Beto in beta: Is Ted Cruz's young challenger prepared for what's about to hit him?

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for Senate running against Ted Cruz in Texas, at a rally in Johnson City, Texas, on Aug. 5, 2018. (Photo: Iris Schneider/Zuma Wire)

Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke hasn’t led in a single poll since he began his bid to unseat Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, but he has become a political sensation anyway, thanks in part to his endless reality show of Facebook live streams and video clips that have quickly gone viral.

First, there was the clip of the three-term congressman from El Paso, Texas, jamming with Willie Nelson on the Fourth of July, which was viewed a half-million times. Some 200,000 and counting watched O’Rourke skateboard around a Whataburger parking lot two weeks ago, the 45-year-old lawmaker letting out a “fshhhhhhoo” as he zoomed by the iPhone held by one of his staffers. An additional 88,000 watched O’Rourke fold his clothes at a laundromat during his monthlong swing through Texas last month — a mundane glimpse at life on the campaign trail that sent at least one Facebook commenter into an open swoon over the Senate candidate’s ability to line up the seams on his shirts.

It was just a few days later that Beto-mania, as Texans have come to refer to it, hit a new peak in the form of a viral video of O’Rourke defending NFL players’ right to protest during the national anthem. The clip had already garnered millions of views — to date, it has gotten at least 30 million on Facebook and almost 19 million on Twitter — when celebrities took notice. Kevin Bacon retweeted it (prompting a confusing counterattack from Cruz involving “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”). Russell Crowe praised O’Rourke as a “dude.” LeBron James called it a “must watch.” And comedian Ellen DeGeneres invited O’Rourke to come on her talk show, where he is scheduled to appear Wednesday, generating another round of free publicity for a campaign that has not struggled to get media attention.

Heading into the final stretch before Election Day, the political momentum in the race appears to be on O’Rourke’s side, with his attention-getting social media strategy, fawning media coverage (including a recent Vanity Fair piece that speculated he could run for president in 2020, even if he loses his bid for Senate), massive fundraising and packed crowds that seem to be growing bigger by the day.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in Odessa, Texas, Aug. 25, 2018. (Photo: Jacob Ford/Odessa American via AP)

Though O’Rourke has yet to pass Cruz in the polls, he’s gotten within single digits, including in an NBC/Marist poll last month that found him just 4 points behind his opponent — a shocking development in bright red Texas, where a Democrat hasn’t won a statewide election since 1994. And the trend this year is for progressive insurgents to outperform their polling numbers when actual votes are cast.

But for all of this, there are growing concerns among some Democrats in Texas that O’Rourke might not be prepared to handle the coming onslaught of political attacks from Cruz and his well-financed allies, as Republicans battle to hang on to a seat that could prove critical for their control of the Senate next year.

Though the race has been intense for months, the GOP campaign to define and attack O’Rourke has ramped up in recent days, as Cruz and outside GOP groups launched new efforts to undermine O’Rourke’s character and stop his rise in the polls.

On Tuesday, after more than a week of attacking O’Rourke for his position on the NFL protests, Cruz published a 25-second clip of what his campaign claimed was proof that O’Rourke also supported burning the American flag. The video featured a snippet of O’Rourke’s rambling four-minute-long response to a voter who asked him about his support for NFL protests and whether he also supported flag burning during a town hall last week in El Paso.

O’Rourke told USA Today last week that he was against flag burning. But at the town hall, he appeared to dodge the question about flags. Instead, the congressman talked about his support for the NFL protests and likened them to civil-rights-era protests, as he has in the past. “There is something inherently American about that,” O’Rourke said of the NFL protests, adding that he was “grateful there are people willing to do that.”

The Cruz campaign insisted it did not twist O’Rourke’s words. The attack came hours after two outside groups launched television ads in the race attacking the Democratic Senate hopeful.

The Club for Growth, which has said it will spend upwards of $1 million to help boost Cruz, launched an ad attacking O’Rourke, who served on the El Paso City Council before he was elected to Congress, for supporting a redevelopment plan that would have used eminent domain to reshape that city’s downtown area. The ad accuses him of acting to help his father-in-law, William Sanders, a prominent El Paso developer.

Meanwhile, Texans Are [strong, patriotic…], a Virginia-based super-PAC founded by former Cruz aides, went on air with a spot attacking O’Rourke on immigration. “Lawless borders, reckless politician. That’s Beto O’Rourke,” the ad declared, according to the Texas Tribune.

The O’Rourke campaign did not respond to a request for comment about Tuesday’s volley of ads, and, echoing what has been a strategy of largely ignoring attacks by Cruz and his allies, there was no formal response by the campaign or by the candidate on social media. O’Rourke told Yahoo News earlier this summer that he wanted to focus on running a “positive campaign” instead of getting caught up in a back-and-forth with Cruz, whom he rarely mentions on the campaign trail unless a voter brings him up. “People are sick of politics as usual,” he said.

But that strategy has some fellow Democrats fretting — especially against the backdrop of recent polls that show that more than a third of Texas voters still say they don’t know much about O’Rourke, in spite of the massive publicity his campaign had been getting from the media and on social networks.

O’Rourke greets supporters after a town hall meeting in Horseshoe Bay, Texas, Aug. 16. 2018. (Photo: Chris Covatta/Getty Images)

“My worry is that Cruz and his buddies are going to define Beto before he can really define himself,” said one prominent Texas Democratic strategist, who declined to be named in order to speak more freely about the O’Rourke campaign.

Although O’Rourke has out-raised Cruz over the last year and a half, some Democrats have expressed concern about O’Rourke’s slim political operation heading into the final two months of the campaign. The Democratic congressman has operated largely as his own strategist and has resisted spending money on a traditional campaign apparatus — like a rapid-response team that could go toe-to-toe with Cruz and outside GOP groups who are expected to spend millions between now and Election Day.

Instead, O’Rourke said he plans to invest most of his money in a field operation — one targeted not just at urban areas but also rural counties where Democrats typically don’t compete. But those efforts, too, have been slowly coming together against the backdrop of a heavily organized GOP turnout effort led by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s reelection campaign, which has been working on behalf of all Republicans on the ballot this year to keep the state red.

The Senate race has already been heated for months, with Cruz going after O’Rourke for his liberal approach to immigration (including his opposition to a border wall). But the Republican senator and his allies have upped the ante in recent days, raising questions about O’Rourke’s character. On Monday, Cruz released a video attacking O’Rourke for using vulgarities in public. (“Keep the kids at home,” a narrator warns.) Last week, the Texas Republican Party launched into a series of attacks on O’Rourke, tweeting out photos of the lawmaker from his days in a punk band and a mug shot from his 1998 arrest for driving while intoxicated.

O’Rourke has openly spoken about his DWI arrest and another in 1995 when he was jailed for burglary after he said he jumped a fence with friends at the University of Texas at El Paso. Although he points out that he was not convicted in either case, O’Rourke has described both as “mistakes” and examples of “poor judgment” and “youthful indiscretions.” (He had just turned 26 in 1998.) And he has used both to argue for criminal justice reform, saying he was given the chance to move beyond his mistakes whereas other Texans, “particularly those who don’t look like me or have access to the same opportunities that I did,” have not.

But last week, the Houston Chronicle obtained a police report that suggested O’Rourke’s DWI arrest was more serious than previously suggested. According to the report, O’Rourke lost control of his car and hit a truck, sending his vehicle across the center median into oncoming traffic. A witness told police that O’Rourke had tried to drive away from the scene. In a statement to the Chronicle, O’Rourke again called the incident a “serious mistake for which there is no excuse.” He did not address the allegation that he had tried to leave the scene.

O’Rourke meets with campaign volunteers Maegan Ramirez, left, and Terri Ramirez in 2013 in his office on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

It was not the first time O’Rourke’s arrests have been used against him. The subject came up in both his 2005 race for City Council and his 2012 primary campaign against Rep. Silvestre Reyes, an influential Mexican-American who had represented the El Paso area for more than a decade. O’Rourke defied his party to challenge Reyes, who had won prominent endorsements from party leaders, including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and the race turned ugly in the final weeks.

Although O’Rourke attacked Reyes for using campaign funds to pay family members, Reyes ran an ad calling attention to O’Rourke’s arrest record and a 2011 video that showed him falling down inside an El Paso bar and being spanked by an unidentified woman. The spot, titled “Character Counts,” claimed, without proof, that O’Rourke was publicly drunk at the bar.

In a May 2012 interview with the El Paso Times, O’Rourke confirmed it was him in the video, but insisted he was not intoxicated. “I was celebrating with friends on the day after my City Council term had ended. I was dancing, the floor was wet, I slipped and fell,” he told the paper at the time.

O’Rourke narrowly defeated Reyes, and although the former congressman is still active in politics — he was involved in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in Texas and last year publicly spoke out against President Trump’s immigration policies — he has notably stayed silent on O’Rourke’s Senate campaign. He did not respond to a request for comment, but a former aide to the Reyes campaign, who declined to be named, said the O’Rourke attack ads had backfired.

“It’s not true of everyone, but I think many Texans are a lot more forgiving of this stuff than you would think … especially the kind of voters that Beto needs,” the former Reyes aide said.

Although some Democrats fret about O’Rourke’s lack of campaign infrastructure, others suggest that given his success so far in defying the odds, maybe he doesn’t need much of one. After all, very few Republicans or Democrats took O’Rourke seriously when he entered the race last year. Outside of El Paso, few people knew who he was, even members of his own party. As one Democratic strategist put it, O’Rourke is where he is because he hasn’t run a typical campaign.

“There are some of us in the profession of political consulting and campaigns in Texas that do have some concerns,” said Colin Strother, a Democratic consultant in Austin.

“But the reality is, none of us know how to win a statewide campaign, and we all need to shut up and not get between something that’s working and November. And up until now, what Beto has been doing has been just fine. … Let him go out there and cuss and ride a skateboard and eat Whataburger and broadcast it on social. What he’s doing, it’s working.”

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