Today is November 3, just three days before the Mid-Term Elections which many of us hope will be the very first step of tossing Trump out the door of the White House. And a very first step in this process would be that Beto O’Rourke beats Ted Cruz, he who was called Lying Ted by the earlier Trump although now he is one of Trump’s most despicable toadies. For me that result, Senator O’Rourke instead of Senator Cruz, would mean that Democracy is not dying in darkness (the great fear of the Washington Post) but that we the people can get it together, turn on the lights, and find and elect honest men and women to the House and the Senate.
Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz in the Final Stretch of the Texas Senate Race
By Emily WittNovember 2, 2018
At 7 a.m. on Monday, October 22nd, an hour before the polls for early voting were set to open in Texas, the parking lot of the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center, in central Houston, was full, and the line to vote began at the door and continued down the street. On the other side of West Gray Street, a crowd of two hundred or so people gathered near the palm trees at an entrance to the parking lot of the River Oaks Plaza, a mini-mall, waiting for Beto O’Rourke. The sun had barely risen; the Dressbarn and Dollar Tree had not yet opened. The smell of bacon, from Café Express, hung in the air. The crowd was cheerful, holding babies and wheeling strollers with sleepy children clutching stuffed animals. A woman held aloft a gilt-framed portrait of Barack Obama.
As the crowd waited for him to arrive, O’Rourke broadcast a live stream of his drive to River Oaks under the dawn sky. “What’s up, Texas?” he said. “First day of early voting!” In his 1948 Senate campaign, Lyndon B. Johnson famously crisscrossed Texas in a helicopter; in 2018, O’Rourke is known for his gray Dodge Grand Caravan. The van is unmarked by campaign signs, although someone had written “Grapevine Loves U” in the dust on the back windshield, and the word “Beto” inside of a heart.
As those who follow his Web streams know, O’Rourke usually drives himself, freeing his aides to do their texting and e-mailing on the long stretches of road between stops. His events and logistics director, Cynthia Cano, sits in the passenger seat. His communications director, Chris Evans, sits in back. That morning, they listened to
the Rolling Stones (“Happy”),
I need a love to keep me happy
I need a love to keep me happy
Baby, baby keep me happy
Baby, baby keep me happy… More
Willie Nelson (“Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”)
Roll me up and smoke me when I die
And if anyone don’t like it,
just look ’em in the eye
I didn’t come here, and I ain’t leavin’
So don’t sit around and cry
Just roll me up and smoke me when I die.
and the Kinks (“20th Century Man”).
This is the age of machinery,
A mechanical nightmare,
The wonderful world of technology,
Napalm hydrogen bombs biological warfare, … More
In the parking lot, shouts of “He’s here!” came from the crowd as they spotted the van. When O’Rourke steps out, people have a tendency to run toward him holding their phones, and he walks to and from his car surrounded by enthusiasts. Cano will intercede, taking the phones to snap portraits while also guiding the candidate toward whatever bench or stepladder he will be standing on that day to address the crowd. Evans follows them, broadcasting the live stream from a phone on a selfie stick. At River Oaks Plaza, O’Rourke stood on a bench and spoke into a bullhorn. “Good morning!” he said. “This is an extraordinarily beautiful day. I think you’ll agree with me, right? Look up at the sky—it’s cool, it’s fall.”
The crowd looked up.
“It’s voting day!” yelled someone happily.
“We’re going to vote,” O’Rourke said.
He outlined some points of his platform: universal health care, raising wages for teachers, ending the separation of families at the border, and granting citizenship to Dreamers. After his speech, he went to visit some college students who had spent the night in a tent to be first in line the next morning in the polls. They all climbed into the tent together, like children in a fort, and O’Rourke conducted a small meeting, during which he invited everyone to come camping outside of El Paso.
For the final two weeks of the campaign, O’Rourke has settled on what he called “in some ways the least sophisticated strategy you’ve ever seen,” which is, “literally just showing up everywhere all the time, and never discriminating based on party or any other difference.” Since he started running for the Senate, O’Rourke has made personal appearances in each of the two hundred and fifty-four counties in Texas, including the reddest and the bluest ones. During the past eleven days of early voting, he has been making as many as eight or nine stops a day within a single metropolitan area. Most of these are at gatherings of a hundred to two hundred people outside of early-voting centers, where his supporters are encouraged to “Go to the polls with Beto!” This strategy has put him face-to-face with more than a thousand people every twenty-four hours, plus appearances before larger crowds at rallies on many evenings. At every stop, he lets as many supporters as time allows take photographs with him and encourages them to share the photographs on social media. He live-streams his drives between stops, making a reality show of the highways and gas stations of Texas that people have watched by the thousands. His campaign has encouraged supporters to open pop-up offices in homes, offices, restaurants, and bars, from which volunteers organize block walks and phone banks. The campaign claims that volunteers have knocked on a million doors and made 8.7 million phone calls since October 5th.
Ted Cruz, the incumbent in the Senate race, is not doing all this, but he doesn’t need to. O’Rourke may be a nationally viable candidate; he may have raised thirty-eight million dollars, most of them small donations, in the last quarter of the campaign; and he may have run one of the largest grassroots campaigns that Texas has ever seen, refusing all corporate political-action campaign donations. But this is still Texas, which hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1988. The last time a Democrat won any statewide office was 1994. The most recent poll showed O’Rourke down by six points. And Cruz has another force on his side: Donald Trump.
On the same Monday that O’Rourke campaigned in Houston, the President held a rally there. Trump supporters started lining up downtown more than twenty-four hours before the event. According to organizers, a hundred thousand people had signed up to attend the rally, at the Toyota Center, which has a capacity of nineteen thousand. By midday on Monday, the line to enter stretched all the way to an Embassy Suites, several blocks away. A propeller plane flew over Houston’s towers of glass and a leaden sky, towing a banner that had the name “Beto” in a circle with a line through it and the words: “because socialism sux!”
Judging merely by appearance, Cruz was an afterthought for the crowd. Amid the thousands of red maga hats, I saw exactly one Cruz sign. Cruz, Trump’s rival in the 2016 Presidential primary, whose father Trump once claimed had been involved in the Kennedy assassination and whose wife he insulted, was now reduced to Trump’s Texas proxy. Venders sold maga hats and banners of Trump standing in his suit and tie on an amphibious vehicle as it plowed through waves, an AR-15 in one hand and an American flag billowing behind him, lit from above by the rockets’ red glare and surrounded by fluttering hundred-dollar bills.
The gathered crowd waited patiently, in lawn chairs, with coolers. The fashion choices, which seemed to have cohered since the 2016 election, featured a lot of red, white, and blue. They wore jeans with rhinestones on the pockets, Under Armour, or hunting camouflage. Many of the men had beards or long hair. Women wore pink maga hats and T-shirts that read “Adorable Deplorable” or “Trump Girl,” with a flag-patterned high heel. Several people wore American flag suits. Many had cross tattoos and cross necklaces. They wore T-shirts referring to right-wing Internet memes: Pepe the Frog, Wojak, and QAnon. They wore Infowars and “CNN Sucks” T-shirts. The crowd was overwhelmingly, though not entirely, white, and everyone I spoke with voiced the same concern: immigrants.
“When I was a little girl, people were not afraid to say they loved their country,” Mary Coyle Jones, a registered nurse from Cypress, a town outside of Houston, said. “Now you talk to people and if you say you love your country for some reason that’s supposed to be a bad thing.”
Jones attended the Trump rally with her brother, Pat Coyle, and her daughter’s neighbor, Stephanie Culver. The three of them had been in line since 9:30 in the morning, and had brought sandwiches and water.
“As a Texan, I’m not going to stand here while someone allows people to come over the border without having some kind of vetting done, those types of things, I’m not in for that,” Pat Coyle, who runs an air-conditioning business, said.
“Mexico doesn’t even allow for that,” Jones said.
“No country does,” Coyle said.
“You drive in that direction, they point guns at us,” Culver said.
The three reassured me that the lack of Cruz signs was not to be taken the wrong way. “I love Ted Cruz,” Jones said. “I supported Ted Cruz in the Presidential race and I was so sad, I was on the freeway when I heard he dropped out of the race and I literally cried.”
I asked about O’Rourke. “He’s got a fake tan,” Jones said. “He’s got this nickname which is on the ballot, which isn’t probably even legal. He’s a socialist and that’s the worst part about him, is he’s a socialist and he tries to act like he’s for the people but really he’s for socialism, and that’s not what our country is.”
“I think Beto is just a fad,” Coyle said. “It’s young people trying to want new change and all that but our government, it doesn’t work that fast. It just doesn’t. Maybe he has some good ideas, but they don’t logistically work or financially work.”
“It’s all dreams,” he said. “It’s all dreams.”
At 5:30 p.m., I took my place in the “press pen” at the center of the Toyota Center, where the organizers ordered us to stay until the end of the President’s speech, well positioned for the crowd to jeer at us. The Trump campaign handed out a multitude of signs: “Finish the Wall,” “Veterans for Trump,” “Buy American Hire American,” “Keep America Great.” Women swayed to Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” holding pussy-hat-pink “Women for Trump” signs. The crowd started the wave. Even fellow Trump supporters aren’t sufficiently patriotic for Trump supporters: as the pledge of allegiance was announced, men erupted into angry shouting at people who were too slow to remove their maga hats.
The Reverend Ed Young opened the rally with a prayer. “The question before us is: Which way America?” he said. “Will we continue to be a republic under God or will we slouch toward godless socialism?” The Ladies of the Deplorable Choir led an off-key rendition of the national anthem. O’Rourke’s name was brought up by many of the speakers who came before Trump. So was California. “All the gold that is pouring in from California cannot buy Beto a U.S. Senate seat here in the Lone Star State,” Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, said. “Why are we here tonight? To tell Beto O’Rourke and the Democrats we’re not turning Texas into California,” Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor, said. He added that the name Beto stands for “border enforcement totally optional.”
Trump gave his speech. He said that he was extremely pleased with the turnout, stepping back from the podium and smiling when the crowd chanted “U.S.A.” or “Build the Wall” or “CNN sucks.” The most baffling part of a Trump rally is how hard everyone laughs at his jokes.
He laid it all out for the audience. “This will be the election of . . . ” he began, then recited the following list: “The caravan, Kavanaugh, law and order, tax cuts, and common sense.”
“Ted’s opponent in this race is a stone-cold phony named Robert Francis O’Rourke,” Trump continued. “He pretends to be a moderate, but he’s actually a radical open-borders left-winger.”
The next day, both Senate candidates were in San Antonio. O’Rourke had nine campaign stops in the city, which tends to vote Democratic. Cruz had one, a midmorning rally at the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum, an Old West-themed tourist attraction, with walls that bristled with the antlers of mounted hunting trophies. Cruz spoke in a room on the second floor, just past a display of bovine oddities that included a stuffed and mounted one-eyed lamb and a two sets of conjoined calves.
Cruz was joined by John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, who is ruddy and white-haired and, for his afternoon visit to San Antonio, was dressed in a studiously casual outfit: a plaid shirt tucked neatly into belted jeans, with cowboy boots. Cruz wore a sport coat, a shirt without a tie, and jeans. The two hundred or so people sitting in rows of chairs in the audience greeted him enthusiastically. The standard cheer for Cruz is to repeat his name quickly in a low voice, in the manner, for those who remember, of the “woof, woof” sound that the crowd would make at the beginning of the “The Arsenio Hall Show.
Cruz was the valedictorian of his high school, went to Princeton and Harvard, and still carries about him an aura of a Young Republicans debate nerd. But today’s Republican Party prefers its candidates more macho, and Cruz has risen to the occasion. His rhetorical flourishes are televangelistic: lots of growls and whispers at the scary parts, tenderness for sorrowful moments, and illustrated standoffs between the forces of good and evil. He raised the question of O’Rourke’s “F” rating from the National Rifle Association. “I understand,” he said, “that Beto thinks that if somebody comes into your home and tries to attack your family that the answer is to take out your skateboard and hit them.” The crowd laughed. “Well, that’s not true, maybe you throw your triple mocha latte.” More laughs. “Joe Biden says if anybody attacks your house just go outside with a double barrelled shotgun and fire both barrels in the air, which is very good advice, if it so happens that you’re being attacked by a flock of geese,” Cruz said. “But here in Texas, we happen to think a little bit differently.” (Earlier this year, after an off-duty police officer named Amber Guyger shot and killed her neighbor, Botham Jean, O’Rourke called for her to be fired from the Dallas Police Department before standing trial; Cruz said that he wished “Democrats weren’t so quick to always blame the police officer.”)
At a Cruz gathering, as at a Trump rally, letting the audience shout out insults is part of the dynamic, and Cruz shares the President’s habit of letting his audience lead with the nastiness and responding with a smile and shrug, as if to say, “You said it, I didn’t, but we all know it’s true.” Audience members shouted that O’Rourke looks like a squirrel, that he wears a dress, that he’s had a D.W.I., and that he’s a socialist. “Faulty thinking!” a woman standing next to me kept yelling out, as Cruz criticized O’Rourke for supporting N.F.L. players who have protested police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem.
Cruz concluded his remarks by laying out two possible paths for the country. An “alpha world,” where Republicans hold their majority in the Senate and the House and keep cutting taxes, repealing regulations, and appointing more “constitutionalist judges” to the court, with the result that “wages go up, prosperity goes up”; or the “Beto world,” which would be “a world of paralysis and mob rule” and “an absolute partisan circus, and when we say partisan circus we’re talking Mad Max at Thunderdome, with Beto in the role of Tina Turner.”
Meanwhile, O’Rourke had given his mini-stump speech at four separate polling places before lunchtime. The day started off rainy, but the supporters who met him at 8 a.m.outside an early-voting polling place near downtown San Antonio did not seem to mind. O’Rourke was losing his voice. “The good news,” he began, “is that in fourteen days I don’t have to speak anymore.”
The rain started to fall harder. “Someone get Beto an umbrella, we can’t have him getting sick!” a woman next to me shouted. Her name was Stephanie Boyd, and she was running for judge in Bexar County for the second time. “I will tell you,” she said, “Bexar County is a blue county, it’s just that people don’t get out and vote.”
That old chestnut. The truth was that exhortations to vote were being made everywhere in Texas: on the L.E.D. sign of a Dairy Queen, on billboards that reminded Republicans once again that Texas was not California, taped to the cash register of the kind of Austin coffee shop where all the cups were too small to fit a triple mocha latte. I suspected that the intense desire to get everyone to vote, expressed equally by the left and the right, was not only anxiety over what was at stake but also nervousness about what the will of the people really looked like. After two years of Trump, the country wanted to ask itself the question: But are you really sure?
O’Rourke finished his day at the Cowboys Dancehall, in north San Antonio, a music venue with a side arena with a mechanical bull that hosts small rodeos and mixed-martial-arts competitions. O’Rourke met a Univision reporter outside by the cattle pens. He does his Spanish-language television interviews in Spanish. “Esto es una oportunidad para decidir el futuro de este país,” he began. The main act of the evening was Intocable, a Tejano band that regularly sells out stadiums. A Tex-Mex punk band called Piñata Protest warmed up the crowd on a two-story stage decorated with Old West storefronts. A big crowd, some in cowboy hats and boots, the women in cold-shoulder shirts, danced and drank Michelob Ultra and Dos Equis.
O’Rourke waited in the green room, sipping tea and trying to rest his voice. I asked if he’d seen any of the Trump rally.
“This is our ninth stop today, I’m just driving, and so I don’t read text messages or e-mails, and I actually just prefer it that way, just to be focussed on what I’m doing getting to the destination,” he said. “I don’t know what I would get out of watching that or reading that.”
He had heard, he said, that someone had shouted out “Lock him up” at a Cruz rally. (Cruz had laughed and said, “Well, you know, there’s a double-occupancy cell with Hillary Clinton.”)
“I just don’t know what to do with that,” O’Rourke said, shrugging. “I really feel us all kind of focussed forward into the future. It’s just too much smallness in this, with the lock him up stuff, and the lies he’s put out about our record.”
Lori Rodriguez and her son, Andrés, with O’Rourke at a campaign event.
In Austin, the next day, crowds met O’Rourke outside an elementary school, in a public park, and at a community college. I heard Willie Nelson’s “Vote ’Em Out” on the radio twice. At one of O’Rourke’s events, I met a married couple, Amber and Robin Alexander, who had brought their fourteen-month-old baby for a photograph with the candidate.
“This is actually both our first years voting,” Amber said.
“We’ve never been passionate about it,” Robin said.
“It’s the first time ever I’ve felt hope that we could turn Texas blue,” Amber said. “This is the first time I’ve felt like we have a strong, well-articulated candidate who truly has the people at heart and is going to be for us so I think we have a good shot. We don’t think we’re getting our picture with our next senator, we think we’re getting our picture with our next President.”
From Austin, O’Rourke drove to Waco, then on toward a small city in the far east of Texas called Lufkin, where he would be holding a rally the next morning. He stopped for dinner at a Whataburger outside of Crockett, where he said he would have knocked on the doors of the houses with Beto signs out front if it hadn’t been after 10 p.m. on a school night. He listed all the gifts that his supporters had been bringing him: cough drops, Whataburger gift cards, chicken tamales, fresh fruit. He turned the camera toward the windshield to show the audience watching his live stream the driving rain outside.
“Twelve days to go,” he said at the drive-through. “That’s what, like, twenty-four more Whataburgers?” Evans said from the back seat. On a stream with more than a hundred thousand views, O’Rourke apologized to his wife, Amy, for drinking a chocolate shake.