EL PASO — One morning during a smelly, crowded subway ride from Brooklyn to the Bronx, a young punk rocker with a degree in English literature was on his daily commute, pressed against the tiny window when the realization hit.
“I realized I wasn’t a New Yorker. I’m a Texan, an El Pasoan,” recalled Beto O’Rourke, an acknowledgment that comes with El Paso’s underdog spirit, something he says he thrives on. “I think everyone counts El Paso out, and that’s a great thing. I love it because they don’t see us coming.”
O’Rourke, now officially the Democratic nominee for U.S. senator, will need every bit of that come-from-behind character to even have a shot against incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
Despite his visiting 226 of Texas’ 254 counties, receiving glowing national coverage and besting Cruz in fundraising three of the last four months, Tuesday’s Texas primary underscored the daunting task that lies ahead for O’Rourke. And it also exposed weaknesses with Hispanic voters.
While he easily won his party’s primary with nearly 62 percent of the Democratic vote and his mostly Hispanic El Paso district by more than 90 percent, O’Rourke struggled in certain regions, particularly the Rio Grande Valley. He lost counties such as Starr, Webb and Zapata to little-known candidate Sama Hernandez, a Houston-based political activist.
Overall, Republican voters outnumbered Democrats, giving Cruz 1.3 million votes, compared to the 641,000 O’Rourke received. A Democrat has not won a statewide office in Texas since 1994.
“O’Rourke is now in a race to define himself to Texas voters before Ted Cruz does it for him,” said former El Paso Times Editor Bob Moore, adding that O’Rourke will need to swarm Texas and its 20 media markets, with upward of $20 million and little time. “Cruz already is casting O’Rourke as a gun-grabbing, open-borders advocate.”
Tuesday’s primary, O’Rourke said, provided a snapshot of where his campaign stands 10 months after he announced his candidacy. While he applauds record turnout and enthusiasm for both parties, O’Rourke, fluent in Spanish, acknowledged that his campaign has much work to do in voter outreach, including Spanish-language campaign events and media hits in general.
Up to now, O’Rourke said, the campaign, as planned, has been largely focused on door-to-door, social media strategy. That will continue, he said, adding that he’s preparing to launch media ads to increase wider name recognition and far greater appeal. O’Rourke’s chances in November are based largely on voter mobilization, especially among Hispanic voters, who must turn out in record numbers for him to have a chance.
“One of the things that’s really clear is a lot of people don’t know who I am and don’t know about our campaign and that’s on us,” he said. “We’re going back to the Valley, Edinburg, Brownsville, Weslaco, Mission, Laredo; we need to keep going back to listen and meet with everyone, all over Texas for that matter.”
Efforts to reach Cruz’s campaign about his Hispanic outreach were unsuccessful.
Texas’ population is about 40 percent Hispanic and the state shares about half of the entire 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, providing an opportunity for candidates to capitalize on voters eager for an antidote to President Donald Trump and Republicans who portray the region as a dangerous no-man’s land.
One possibility is a bus tour along the border with notable El Pasoans, among them Veronica Escobar, El Paso’s former county judge and O’Rourke’s likely Democrat successor in the U.S. House. On Tuesday, Escobar made history, handily winning her party’s nomination in a traditional blue county and becoming one of two Hispanic females from Texas to be likely headed to Congress.
“I have spoken with Beto and his staff members to think through ways we can help,” Escobar said. “One idea is to take a bus and block-walk the entire border and Valley, to get to people face-to-face, door-to-door, and appeal to border voters.”
O’Rourke’s campaign, she said, represents an opportunity for border residents to “define and take back our narrative as border residents.” And, “Beto, his El Paso roots, his love for this community, is key,” Escobar said.
El Paso roots
In nativist times, O’Rourke believes El Paso’s own experience of coexistence — home to a military base and federal agencies as well as thriving African-American, growing Asian-American and Middle Eastern communities — represents hope, not fear.
El Paso, population 700,000, counters the national narrative that trade with Mexico represents more of a threat than opportunity and the anti-immigrant views encapsulated in the need for a “big, beautiful wall” dividing Mexico and the U.S. as Trump has promised. About one-quarter of O’Rourke’s constituents are foreign-born, mostly from Mexico.
“El Paso epitomizes this anxiety that this country is becoming more brown, more immigrant,” he said. “The fear of the rest of the world that we would literally wall it off. El Paso is the best response to all of that.”
Over the years, opponents have struggled to define O’Rourke, usually by pouncing on past personal mistakes, positions on controversial issues, and yes, mocking his nickname.
Cruz immediately used a song styled after Alabama’s “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas” that included teasing O’Rourke’s nickname, referring to the Democrat by his birth name, Robert. The move quickly drew admonition from many who pointed out that Cruz’s name is Rafael Eduardo Cruz.
“That sounded so familiar,” O’Rourke said. “If that’s all you got, that’s OK, but I’m focused on issues for all Texans.”
In a race against O’Rourke, longtime incumbent Silvestre Reyes, a powerful Democratic congressman and Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee, similarly poked fun at his opponent’s nickname. He also ridiculed O’Rourke’s stance on legalization as the drug war raged across the border in Ciudad Juarez.
In 2011, O’Rourke had co-authored a book, Dealing Death and Drugs, which argues in favor of marijuana legalization. The issue was easy bait for Reyes, who also raised questions about O’Rourke’s past record, including an arrest in the 1990s on burglary and drunken-driving charges.
O’Rourke has said the arrest happened after he tripped an alarm while jumping a fence at the University of Texas at El Paso. Prosecutors declined the case. He received deferred adjudication 15 years ago on the drunken-driving arrest and was not convicted.
“There is no excuse and there’s nothing I can say, other than that was very stupid of me and I showed really poor judgment, bad judgment,” he said. “It was something that I did, and I hope in those 20 years I have been able to contribute to this community. But there is just no excusing for that.”
O’Rourke spoke openly of each of Reyes’ criticisms, calmly explaining how U.S. demand was also responsible for the drug mayhem in Mexico. He ignited a conversation and easily defeated Reyes.
“Beto is the most courageous, formidable politician that I have seen in my life,” said former El Paso Mayor Ray Caballero. “In calling for legalization, I thought he said the right thing, but I also thought he had just committed political suicide. Reyes jumped all over it.
“But Beto is the kind of guy who doesn’t have the finger in the air, or waits to see where the public is. He’s thoughtful and has good political instincts.”
O’Rourke was born in prestige, lived a charmed life, raised in an upper-class lifestyle by people accustomed to power — a sharp contrast to that of a mostly Mexican-American, hardscrabble city where workers still barely make ends meet.
Like many young, talented El Pasoans, O’Rourke left a city that once felt stagnant, sold low wages as its asset and saw itself as inferior, its bilingualism, biculturalism a hindrance. Some eventually returned. Among them, O’Rourke, who missed the sun-baked desert landscape, the mountains, the proximity to Mexico, family — the kind of affection that only distance breeds.
In the backdrop of the city’s multicultural community, his father, Pat O’Rourke, a consummate politician, once explained why he nicknamed his son Beto: Nicknames are common in Mexico and along the border, and if he ever ran for office in El Paso, the odds of being elected in this mostly Mexican-American city were far greater with a name like Beto than Robert Francis O’Rourke. It was also a way to distinguish him from his maternal grandfather, Robert Williams.
Pat O’Rourke was killed in 2001, struck by a vehicle as he rode his bike.
“I believe it, I believe it,” Beto O’Rourke said when told of his father’s words. “He was farsighted in that way. … He loved this community and imparted his love of this community to me. It’s helped shape who I am today.”