Beto O'Rourke's Long, Hot Road to the Texas Primary

We report from the 2020 Democratic campaign trail on whether all the blue, sweat, and beers are worth it

Beto O’Rourke exerts himself greeting supporters in Katy; Fort Bend County flipped blue in 2018, with him atop the ticket, for the first time since the 1970s. (Photo by Mike Clark-Madison)

They're out early, long before lunchtime, in the off-and-on rain, staking out corners and putting out their signs before the police vans and the big gravel trucks from the highway department block the streets around Texas Southern University and seal off Debate Land, an alien habitat filled with exotic species of politico and media star who thrive in this hermetic atmosphere. They want you to honk if you love Beto.

The O'Rourke volunteers are not alone as they secure the perimeter and prep their "visibility" for the Sept. 12 Democratic debate. Ambassadors from Castro Country happily dodge the rain at a bus shelter, a few older Biden fans pop up, and Klobuchar's team methodically puts up green "Amy for America" signs at precise intervals along the sidewalks. Others also seek attention, like veritable goon Randall Terry and his anti-abortion bus, covered in shrieking slogans and floating fetuses, parked in front of some unfortunate neighbor's house. He's got live music: teenage boys on bass and drums, MAGA hats askew. There are fierce defenders of charter schools (Houston has many) and seekers of reparations and legal-dope enthusiasts and T-shirt sellers eager to turn Texas blue. There is beer. The actual debate is still eight hours away.

Now, the erratic path of the comet that is Beto 2020 is swooping closer to earth and to Texas, and his supporters are ready.

Team Beto expects to outnumber them all; even in these early moments of Debate Game Day, the familiar black-and-white Whataburger-Spicy-Ketchup Beto visuals are everywhere in sight for blocks and blocks. The folks with the signs have never really stopped stumping for their guy since last November, when he came so close to being a senator that a second Senate race seemed to him anticlimactic. Now, the erratic path of the comet that is Beto 2020 is swooping closer to earth and to Texas, and they are ready. "Those were all volunteers, and they really organized that themselves," the O'Rourke campaign told us after the event. In Iowa, paid organizers spend days building visibility squads for the big cattle calls; in Texas, they just showed up. "That energy is just going to keep building."

For the evening, and for the international press corps stuffed into a TSU gym – the "media center and spin room" – with lukewarm fajitas and ABC News swag and no beer and multiple layers of well-armed security, this on-the-ground-in-Texas stuff feels very far away, just as Beto O'Rourke is still very far away from being president, and far from center stage as the debate transpires 1,000 feet away in a different, nicer TSU gym. Julián Castro is even more distant from those destinations, despite how good he looks and has always looked on paper, and both Texans need to do Something Big on that stage to keep themselves in the 2020 conversation that's being managed by the people in this room. Us ink-stained wretches have numbered spots at closely packed tables on one side of the gym; the famous TV people are perched in their tiny little sets flanking the blue carpet of the "spin room" (not really a room, just a zone) on the other side. We're the real audience for the candidates tonight, and this crowd is ready for a rumble.

You may have heard what happened next. Castro – who in the first debate gained altitude by whacking on O'Rourke – went after Joe Biden, in ways many in the spin room found distasteful. Beto, despite being openly goaded to drop an F-bomb, kept his cool and had a good night, his wings lifted by the praise of the center-stage candidates for his commitment to El Paso in its time of need after the massacre. The kid holding the O'Rourke locator sign in the spin room thought he was cool and liked his stance on guns. (You may know this, but the scrum in the room is very dense, and everybody is shorter in real life than they are on television, so the candidates are followed around by people holding locator signs above their heads. The middle and high schoolers doing the honors in Houston were friends and family of various TSU leaders.)

Everybody but Biden made their way over to the media center eventually, as the networks quickly swapped candidates with each other and hair-and-makeup techs kept everyone looking as fresh as possible in close quarters under the lights at the tail end of a warm Houston evening. As the hosts teased headlines out of what proved to not be a very newsy debate, they repeatedly gave Beto and the others a chance to distance themselves from Castro's rudeness, which O'Rourke and others politely took. Castro showed up late, with his now-bearded-so-you-can-tell-them-apart brother Joaquin as spin wingman – the same role our own Mayor Steve Adler performed for Pete Buttigieg – and defended himself pretty well, but the storyline of the evening has already been set, and people are tired and ready to go home.

Or at least to the afterparty, thrown by the Texas Democratic Party out in the Heights, where Castro and Cory Booker make the biggest splash. Beto goes to his own team's watch party at a different bar. "I know many of you," he tells the cheering crowd before giving a shout-out to the other randoms who are just there to drink beer. "Tonight, I felt so much encouragement and amazing energy, as I have in the days and weeks and months leading up to this. I wouldn't have been up on that stage but for everyone in this room who's been here every step of the way. You gave us this moment."

It's So Crazy It Just Might Work

For the traveling press corps, who see scenes like this play out in Iowa and New Hampshire – and in Nevada, where Castro is making his most significant stand – and probably at this weekend's Texas Tribune Festival here in Austin ("Hey, I'll see you in Austin for the Evan Smith festival," one national scribe told me), this local energy is somebody else's story to cover, at least until the run-up to Super Tuesday and the Texas primary next March. By then, they think and say now, the race will be between Biden and Elizabeth Warren; Buttigieg and Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders may be hanging around at the margins, but the Texans will be a distant memory.

That may be true for Castro, who needs to show big fundraising numbers for this quarter (ending Sept. 30) to gain ground in the polls and make it over the Dem­o­cratic National Committee's just-­announced higher polling and donor thresholds for the November debate stage. But O'Rourke, who's running slightly but significantly ahead of Castro and is in less danger of missing the November cut, is already openly and deliberately running to win the Texas primary and, in his estimation, inevitably turn the state blue in November.

Cory Booker (back to camera) waits his turn as Beto O’Rourke visits with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in the spin room after the Houston debate. (Photo by Mike Clark-Madison)

"No one has a network like the network we helped build in 2018, and it still exists in 2019 and going into 2020," a very sweaty O'Rourke told reporters at Katy's No Label Brewery on the Saturday following the Houston debate. "I believe as we engage these friends and supporters in places like Fort Bend [County], but also in places like Amarillo or Longview, we're going to be able to produce a majority that wins the delegates, but that more importantly wins the 38 electoral votes in November that will ensure that Donald Trump is defeated and this country is brought together again."

This may be a far-fetched strategy, but it rests on some true facts. O'Rourke is competitive in the Texas primary according to current polling, which places him at second or third, in a position to scoop up delegates (he'll need at least 15% of the vote) even before spending advertising money in the state. (Castro is not polling any better in Texas than he is nationally; O'Rourke is by a wide margin.) With staff already in place in Austin, Houston, and El Paso at his campaign headquarters, Team Beto is ready to ramp up. He has endorsements from more than 100 Texas elected officials, the "party actors" whom the political scientists pay attention to and whom the campaign covets.

"It would be reasonable for those people who supported him in 2018 to say, 'I really like you, but I'm going to stay out of the 2020 race for a bit,'" says an O'Rourke spokes­person (it's bad form to get out in front of the candidate when talking messaging and strategy, hence no names, please). "But more than 100 didn't; they've come out to help him organize again. In 2018, he gave Texans something they'd never seen before; he'd show up everywhere, he'd keep coming back. That impact on people is still there."

Beto's much-discussed change in strategy post-El Paso – staking claim to the moral high ground and "taking the fight to Trump" in various attention-getting and expletive-laden ways – has been processed by other campaigns and the commentariat as a why-the-hell-not gesture from a candidate quickly losing momentum and altitude. As such, his head start in Texas is something of a secret to them, ready to be exploited as O'Rourke continues to build the Beto brand nationally, aiming to stay viable in the long slog from now, through the death traps posed by fundraising deadlines and the November debate, and into the early states. (Among which, if we're being honest, we should include Texas; early voting here starts Feb. 18, before the Nevada and South Carolina primaries.) His fundraising, he told us in Katy, has picked up post-debate and post-El Paso. "Someone said we raised more in an hour after the debate than in any hour the quarter before."

He claims not to know the details, just as he says he doesn't know how his now-signature issue – a mandatory buyback of assault weapons – polls in Texas. "I have no idea because it does not matter," he told the Houston debate-watch crowd. Two days later in Katy, we all saw how it does matter to people like Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, who waved his weapon in O'Rourke's face on Twitter and got called out to the FBI for his trouble. "This guy made the case better than I ever could," O'Rourke said, "by threatening to introduce violence into our democracy. Nobody should be able to do that." After Cain's clumsy display of his manhood, Beto helped Josh Markle, who aims to bounce Cain from the Lege in 2020, raise more than $60,000 in one weekend, another sign that O'Rourke's influence on Texas politics is not completely yoked to the waxing and waning of his national fortunes. Even if he is officially out of the 2020 race by Super Tuesday – which is honestly not very likely – he will still be the most important Democratic party actor in Texas.

All the Way Down the Ballot

Beto was in Katy to stump and knock on doors for Elizabeth Markowitz, the sole Democrat (there are six Republicans) in the special election this November to succeed retiring and really-over-this-crap state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond. "This is a really important race that'll determine the composition and ultimately the majority of the Texas Legislature," O'Rourke said. "It could not be more important coming into 2020 to get this right in 2019." He touts the progress made by the Fort Bend Democrats in Zerwas' House District 28, which Mitt Romney carried by 30 points in 2012; Ted Cruz in 2018 won it by just 3, as he lost Fort Bend Coun­ty as a whole to O'Rourke, the first Dem­o­cratic win there since the 1970s. "With a candidate like Eliz, when we go out and knock on doors, we can get that remaining 4 percent."

For the locals, Beto's strategy to keep his own campaign moving by showing up down-ballot is just fine with them. "We've been with Beto since 2017," says Fort Bend County Demo­cratic Party Chair Cynthia Ginyard. "We knew he was something special then; there's been a wonderful loving relationship between Beto and Fort Bend for a long time. We will be there for him in the future, just as he's here for Eliz now."

Markowitz, an educator and first-time candidate, touts the meat-and-potatoes issues for suburban Democrats in purple counties – schools, health care, "safety" as a counterpoint to the gun junkies. It's the same menu that got Lizzie Pannill Fletcher elected to Congress just over the Harris County line in CD 7: the supposedly centrist "mom agenda" that returned Nancy Pelosi to the big chair, which has all year sat uncomfortably next to the pro-impeachment Green New Deal "squad agenda" of the D.C. Dems' rising stars – and now, of Beto O'Rourke.

Here in Austin, under the pink dome, "the Twelve" – the freshman class of Dems who flipped Texas House seats in 2018, including four in and around Austin – had much less trouble making their presence felt during the 86th Lege, making real gains on education if not on health care or guns, and standing by with clean hands as the Red Texas leadership monolith started to collapse. Now, the Dems need only nine seats to flip the chamber, the mantra of every statewide party activist. One of those is HD 28.

This is a big deal specifically because the 87th Legislature in 2021 gets to take on redistricting, which is such a traumatic topic for Texas Dems. But the prospect of a Blue House with a speaker of the Dems' choosing is more than enough reward to get people out in the Katy heat, knocking on doors for Markowitz. It's frankly a bigger deal to Texas Democrats than unseating John Cornyn, as satisfying as that would be, which is why Beto's ever-firmer slamming of that door – hard enough that he now feels the freedom to criticize Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats for dropping the ball on gun safety – has finally gotten people focused on MJ Hegar, Royce West, and the other candidates actually in that contest.

Working down-ballot in Texas should be a big deal for all the 2020 presidential Dems, not just O'Rourke, who has gotten props for his more-than-token efforts to help local candidates all over the country this cycle. Observers expect the organization and enthusiasm gap between Team Beto and the field in Texas to narrow post-Iowa, and the Texas Democratic Party is not inclined to let anyone off easy. "We've extended the invitation for all candidates to come in and not just raise money for themselves" – which they still do; Biden held several fundraisers in and around Houston after the debate – "but engage with Democratic voters and raise money for the party infrastructure," said TDP Executive Director Manny Garcia.

Having an Immediate Impact

So far among the non-Texans, Warren (who used to live here), Harris (who hired much of her key staff from here), and Buttigieg (who has Mayor Adler, himself a prominent Democratic donor and party actor in past cycles) have the most Lone Star cred. "Ultimately, how do you earn the votes and the real love and the work of all these activists?" Garcia asks himself. "You need to be responsive to the issues that Texans are dealing with every single day. We all know about education and health care, but Texans are clamoring for answers on gun violence, on stopping hate crimes and the rise of white supremacy that is an existential threat to our communities. They're demanding that, and haven't seen it at all from our own state government, from the Republican establishment. I think folks will have a very keen ear toward what all the candidates are ready to do."

“Campaigns come and go, but we’re here for the long haul, which is an example of the growing movement and momentum in Texas.” – Progress Texas’ Ed Espinoza

O'Rourke can have an immediate impact now in a race like Markowitz's, just as his efforts reverberated all the way down to the constable races across Texas in 2018, even though his organization remains distinctly separate from that of the Texas Democratic Party or the other big Blue Texas players (Battleground Texas, Progress Texas, Indivisible). "Beto built this massive infrastructure, but it wasn't just him," says Progress Texas' Ed Espinoza. "Campaigns come and go, but we're here for the long haul, which is an example of the growing movement and momentum in Texas."

In Katy, people are not ashamed to be drinking No Label beer before noon as they listen to O'Rourke give a more locally tuned version of his own stump speech in support of Markowitz. While the national commentary focuses on the distance between Woke Beto's embrace of pinko positions like mandatory buyback, reparations, and marijuana reform (the issue that propelled him beyond the El Paso City Council) and the purpler pitch deemed essential for candidates like Markowitz in districts like HD 28, the folks on the ground here take it all in with equal enthusiasm. Living wages for teachers! Racial reconciliation! $15 minimum wage! All-out embrace of renewable energy and land conservation to combat climate change! (This is Katy, remember.) Take the guns! ("What if we said we were going to buck – that was with a B – the NRA?" Beto asked the crowd. We see what he did there.) End gender- and race-based pay gaps! Defend women's bodily autonomy! (This actually gets the biggest cheers.) Here on the ground, it all sounds equally mainstream.

Is it mainstream to the Republican voters in the subdivisions across the train tracks from the brewery, or will they tribally retreat into an orthodoxy that even Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the most tribally craven man in Texas politics, sees value in flouting at the moment? Beto tells the reporters a urinal story – it may be real, but every male candidate seems to have one, and campaigns get flexible – about a gentleman next to him at the facilities here in Katy earlier that morning, saying, "'I'm a Republican, voted Republican, raised a lot of money for Republicans, but you're absolutely right on guns and somebody had to say or do something.' So I reject the premise that it's going to alienate Republicans and independents. People just want to do the right thing."

We’ll report live from TribFest, and, in next week’s issue, on how the prospect of a blue bomb going off in Texas in 2020 is changing the national conversation – and what that means for those of us who live here.

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