AUSTIN, Texas — On Sunday afternoon, nearly 2,000 people gathered at a public park in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood on the east side of Austin for Beto O’Rourke’s last rally in Texas’s capitol city before election day. In a testament to his campaign’s marketing success, nearly everyone wore a Beto-branded T-shirt or toted the striking black-and-white Beto lawn signs that have by now carpeted neighborhoods across the state. A few people held aloft signs declaring—imploring, really—“Beto, turn Texas blue!”
Before O’Rourke arrived, all this Beto branding was the only thing that distinguished the scene from any typical outdoor afternoon concert in East Austin. A band played alt-country on a raised stage to a predominately white, young crowd. Nearby food trucks sold tacos and gyros. There were far more dogs on leashes than kids in strollers.
Then O’Rourke arrived, the crowd went wild, and he launched into his stump speech—in Spanish. His mostly white audience of progressive Austinites loved it, even if many likely couldn’t understand what he was saying. Lucky for them, he soon switched to English and segued into his familiar rhetoric about unity: “If you’re a Republican, you’re in the right place,” “It doesn’t matter who you voted for two years ago,” “We’re all Texans,” and so on.
The use of Spanish and the soaring unity rhetoric were both part of a performance of sorts for the white progressive Democrats gathered in the park. O’Rourke was giving them what they wanted: the illusion that he has broad appeal among both Hispanic voters and moderate Republicans in Texas, and that he is above the fray of our debased national politics.
Once this illusion was conjured and dispensed with, O’Rourke pivoted to the other things white progressive Democrats in Austin wanted to hear from him: a call for universal health care, protections for abortion, amnesty for illegal immigrants, and a litany of reasons Texas isn’t as great as Republicans say it is. These he offered to mounting applause, both crowd and candidate unfazed by the glaring contradiction of an appeal to “all Texans” in one breath and a rallying cry for ultra-progressive policies in the next.
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This has more or less been the story of O’Rourke’s campaign: a thin veneer of youthful earnestness, authenticity, and come-togetherness spread over what is essentially the political platform of Bernie Sanders. His strategy for winning in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1988 has been to invoke bipartisanship while tacking to the left and riling up his progressive base, hoping that he can boost voter turnout enough to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz and prove, once and for all, that the decades-old Democratic mantra “demographics are destiny” is really true.
It’s not a hopeless strategy. Texas has always had pretty abysmal voter turnout, especially in midterm election years. As a result of near-total GOP control of the state, the Texas Democratic Party has often failed to put up statewide candidates who can inspire voters to show up at the polls.
There’s some evidence the trend might change this time around. Early voter turnout in Texas has already exceeded total turnout for 2014, with nearly 5 million ballots cast at the close of the 12-day early voting period last Friday. The largest concentration of those votes came from heavily populated and Democratic-leaning Dallas and Harris counties, which suggests O’Rourke might be headed into election day with a lead.
His campaign has been pressing the turnout issue to its limits in the final days before the election. One O’Rourke radio ad airing throughout the state reminds Texans, somewhat ominously, that your neighbors won’t be able to tell who you voted for, but they will know whether or not you voted.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests O’Rourke’s effort to win new voters might be working. At the rally on Sunday, one 32-year-old woman from Brownsville told me she voted for O’Rourke in early voting, and that this was the first time she’d ever voted in a midterm election. (It’s worth noting that midterm election years are always gubernatorial election years in Texas, which means this woman had also never voted for a governor.)
But anecdotal evidence cuts both ways. The Brownsville woman was at the rally with a friend visiting from Denver who said she’d heard about O’Rourke a while ago, loved him, and would vote for him if she could, reinforcing the perception that at least some of his popularity resides outside of Texas. Indeed, a significant portion of O’Rourke’s record-setting $70 million fundraising haul has come from blue bastions outside the state, recalling nothing so much as Wendy Davis’s overhyped bid for Texas governor in 2014, which was largely fueled by outside money. She lost to Greg Abbott by 20 points.
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If O’Rourke loses to Cruz, as all the polls suggest he will, he might have to answer some tough questions about how he spent all that cash, and why he didn’t try harder—or try at all—to peel off moderate Republicans disillusioned with Cruz and the Trump-era GOP.
It wouldn’t have been that hard to do. In states like Indiana and Tennessee, Trump blowouts in 2016 have forced Democrats to run as moderates on hot-button issues like immigration and Supreme Court nominees. To win, they need a lot of people who voted for Trump to vote for them.
But Texas only went for Trump by nine points. A Texas Democrat could in theory compromise on one or two key issues—and by compromise, I mean simply refrain from calling for publicly funded abortions, or immigration amnesty, or Medicare for all—to be competitive in 2018. O’Rourke was unwilling to do this, and instead doubled down on what can only be described as left-wing positions on everything from health care to immigration to gun control.
One can already imagine the questions Democratic donors might have for him if his strategy fails. At the SXSW festival back in March, did he have to say that he sees no reason an AR-15 should be sold to a civilian? At a Houston town hall in August, did he have to weigh in on the NFL protests? At a CNN town hall last month, did he have to reiterate that he would vote to impeach Trump?
Of course he didn’t have to. But these are the kinds of things white progressive Democrats in deep-blue districts like to hear, which tells you all you need to know about which voters O’Rourke is really targeting, and whose values he really represents.