by Clare Malone, FiveThirtyEight
The Texas congressman challenging Ted Cruz for his Senate seat is taking full advantage of his chance to make a first impression.
The Beto O’Rourke brand is a strong one right now.
Until a few months ago, no one outside of Texas really knew much about the Democratic congressman from El Paso. But recently his answer to a question about whether NFL players should kneel during the national anthem went viral. He’s gone on Ellen and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and has been compared to a Kennedy an embarrassingnumberoftimes in profiles touting his Senate bid against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz in Texas. He goes on early-morning running town halls and wants you to know he doesn’t take any money from PACs. He trumpets the fact that he’s visited all 254 counties in Texas — he’s not the kind of Democrat who will write off folks who live in the country.
A candidate can only make one first impression, and we’re in the midst of that self-mythologizing, magical moment for O’Rourke. GOP attacks against him for his 1998 DWI arrest, his tendency to swear and his youthful embrace of the punk aesthetic have backfired among a younger, online set. Twitter users cooed that O’Rourke looked hot in his mugshot and that the floral dress he was ironically(?) rocking in a band photo suited him. In a defense of O’Rourke, Colbert pointed out that during Cruz’s teenage years, the senator once played Adam in a mimed version of the biblical creation story. It feels a little like the high school cool kid is running against the Latin Club’s uber nerd for U.S. Senate in Texas.
O’Rourke’s clever image-honing has brought him within striking distance of Cruz — FiveThirtyEight gives O’Rourke about a 1-in-3 chance of winning,1 roughly the same chance Democrats have of taking the Senate as a whole. If O’Rourke pulls it off, how he sells himself — an empath who can speak to independents and minority communities alike with the wokeness of a man half his age — will have been a key factor. O’Rourke’s star is rising nationally in part because the party’s base sees a best version of themselves in him, someone able to communicate their increasingly progressive values to Americans outside the liberal milieu. Too bad for them he’ll probably lose.
O’Rourke has an opportunity to introduce himself as a vigorous, toothy new face. Cruz, meanwhile, is still the guy about whom a Republican colleague once said, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.” Pretty much everyone in Texas knows who Cruz is, and he isn’t particularly beloved. A recent Emerson College poll found that 44 percent of Texas voters had an unfavorable opinion of him. (This is in a state where he got 57 percent of the vote in 2012.) Meanwhile, the same poll found that only 25 percent felt the same about O’Rourke, while 11 percent of people had never heard of him and 27 percent were neutral (only 18 percent were neutral on Cruz).
O’Rourke is a pretty good candidate in a race that was supposed to be a slam dunk for Republicans. He’s raised more than any other Democratic candidate for Senate this cycle — $23 million — and has packaged his progressive identity into something that (he hopes) is accepted just as readily by the Democratic base as it is by independent voters who still haven’t made up their minds. GOP attack ads have tried to paint the Democrat as outside the mainstream, despite the fact that the 2018 iteration of O’Rourke is more suburban dad than anything else, the type whose most countercultural tendency is probably owning a monthly pass to a rock-climbing gym.
Recent surveys seem to indicate that independents will help determine the close race. A Dixie Strategies poll from early September showed Cruz and O’Rourke nearly tied among independents, with 20 percent of them yet to make up their minds. That poll and others have showed Cruz struggling with independent voters (only 2 percent didn’t have an opinion of him), while O’Rourke’s numbers with independents showed there’s room for him to make a good impression (a full 23 percent were undecided on how they felt about him). A Rasmussen/Pulse Opinion Research poll from early September showed O’Rourke winning independents 46 percent to Cruz’s 39 percent, and even found that 15 percent of Republicans said they’d vote for O’Rourke. A more recent poll that showed Cruz leading overall also showed O’Rourke ahead among independents.
O’Rourke is going out of his way not to bust up his hopes with Texas’s independent voters, who, in that red state, might tend toward the more conservative end of the political spectrum (52 percent of the state’s independent voters chose Trump in the 2016 election). His rhetoric of togetherness seems clearly aimed at this demographic. “You cannot be too much of a Republican, you can’t be too blue of a Democrat, too much of an independent. You can’t be in prison for too many years, you can’t be too undocumented to be worth fighting for. It is for everyone,” O’Rourke said of his campaign in a speech this summer. His earnest varnish is polished to its highest shine. When baited with questions that could easily lead to Trump-bashing, O’Rourke instead talks about the importance of having “unguarded moments with one another.” The across-the-aisle-guy label is important to his brand — O’Rourke had his first viral moment back in 2017 when he took a cross-country road trip with another Texas congressman, a Republican.
The trick with branding, of course, is that it changes with the times. O’Rourke hasn’t always been allergic to PAC money. He won his first congressional election by defeating an eight-term Democratic incumbent. In that campaign, O’Rourke used money from a super PAC bent on prying longtime representatives from their seats. O’Rourke’s father-in-law, a wealthy real estate developer, gave the PAC $18,750 after maxing out his personal donation to the campaign.
One of O’Rourke’s political assets is his ability to trumpet progressive ideas and a bipartisan spirit at a time when political tribalism and racial tensions are rife. That is in part because he is white and America — and the Democratic Party — seems to have a soft spot for young white men running for office. O’Rourke looks like generations of white male politicians, but he’s advocating for societal changes meant to benefit minorities and disenfranchised immigrants. He’s called for single-payer health care and the expansion of Medicaid, he wrote a book on the drug war, he has made legalizing marijuana a campaign issue, and he wants citizenship for immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.
O’Rourke’s embrace of Latino culture has stood out during the campaign. Much has been made of that fact that he goes by his childhood nickname, Beto, which is a Spanish diminutive for “Roberto.” Robert Francis O’Rourke is Irish-American, but he grew up in the heavily Latino border town of El Paso and became Beto early on. Cruz (full name Rafael Edward Cruz) has tried to use O’Rourke’s nickname against the congressman as a way to prove he’s pandering to the state’s skyrocketing Latino population. Texas is 39 percent Latino and a harbinger of America’s demographic future. Population projections estimate that the state’s Latino population could surpass the state’s white population as early as 2020 or 2022, while it’s estimated that the U.S. as a whole will become majority-minority by 2045.
Note, though, what O’Rourke’s nickname says about the ways that assimilation has changed in America. Joe Kennedy made sure that his children went to boarding school and college among America’s high WASP set so they’d be taken seriously. It worked — one became president. Beto is a nickname he comes by honestly, but it’s also a boon for O’Rourke to be comfortable with a community whose political clout will only increase in Texas.
The forecasted demographic change portends political shifts, which is why Democrats have long dreamt of turning Texas blue. But the state’s Democrats remain at a political disadvantage if they rely solely on the Latino vote as their near-term path to change. According to 2016 numbers from Pew, 79 percent of the state’s white population is eligible to vote, but only 46 percent of the Latino population is, and in the 2016 election, 69 percent of the Texas’s white voters cast a ballot for President Trump. And there are still a decent number of Latinos who lean Republican in the state — 34 percent voted for Trump in 2016, while 44 percent voted for Republican Governor Greg Abbott in 2014.
But if O’Rourke wants to win this year, he’s got to woo those in the state who are likely to vote and who say they haven’t made up their minds. Even with increased turnout from an enthusiastic Democratic base, he’ll probably need an extra push to get over the hump. That means the popularity contest continues for the next two months. O’Rourke seems ready for the grip-and-grin grind.
Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight. @ClareMalone