Republicans clutch tightly to their breasts: gun ownership, limited government, religion and patriotism.
Yet Texas values also include presence, independence, authenticity and willingness to fight for one’s beliefs, and O’Rourke has consistently appealed to that.
“If you don’t show up, and you don’t listen, and you’re not fighting for those people, then why in the world should they ever vote for you?” O’Rourke asked rhetorically in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes in March. “That’s why I’m showing up to every single part of Texas.”
Starting his campaign journey in a pickup truck, O’Rourke’s rallies grew as he rolled across the farm-to-market roads that crisscross the 268,600 square miles of Texas.
At an April rally in south Houston’s Sunnyside Park, a woman asked O’Rourke if he would ever return to the park, or just roll on through. City Councilman Dwight Boykins responded on O’Rourke’s behalf: “Oh, we adopted him.”
O’Rourke promised he’d be back. At that rally, O’Rourke answered questions ranging from foreign policy, the Robert Mueller investigation, gun control and campaign finance – and one question from an elderly woman about a damaged sidewalk near her home.
With an assist from Boykins, O’Rourke took the woman’s information for a follow-up.
An August rally in a small concert venue on Houston’s east side was packed despite the notorious summer heat and lack of air-conditioning. The crowd cheered when O’Rourke touted marijuana legalization and booed when Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, D Houston, mentioned the Trump administration’s immigrant family-separation policy.
In closing, O’Rourke asked his audience to sign up for canvassing shifts through the summer. He said that while they might get doors slammed in their faces, “eyeball to eyeball” communication could make the difference on Election Day.
In a mean political season, when personal failings have dominated headlines, O’Rourke has repeatedly addressed his own shortcomings in the past. He was arrested twice in the 1990s – in 1995 on criminal trespassing charges, and in 1998 for DUI.
“Both incidents were due to poor judgment and I have no excuse for my behavior then,” O’Rourke has said. “However, since then, I have used my opportunities to serve my community and my state. I’m grateful for the second chance and believe that we all deserve second chances.”
O’Rourke was a city councilman in El Paso from 2005 to 2011. To win his first term in Congress, he unseated incumbent Congressman Silvestre Reyes in the Democratic primary. That election, in retrospect, may have indicated some rumblings among Texas Democrats: Reyes was a former Border Patrol supervisor.
O’Rourke took a leaf from the pages of the last Democrat to hold statewide office in Texas, former Governor Ann Richards, one of whose opponents called her “an alcoholic,” with a “mental disorder.”
Richards, who died in 2006, acknowledged that she was a recovering, or sober, alcoholic.
“I told [the press] that yes, I certainly was an alcoholic and I had received treatment and was in recovery, and felt very positive about that,” she wrote in “Straight from the Heart: My Life in Politics and Other Places,” her 1989 autobiography.
She added: “What was intended as a scandalous revelation was turned to my favor by the fact that I didn’t run and hide from it.”
Richards’ former campaign manager, Mary Beth Rogers, noted the similarity of O’Rourke’s campaign style to Richards’.
“Beto is the most charismatic Democrat who’s been on the scene since Ann Richards, and that makes a huge difference,” Rogers told Salon in an interview Sunday.
It doesn’t hurt that O’Rourke has the backing of Texas icon Willie Nelson, who wrote a campaign song for him, “Vote ‘Em Out,” and sang it at a Sept. 29 rally in Austin.
Responding to O’Rourke’s platform, Cruz has consistently characterized O’Rourke as a “liberal” who does not mesh well with the Texas electorate and does not share the same values. Cruz felt similarly about O’Rourke’s campaign as a whole.
“It’s a ‘Field of Dreams’ strategy: ‘If you build it, they will come,'” Cruz told the New York Times in August. “Perhaps in Massachusetts,” he quipped.
Though O’Rourke announced a $38 million haul in the last quarter Friday, the path to victory was all but clear. O’Rourke’s shot at winning has been described as an uphill battle, and O’Rourke still trails Cruz in the polls by as much as 9 points, according to the latest data. With less than a month left until Election Day, O’Rourke has little room for error.