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More Beto in the national news

From Splinter, part of the Gawker universe, a story that was front-paged on Deadspin and Jezebel:

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

O’Rourke sticks around to meet every single person in Burnet who wants to meet him. He doesn’t leave until the last hand has been shaken, the last selfie snapped. It wouldn’t be impressive—that’s what politicians are supposed to do—except that nobody in Burnet can remember the last time a Senate candidate stopped by to talk to them at all, let alone hung around until he’d met everybody personally.

People are enthusiastic about him—because he showed up, sure, and also because of how he comes off. His staff is protective of his time; even though I was in the truck with him for more than an hour, we were only slated for ten minutes of interview time, so he can make calls to the coast and stream the drive on Facebook Live. But he’s not particularly guarded in how he talks. He’s a legit cusser, and he talks about how he came to conclusions about policy—even ones that may seem contradictory to his party or his background—in a naturalistic way.

He’s big on working with veterans because of the community in El Paso around the army base in town. He’s for ending marijuana prohibition because he grew up across the border from Juarez, where cartel violence once made the city the world’s most dangerous. He’s in favor of term limits, even though they’re an idea mostly championed by conservatives, because he believes that Washington is inherently broken and corrupt—but he thinks that maybe limiting the amount of time people spend in office could fix it. He’s to the left of most of the Democratic Party, but he cherishes bipartisanship as an ideal and an end unto itself.

“When you look at the DNC or the RNC or national politics, it’s corporate rock and roll. It has very little soul to it. Maybe no soul at all.”

That all matters for O’Rourke in order to have a chance of defeating Ted Cruz. He’s running an innovative campaign, avoiding the pitfalls of doomed candidates like Wendy Davis. He hasn’t hired a single out-of-state consultant or pollster, and with the exception of the volunteer driving the car, everybody I’ve met from his campaign is either from El Paso or from the congressman’s D.C. office. But it’s still as uphill a battle as there is in politics right now.

Turning Texas blue, or at least purple, has been a dream of progressives for decades. It’s also one that seems, somehow, to always be at least four to six years away. So can a former punk rock guitar player from a part of Texas that’s never produced a statewide elected official be the one to break the streak?

It’s a good profile, and it has a few things I hadn’t seen before, so go check it out. The whole visiting-places-no-one-usually-goes-to thing has been the main news hook in stories about Beto O’Rourke. It’s sexy, it appeals to people who disdain consultant-driven campaigns, and it makes a lot of intuitive sense. Whether it works or not remains to be seen. Texas is a big state (I know, where else can you get this kind of cutting-edge analysis?), and something like 4.5 million people normally vote in off year elections. I don’t care how much time you spend driving around, it’s hard to speak in person to a significant fraction of that amount, and that’s a number that implies the usual low level of Democratic turnout. Beto needs a lot of Presidential-year Dems to vote to have a chance. The good news is that by doing what he’s doing, he’s building a narrative for those voters, one that tells them he’s something different, someone who isn’t following a playbook that hasn’t worked since Beyonce was in kindergarten. Again, it may not succeed – Vegas sure wouldn’t give good odds on it – but at least it’s not doing the same thing again and hoping for a different result.

And from Mother Jones, which devoted four stories this past week to Texas politics:

When O’Rourke announced his candidacy for what, on paper, could be the party’s tie-breaking 51st seat in the Senate, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was tempered in its enthusiasm. “Wild things can happen in 2018,” said Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the DSCC’s head, but he emphasized that the committee’s focus would be on protecting incumbent senators. “We’re realistic.” (Translation: Good luck!)

O’Rourke, well aware of the long odds he faces, reasons that if nothing Democrats have tried before has worked, he might as well attempt something completely different. He announced early on that he would not hire a pollster or contract with consultants, with the exception of Revolution Messaging, the firm that built Bernie Sanders’ online mint in 2016. (O’Rourke outraised Cruz in his first full quarter as a candidate.) He is his own press secretary. Many of O’Rourke’s early trips have focused on deep-red areas that see ambitious Democrats about as often as they see snow—when he visited George W. Bush’s hometown of Midland in March, the local newspaper wrote an editorial congratulating him “for being able to find Midland.”

His approach to campaigning is similar to his approach to his day job—he does things differently. O’Rourke moved quickly into the senior ranks of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, he tells supporters, not just because of El Paso’s high concentration of military personnel, but because his colleagues had flocked to other committees such as finance that offered more access to donors. He is a rare politician who has actually given himself a term limit in the House, and he promises to serve no more than 12 years in the Senate. He was one of the last members of Congress to endorse Clinton during the 2016 Democratic primary, but he supported Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan’s bid for leader of the Democratic caucus in November, arguing that Rep. Nancy Pelosi had reached a dead end.

What he’s offering instead of the status quo is a post-Clinton (and for that matter, post-Obama) style of politics. The party’s leading lights have run from the idea that they’re soft on drugs and immigration, but backing a border fence and a surge of Border Patrol agents didn’t fix Democratic politics—it just made things worse for Texas. So why not run on marijuana legalization and against militarization of the border? The same goes for a hawkish foreign policy. He’s proposing to turn off the spigots for overseas interventions and instead pour money into student-loan forgiveness and Medicare-for-all—a single-­payer system, he tells voters, will save them “somewhere between a lot and a shit ton.”

O’Rourke’s independent streak is a reflection of El Paso itself, which feels a world away from the rest of the state and its political power brokers. He has met Cruz just twice in the four years they’ve served together in Congress, even as Cruz and other Texas Republicans have treated O’Rourke’s beloved borderlands as a piñata.
“Ted Cruz doesn’t have an office anywhere near El Paso. John Cornyn doesn’t have an office anywhere near El Paso. Presidential candidates don’t come to El Paso. Gubernatorial candidates don’t come to El Paso. People who are focused on power don’t come to El Paso,” he said. “And I was saying that in front of the crowd in Tex­arkana, and this lady in front of the crowd said, ‘That’s how I feel!’”

“That’s how a lot of Texas feels—they feel forgotten, left behind, unrepresented, unimportant to the centers of power and the system as it currently works,” he added. “It doesn’t work for them. A lot of the state feels like El Paso feels, and a lot of the state wants their state back and wants to be recognized and represented and served. I think this campaign is all about that.”

In its simplest form, the challenges facing candidates like O’Rourke are the same ones that have confounded Democrats everywhere since 2008, only, as Texas would have it, bigger. They have to help voters navigate a system that is designed to be difficult if not discouraging. They have to battle the kind of political disengagement that sank Clinton; in Texas, “It’s not a Republican state, it’s a nonvoting state” may as well be the official Democratic Party mantra. Obama-era progressives approached the electorate with a scientific rigor, believing they could selectively target and activate different groups as needed, but huge setbacks in three of the last four national elections—including in Texas—exposed holes in that theory. By narrowing their focus in the name of precision, Democratic campaigns left millions of votes on the table, particularly in places like Texas. Awakening that sleeping giant may require connecting with communities where they are rather than expecting them to connect to the ongoing national debate. The folks at the Texas Organizing Project believe that many of those people live in Houston. O’Rourke is betting they’re in Amarillo and Texarkana, too.

That story actually covers quite a bit of ground, so reading it will not be a rerun of the first piece. There’s also a Q&A with O’Rourke here, a story about Texas’ voter ID saga here, and a brief overview of “women who are leading the resistance” here. How much does the positive press help O’Rourke? Like chemistry on a professional sports team, it’s hard to quantify. We’ll see what his third quarter finance report looks like, that’s the closest proxy for that we’re going to get.

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