Around this time last year, pundits in the Lone Star State and across the country blithely dismissed then Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) chances of defeating U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Of course O’Rourke didn’t beat Cruz, but he did defy expectations by coming from behind to turn in not just the best performance Texas Democrats have experienced this past quarter-century, but also build a nationwide movement powered by his captivating presence.
Now this political “Lone Star rock star” is making his way through our Silver State as he embarks on another expectation-defying experience: running for President.
How did he get here? No really, why is he here this weekend?
In November 2016 President Donald Trump won Texas, but he did so by an underwhelming 8.98% margin and by earning a mere 52.2% of the vote. Not only did Hillary Clinton outperform past Democratic nominees in close national races, but she even bested former President Barack Obama’s 12% loss in what was otherwise a historic landslide victory nationwide. This eventually got some Democrats dreaming of a “Blue Wave” washing over the historically staunch red state, even as the aforementioned pundits continued to pour cold water on this white-hot fantasy.
Enter Beto O’Rourke: The then three-term Congressman from El Paso didn’t have a long record of legislative accomplishments to run on, but he had something seemingly more powerful, more captivating, more exciting to offer voters. He seems to have that “it factor” that helped him enter Congress by beating incumbent Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) in 2012, then catapult himself into last year’s U.S. Senate race. O’Rourke may have ultimately lost to Cruz by a tantalizingly close 2.56% margin, but that tantalizingly close finish has since catapulted O’Rourke to something even bigger.
And yet, even as national media pundits breathlessly speculate over who O’Rourke poses a greater threat towards and what kind of policy platform he actually runs on, he’s been making his Nevada debut via a series of stops at small house parties and coffee clutches where voters can assess him in a more intimate environment. Earlier today, I stopped at Pour Coffeehouse near Sunset Park to watch O’Rourke make his case with a group of Democrats.
“I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, who you love, who you pray to, or if you even pray at all. All that matters is that we’re here now.”
– Beto O’Rourke
In the past six weeks, we’ve seen some candidates pitch prospective Democratic caucus-goers with bigger, bolder, and braver progressive policy ideas that they say are critical to not just defeating President Donald Trump next year, but also undoing the intersectional inequality crises that fueled the frustration that led to Trump’s election. With Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) urging Democrats to “dream big” on economic and societal “structural changes”, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) demanding a “political revolution”, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) detailing how she’s “brave enough to take up the fights no one else is willing to take on”, how does O’Rourke stand out?
Here’s how: His language, language that feels like a bridge over the divide between the other candidates who are campaigning on leftist policies and those other candidates who are campaigning on centrist caution.
Here’s how O’Rourke opened the gathering at Pour Coffeehouse: “I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, who you love, who you pray to, or if you even pray at all. All that matters is that we’re here now.” Why does this line feel so familiar? It might help explain O’Rourke’s appeal, which seems to extend from the Obama administration veterans at Pod Save America to media mogul Oprah Winfrey and thousands more fans across the nation.
“The concentration of wealth and power and privilege is unconscionable.”
– Beto O’Rourke
As O’Rourke continued with his presentation, he stressed, “I want to listen to you, be held accountable to you.” He later proceeded to take some questions from the audience. But first, he acknowledged the intersectional inequality crises that other Democrats have made into the core theme of their respective campaigns: “The concentration of wealth and power and privilege is unconscionable.”
O’Rourke then touched upon a few specific issues, such as the minimum wage and student debt. According to O’Rourke, “I don’t just want to make sure we have a livable minimum wage at $15 an hour and good quality universal health care for all. I also want to make sure have paid family leave. I want to make sure we have affordable child care, and that students can go to college debt-free.”
Speaking of intersectionality, O’Rourke also addressed the ongoing civil rights struggles of our time as he declared, “I want to make sure institutions are not set up against you just because of the color of your skin.” He specifically called for marijuana legalization, more criminal justice reform including ending the “war on drugs”, ending the “school to prison pipeline”, and greater equity in public education beginning with universal pre-Kindergarten and continuing all the way to free community college and debt-free public university education.
“There are real consequences to our actions. It is not walls, it is not deportation, it is not infestation. We are all people of this planet.”
– Beto O’Rourke
O’Rourke later answered questions on one of the key issues that thrust him into the national spotlight. Speaking as someone who lives in a border community that’s continually misrepresented by Trump, he let loose on Trump’s ongoing attacks on immigrant communities, beginning with Trump’s attacks on refugee children.
In recalling last year’s outpouring of outrage over the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy” on refugees crossing the border, O’Rourke declared, “We take kids from their parents at the border because this president describes these people as an infestation. These are the words i expect from the Third Reich, not from our President, not about another human being.”
O’Rourke continued, “There are real consequences to our actions. It is not walls, it is not deportation, it is not infestation. We are all people of this planet.” He then promised to fight for citizenship for DREAMers, for larger comprehensive immigration reform, and against any further development of Trump’s desired border wall.
“Let’s really make sure we do not descend into the pettiness, the meanness, the name calling. Everyone is deserving of our respect. They deserve to be listened to, to be served.”
– Beto O’Rourke
On immigration reform, O’Rourke seemed to take a hard line in favor of immigrant civil rights. On other issues, however, he spoke of bipartisanship and inclusion. When asked about health care, he sidestepped demands for “Medicare for All” single-payer and instead endorsed the “Medicare for America Act” Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) have introduced to expand Medicare as a public insurance option and an automatic benefit for those without insurance. Even as O’Rourke acknowledged other nations’ success in expanding health insurance coverage to all citizens, he said his vision for health care isn’t about copying others: “I am convinced this will be uniquely American project.”
O’Rourke also said he wanted his plan to be bipartisan: “Whatever the solution is, we’ve got to make sure we listen to everyone and show up for everyone.” He later expanded upon this theme when asked for Democrats to be tougher in taking on Trump. O’Rourke countered, “Let’s really make sure we do not descend into the pettiness, the meanness, the name calling. Everyone is deserving of our respect. They deserve to be listened to, to be served.”
As O’Rourke answered a question on the weekend’s big story on the Mueller Report and the Trump administration’s relationship with the Russian government, he stressed the importance of defeating Trump next year: “We’ve got to make sure this is settled at the ballot box in November 2020.” Pointing to his own performance in last year’s U.S. Senate race against Ted Cruz, O’Rourke declared, “We can make sure we build a movement and elect the right people who can get the job done.”
As other Democratic candidates point to their policy plans in striking a big contrast to Trump, O’Rourke goes a different route in by showing off a very different style. This style of rhetoric and campaigning has already gotten him quite far, though it remains to be seen how it holds up as other Democrats preach of “revolution” and “big dreams”. In the meantime, though, he’s definitely succeeding in standing out and getting Democrats throughout Nevada to see why a former Texas Congressman has quickly become a 2020 Democratic frontrunner.