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How Beto O’Rourke Explains America

Most voters have never heard of him. He’s running against Ted Cruz. And a Texas Democrat hasn’t won a statewide election in nearly 25 years. So why the hell does the El Paso congressman think he has a shot to win a Senate seat?

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In a muddy field between a highway, a gas station, and a trailer park on a Sunday in December, U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke stood under a pergola with a microphone in his hands and waited. About 10 feet away, a young man prefaced his question by listing a series of bills introduced into the 115th Congress by Democrats that championed a variety of progressive causes: a proposal to raise the minimum wage, the Medicare-for-All bill, and a bill to reduce American military involvement in the Middle East. Although he’s a Democrat, O’Rourke hadn’t lent his name to any as a cosponsor.

“Can you make the case to me,” the man said, “why you’re a better candidate than your opponent for progressives like me?”

O’Rourke’s response lasted more than two minutes, with detailed rebuttals to each complaint, but he began by addressing the man’s broader question.

“I may not be the right candidate for you, to be honest,” O’Rourke said. “You may prefer someone else, and that’s the way our democracy should work.”

The exchange was the first question of a town-hall-style gathering in Columbus, Texas, though there was no hall, just a bunch of camping trails at a trailer park. When O’Rourke addresses the crowd, he comes off like a cross between an improv comedian and a precocious Model U.N. delegate.

The 45-year-old is running for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 2018, and he is the prohibitive favorite. The three-term congressman from El Paso led his closest competitor, a 32-year-old socialist and political newcomer named Sema Hernandez, 73-19 in a February Texas Politics Project survey. If O’Rourke wins the March 6 primary, as expected, his general election opponent will be the state’s polarizing junior senator, Ted Cruz.

Toppling a nationally renowned Republican like Cruz in the largest reliably red state in the union would be a once-in-a-generation victory for Democrats. It would be an upset, but if O’Rourke were to pull it off, he’d be the toast of a class of young, constituent-focused Democratic legislators who are already winning state legislative races nationwide, perhaps leading the way in a post-Trump wave election that could flip Congress back to Democratic control. If he loses, he’ll become another Jon Ossoff, the centrist Democrat who ran a well-funded and highly publicized—but unsuccessful—House campaign in Georgia last year.

While O’Rourke took questions, his communications director, Chris Evans, walked the perimeter of the crowd—which consisted of a few dozen attendees—while streaming video of the event live to Facebook. At just after 1 p.m, it was the third video that O’Rourke’s campaign had posted to Facebook that damp, overcast day, after one of a similar stop in Sealy that morning and a 45-minute livestream of the drive from Houston to a Salvadoran restaurant in Brookshire just after sunrise. By day’s end, O’Rourke’s campaign would post seven videos to Facebook, the last of which was a five-minute news story from the Dallas–Fort Worth NBC affiliate that started with O’Rourke standing outside a Whataburger, preparing to take a predawn jog with a few supporters. Evans was by his side filming the whole time.

Sunday’s itinerary involved just the two public appearances, in Sealy and Columbus, but the day before included 11 stops and 14 Facebook videos, totaling more than three hours of footage. Filming that much, and transmitting over whatever cell service they could find, did a number on their phone batteries, Evans explained. O’Rourke and his staffers film on whoever’s phone has the most juice, triage-charging in the car based on who’s closest to zero. When all else fails, they break out a silver battery roughly the size and shape of a Gideon Bible, with a charging cable that runs from Evans’s pocket to his phone like the line on a portable insulin pump. It’s just as vital to O’Rourke’s campaign.

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In person or online, it’s rare to see someone like O’Rourke in Sealy or Columbus. Democrats tend to spend their time in the state’s urban strongholds, not out in the woods.

“It’s extremely Republican out here,” said Pat Burns, the chair of the Austin County Democratic Party. “My daughter goes to Bellville High School and she doesn’t like people to know we’re Democrats. My neighbors are overwhelmingly Republican, so for him to even want to come here is a big deal.”

In his attempt to beat Cruz, O’Rourke is going to shake every hand, kiss every baby, stand under every pergola he can find, and deliver his stump speech to everyone who will listen, whether he thinks they ought to vote for him or not.

Unlike Cruz, O’Rourke is far from a national figure. A representative from Texas’s 16th Congressional District, O’Rourke holds no significant legislative achievements. In five years in Congress, he’s been the primary sponsor of just two bills that made it to a floor vote.

The Texas Politics Project’s latest polls on O’Rourke, published in February, show that while twice as many respondents view him favorably as unfavorably, the largest bloc—39 percent—either had never heard of him or had no opinion of him. O’Rourke’s claim to fame is that as a young man he played in a punk band called Foss alongside Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who went on to found At the Drive-In and the Mars Volta. People also love to compare him to John F. Kennedy, because he’s young, handsome, and Irish American—“Beto,” a childhood nickname, is short for Robert.

O’Rourke is the son of El Paso County Judge Pat O’Rourke, who was killed in a bicycle accident in 2001. The younger O’Rourke attended Woodberry Forest School, a prep school in Virginia, before graduating from Columbia in 1995 with a degree in English. (He named the oldest of his three children Ulysses because he loved The Odyssey.) After returning to El Paso, O’Rourke founded Stanton Street, a web design and consulting company, before making his first foray into politics in 2005, the same year he married his wife, Amy.

He won his first election at the age of 32, knocking off Democratic incumbent Anthony Cobos in a nonpartisan race for El Paso City Council. Seven years later, he took on and defeated Silvestre Reyes, an eight-term incumbent Democrat, in the primary for the House of Representatives, and he went on to win the general election by a 2-to-1 margin over Republican Barbara Carrasco, at which point he turned control of Stanton Street over to his wife.

O’Rourke has the confidence of someone who has never lost an election. Despite decades of evidence that suggest he’s going to lose big in November, he sees a changing political landscape.

“I think that 2018 is a different planet than [previous years],” O’Rourke told me. “There are so many things that are so fundamentally different. The most important positive difference is that there is so much self-organization and self-activation across Texas. People—and they’re really not turned on or fired up by party, or partisanship, or even ideology—they just want to do the right thing for their country.”

In more than a decade in politics, O’Rourke has cultivated the image of a crusading, hard-campaigning young Democrat with a punk rocker’s disregard for the established political order. In person, O’Rourke—tall and thin, with a long, angular face and a penchant for blue dress shirts and sweeping hand gestures—is more reminiscent of Barack Obama than JFK. He uses rock-’n’-roll metaphors to explain policy: A woman at the Sealy town hall asked O’Rourke how he’d be different not only from Republicans but establishment Democrats, and O’Rourke answered by talking about how, in searching for more authentic music, he’d discovered punk rock as a teenager and started a band of his own.

“What we were rejecting, unwittingly, and I wouldn’t have put it this way, was corporate rock-’n’-roll,” he said. “I don’t want you, in New York or L.A., deciding what I was going to listen to in El Paso. We in this campaign are rejecting corporate politics, literally rejecting corporate donations filtered through PACs, the special interests, and yes, the party bosses. I don’t want to know what their focus groups say, or their polls show, or their consultants have tested for me to repeat here. I want to know what’s on your mind.”

Politicians who talk like outsiders are a dime a dozen, but in O’Rourke, Democrats have one who can back up that image with an undefeated electoral history and a track record of beating incumbents within his own party. Even O’Rourke’s geographic origins make him an outsider: El Paso is far from the state’s traditional centers of population and power; it’s as far from Houston as Chicago is from Philadelphia.

But Democrats are coming out to meet O’Rourke when he comes to them, and they appreciate the gesture.

“It’s important that he’s able to come and take questions from the public, town-hall style,” said Waller County Democratic Chairwoman Rosa Harris. “A lot of candidates are not willing to put themselves out and face the voters, and he is. He has courage, he’s intelligent, and he’s definitely spot-on on the issues.”

That sounds like quite a package for any politician—particularly for one who’s running against the Moby-Dick of Republican incumbents.

In a different universe, O’Rourke would be running against someone else while Cruz watched from the White House. Cruz finished second in the Republican presidential primary in 2016 behind Donald Trump. After riding the tea party wave into the Senate in 2012 and following that up with a 21-hour Senate speech deriding Obamacare in 2013, he has become one of the country’s most controversial conservative politicians.

Cruz is easy to ridicule. His college roommate, screenwriter Craig Mazin, has made mocking the senator into a second job. During the 2016 primary, then-candidate Trump accused Cruz’s father of being complicit in the JFK assassination, and while every politician of a certain stature generates unflattering commentary on the internet, few are the butt of a running joke that accuses them of being the Zodiac killer. Even his star-making 21-hour filibuster was weird: He quoted Green Eggs and Ham, and, according to Senate procedure, his speech wasn’t actually a filibuster. (An interview request sent to Cruz’s office went unanswered.)

But even though Cruz is more famous and more powerful than O’Rourke, and even though he won his first Senate race by 16 points, he is not particularly popular within the state: His favorable-unfavorable numbers are 40-42, with more than two-thirds of those who view him unfavorably saying they view him “very unfavorably.” That stature makes Cruz both a tempting target for Democrats and a daunting opponent, particularly in Texas, where a Democrat hasn’t won a statewide election since 1994.

Over the past decade, Democratic party politics have been dictated as much by candidates as by policy—Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders have all inspired cults of personality. O’Rourke is certainly charismatic enough to inspire his own: He can speak to artists and entrepreneurs with equal ease without sounding practiced or inauthentic, and his varied background theoretically makes him able to appeal to a wide range of voters. But it also makes him difficult to pin down, if not on policy then on political philosophy.

That may play in O’Rourke’s favor. Being flexible on policy allows him to avoid alienating either the centrist or liberal wings of the party, to say nothing of Republican voters he might try to poach. Because of his musical background, O’Rourke’s strongest constituency might be music writers: He’s done a Q&A with Spin, and the most recent Texas Monthly article on the candidate is titled “Does Beto O’Rourke’s Spotify Playlist Support His Punk Rock Credentials?

Yet he’s an Ivy League–educated tech entrepreneur whose wife is executive director of a charter school, and his voting record consistently falls in the most conservative third of House Democrats.

On the campaign trail, O’Rourke keeps coming back to three main issues: veterans’ health care (he serves on the House committees for armed services and veterans’ affairs); immigration (logical for a representative who serves a city with a unique relationship with its neighbor across the Mexican border); and ending the war on drugs, the impact of which O’Rourke recounted to me during a recent door-to-door campaign trip near Wichita Falls, about two hours northwest of Dallas.

“Almost every person who had become tangled up in the criminal justice system had first entered that system with a marijuana arrest,” O’Rourke said. “And it had just gotten worse from there. Texas is one of 12 states where if you are arrested for nonviolent drug crime, we also take your driver’s license away. And so how do you get to work, how do you finish your education, how do you take care of your family? And what are your options then?”

This series of questions nods at his additional interest in the issues of mass incarceration, and his campaign platform calls for the abolition of private prisons, yet it’s quiet on police brutality. (O’Rourke condemned El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen last year when Allen called Black Lives Matter a “radical hate group.”) It’s common for O’Rourke to nod at leftist ideas but stop short of going all in on them rhetorically.

O’Rourke is pro-choice and has a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood, but when he talked about reproductive health in Sealy and Columbus, he did so by addressing the maternal mortality rate, not abortion. Alternative energy is good for the environment, but also good economically. Hammering veterans’ health care allows him to talk about the government’s role as a health care provider while calling for a reduction in American military intervention overseas, all without coming off as a hippie. He’s just looking out for the troops.

When I asked him what his policy pipe dream was, he wouldn’t let me finish my sentence before jumping in.

“I think this is totally realistic and I know it from traveling Texas and listening to people who are in rural, Republican, small-town Texas, in urban big-city blue Texas,” O’Rourke said. “This idea that everybody should be able to see a doctor, and that being well enough to do whatever you’re supposed to do in life: to finish your studies, to work that job, to start that business, to write that novel, that that is good not just for the person, it’s good for the state and the country. So, what’s my vision? Universal health care. And very likely that will involve some form of a single-payer system, some expansion of Medicare, perhaps from where it is right now at 65, all the way down to zero.”

That vision sounded positively socialist. At least it did until he described it as an incremental, ideally bipartisan process.

“Or, I’m open if somebody’s got a better way to do this—including and especially Republicans—I’m open to their vision for how to get there,” he said. “I won’t allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.”

O’Rourke hasn’t signed on to HR 676, the Medicare-for-All bill that’s attracted 121 Democratic cosponsors, because as he explained at a town hall six months ago, the bill allows for Medicare reimbursement to only nonprofit health care providers, not private providers. Expanding Medicare reimbursement, he argued, would allow greater ease of access and continuity of care.

O’Rourke doesn’t fetishize bipartisanship for its own sake, but he does seem to value it. In March 2017, he and Will Hurd, a Republican representative from San Antonio, found their flights to Washington canceled due to snow, so the two rented a car and drove to D.C., streaming what they called the “Congressional Cannonball Run” the whole way. While one drove, the other took questions from Facebook Live, and both drew praise for their collegiality and willingness to cross the aisle.

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“I am not a rocket scientist, but the only way you can get something done in D.C. when you have Republican majority control in the House and the Senate is to work with Republicans, so I am going to work with Republicans,” O’Rourke told Vanity Fair in May.

There isn’t anything wrong with sharing a car with a Republican, but the Democrats’ impulse to compromise has frustrated many on the left. For the past decade, the party has consistently turned compromise into defeat when faced with an intractable, obstructionist post-tea-party Republican opposition—an obstructionist opposition whose very avatar O’Rourke is running against. Consider the months-long struggle the Democrats went through to pass a half measure like the Affordable Care Act while holding the White House and both houses of Congress. Now compare that with the Republican refusal to even consider an Obama nominee for the Supreme Court seat vacated after Antonin Scalia’s death. One party lives by norms the other has all but abandoned, and this asymmetrical warfare has worked to the Republicans’ advantage at almost every turn.

“Republicans in Texas have an electoral advantage here that usually means they start a general election race with about a 10-point advantage over any Democrats,” said Josh Blank, the manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

That doesn’t quite wash with the population of Texas getting younger and less white, but the population and the electorate are not the same thing. Consider the last midterm election in Texas four years ago. Out of 18.9 million voting-age Texans, only about 14 million—some 74 percent—were registered to vote. Of those, only 4.7 million turned out, or about a third of registered voters and a quarter of the voting-age population overall.

“The reality is, if you move from all Texas voters to registered voters, that group of people becomes significantly more Republican,” Blank said. “And then as you move from registered voters to likely voters, that group becomes significantly more Republican still. That’s the caveat that needs to be understood when looking at any polling in Texas: When we look at just registered voters, it’s going to look more Democratic than who’s going to actually show up on Election Day.”

Some of that is by chance—older voters tend to vote more and to skew more conservative. But some it is the result of deliberate acts. In the past six months, Texas has lost federal lawsuits against a gerrymandered redistricting plan and a discriminatory voter ID law, both the creation of the Republican-led state Legislature. (Both cases are still unresolved as they go through appeals.)

The result is that when those 4.7 million votes were tallied in the 2014 gubernatorial race, Republican Greg Abbott beat Democratic candidate Wendy Davis 59 percent to 39 percent, a difference of nearly a million votes.

In June 2013, Davis, then a state senator, staged an 11-hour filibuster against a bill that would have curtailed abortion rights, and in so doing became a national political figure. O’Rourke called her “an energizing, inspiring, amazing person.” Sandra Bullock is reportedly going to play Davis in a movie. And yet with $40 million to spend and a national Democratic dream team of advisers, she got crushed, losing to Abbott by 20 points. Battleground Texas, a group founded by former Obama campaign operatives with the intention of turning Texas blue, failed to stoke turnout in poorer Democratic neighborhoods, presaging a major criticism of the unsuccessful Clinton campaign’s inability to turn out voters in 2016.

In addition to the baked-in electoral advantage, Cruz has thus far out-fundraised O’Rourke by more than 2-to-1, about 2.5-to-1 when you factor in Cruz’s leadership PAC. Plus, while Cruz is running among a strong set of Republican candidates for statewide office—Abbott and his lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, are both running for reelection—O’Rourke is the most credentialed statewide Democratic candidate.

Davis hasn’t sought public office since her defeat in 2014, and the two fastest-rising Democratic politicians in the state are also staying put. U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro declined to challenge O’Rourke in the primary after the El Pasoan declared first, and Castro might take a run at Texas’s other Senate seat, held by Republican John Cornyn, in 2020. His twin brother, Julian Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio and Obama’s secretary of housing and urban development, reportedly has his eyes on a White House run.

“My general sense is that there’s a fair amount of complacency in the Texas Democratic Party,” Blank said. “I wouldn’t call it defeatism, but I think the reality is that if you are an elected member of the House or the Senate or a mayor or some other Democrat who’s managed to find their way into office in Texas, you’re probably pretty safe in that seat. If you leave that seat to challenge a Republican higher up the ballot, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose.”

While Blank called Texas Democrats complacent, Cornyn expressed himself more directly when he learned of O’Rourke’s candidacy: “I know Beto. And he’s a good guy. But I think this is a suicide mission.”

Despite all of the factors working against O’Rourke, there is a path to victory—and its viability might say as much about the United States as it does Texas.

Of the 36 Texas seats in the House, 25 are held by Republicans. The last Democrat to win election to the Senate in Texas was Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, which means there are people eligible to run for a seat who weren’t born the last time a Democrat won election in Texas to that body. Republicans hold 95 of 150 seats in the state House of Representatives and 20 of 31 seats in the state Senate.

The population of Texas is growing at about twice the rate of the population of the United States as a whole, and as it grows, it’s becoming less white. Texas was nearly two-thirds white in 1980, and by 2010, it was only 45 percent white. In the next few years, Latinos are projected to become the state’s largest ethnic group.

Those trends are exciting to Democrats, because in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won Latino voters by 36 points and African American voters, who made up 12.6 percent of Texans as of 2016, by 80 points. Trump won white voters by 21 points. Of course, Republicans are just as aware of these shifts—it’s why they’ve used their control of the state Legislature to redraw district lines and shrink the electorate. That gerrymandering has also discouraged Democratic challengers for statewide office, because what Democratic-leaning districts remain then lean Democratic more intensely.

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“The Texas Democratic Party has certainly not been a juggernaut at any point in time in recent memory,” Blank said. “Their level of organization and involvement seems to be lacking generally. You look at this race and say, boy, nobody’s running in these elections. You can say look at the attorney general, who’s been under indictment since [mid-2015], and there’s no credible attorney general candidate on the Democratic side. It’s sort of mind-boggling.”

O’Rourke has frequently found himself at odds with the Democratic Party establishment. After all, the Democrat he primaried out of the House in 2012, Reyes, was endorsed by both Obama and Bill Clinton, and while O’Rourke endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, he did so only after her primary race against Sanders was effectively over. He doesn’t bother to veil his distaste for the party’s tendency to concede local elections.

“[Republicans] got it long ago,” O’Rourke said. “And we Democrats conceded the ground to them, literally the physical ground, the geography, the Panhandle, north Texas, east Texas, small-town west Texas. We just said, it’s yours, take it, we’re not gonna even compete. We won’t even show up, we won’t even suit up, you win by default. I don’t know why. I obviously wasn’t involved in those decisions.”

The big-name consultants didn’t help Davis’s gubernatorial run, so O’Rourke filled out his campaign senior staff with El Pasoans and is going door-to-door as much as he can. Campaign manager Jody Casey joined the team after 18 years at General Electric, much of it in El Paso, and has never run a statewide campaign. Political director Joe Moody is a state representative, also from El Paso.

“There’s been a version of [trickle-down economics] in politics; you focus on the top of that ticket and good stuff’s gonna happen,” O’Rourke said. “What if we went the other way around and focused on those at the grass-roots, street, door-to-door level? I think when we do that, we’re gonna see something really amazing spring up toward the top.”

O’Rourke said that he’s already seeing the fruits of that approach in the form of increased interest from local Democratic organizers and turnouts at his town halls.

“I think that shows you something critically different [from previous campaigns], and the fact that we’re in Henderson or Pineland or Jasper yesterday,” O’Rourke said. “The reason that so many people turned out in those communities is because so few candidates had ever shown up before, and paid the very basic courtesy and respect of just introducing themselves and then listening.”

This strategy has the virtue of novelty, and what the Democrats were doing before wasn’t working. Plus, it’s creating excitement among local candidates and organizers who haven’t seen a Senate candidate in person in decades.

“I think he might have the right formula. It’s going to be hard, but it’s feasible,” said Burns, the Austin County Democratic Party chair. “I think he’s running it the right way. He is generating the enthusiasm out—this is not a corporate, top-down campaign. This is a people’s campaign, and that’s the only way it’s going to work.”

About an hour after O’Rourke left a bakery in Brookshire, Burns introduced him to a crowd of about 100 in a municipal park in Sealy, which sits in Austin County. (Confusingly, the city of Austin is in Travis County, while Austin County comprises an area west of Houston with about 30,000 residents. Texas has 254 counties, more than any other state.)

O’Rourke’s crowd in Sealy stood together on a concrete slab under a metal roof—more a picnic shelter than a pergola in this case—as he laid out his case and pointed out local candidates in attendance, including Tami Walker, a local attorney running for Congress in the 10th District, which went Republican by 19 points in 2016 and by 28 points in 2014.

“[O’Rourke’s road trip] helps a lot, because people feel passionately enough to go vote in the primaries,” Walker said. “A big problem in Texas is that it’s a nonvoting state—it’s not necessarily a red state, it’s a nonvoting state. So the more interest and passion generated statewide just helps all the down-ballot candidates.”

Getting people to turn out to vote is only part of the battle. Any ground game also requires getting people to volunteer, and in places like Sealy, it’s hard enough to get people to admit they’re Democrats in public, much less get one elected.

“Trump won this county 80-20,” Burns said. “We had a really good local candidate for state rep who campaigned really hard, and we got smoked. In Austin County, you keep your head down, and you don’t really tell people you’re a Democrat.”

Not everyone at the town hall was a Democrat—someone asked one of O’Rourke’s aides if they could get “Republicans for Beto” bumper stickers printed up—but the attendees ranged from teenagers to senior citizens, from college students with dyed hair and Bernie Sanders T-shirts to retirees wearing “Vietnam Veteran” baseball caps, and they asked questions about topics ranging from net neutrality to the future of wind power to why O’Rourke didn’t sign onto Democratic Representative Al Green’s bill to introduce articles of impeachment against Trump.

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“It would be very remarkable if any Democrat would win statewide in 2018,” said the Texas Politics Project’s Blank. “If a Democrat wins statewide in 2018, you have to assume the Democrats have taken over the House rather easily, have taken over the Senate, and have really just basically benefited from a massive wave election.”

However, Roy Moore’s Senate defeat in Alabama set up Cruz as the next Republican bogeyman to be knocked down, and as Attorney General Jeff Sessions seeks to roll back efforts to decriminalize marijuana on a state level, the Trump administration is rolling into an issue that O’Rourke has a firm position on, and a position that a growing majority of Texans support.

Even after almost a year of campaigning and hundreds of dead cellphone batteries and trips to off-the-beaten-path bakeries, the campaign has hardly begun. An internal Cruz campaign poll shows the incumbent up by 18 points, though a poll by the left-leaning campaign finance reform group End Citizens United has O’Rourke within eight. O’Rourke is still struggling to get his name out, though there’s time to make up ground.

“People tend to have unrealistic expectations for name identification for politicians, and especially at this point in time,” Blank said. “Your average Texan has thought almost not at all about the 2018 election for Senate in Texas. So if we look historically, what’s really interesting in our polling data is that in June of 2017, Beto O’Rourke was as known to as many Texans as Wendy Davis was in June of 2013, which was right after her filibuster.”

On one hand, O’Rourke is keeping pace with Davis despite not having a national news story revolve around him, but on the other he still hadn’t improved on the performance of a candidate who lost by almost a million votes.

O’Rourke’s campaign posters and logo are in black and white, not the traditional Democratic blue. He’s happy to leave his partisan identification out of it unless asked. And his platform is built one town-hall response at a time.

But is he the punk rocker or the businessman? The renegade who defied Obama and the Clintons or the legislator with a centrist voting record? The candidate who promises that perfect won’t be the enemy of the good when it comes to pursuing universal health care or the congressman who wouldn’t sign on to Medicare-for-All because of an issue with physician reimbursement?

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Standing in the crowd at the Sealy town hall, I was impressed by O’Rourke’s command of the issues and friendly demeanor. But I remained skeptical, not just as a journalist but as a Texas voter, that he’d do anything more than talk a good game if elected.

Then he took a question from an artist who said he relied on the open internet to make a living. This man, during the height of December’s furor over the FCC’s net neutrality ruling, asked O’Rourke what he was doing to preserve net neutrality. O’Rourke laid out the process by which Congress could forestall the FCC’s ruling, and what he himself could do about it Then he urged the people in the crowd to contact their congressman, Republican Michael McCaul, and put pressure on McCaul to help override the FCC, because such pressure is what shapes the congressional agenda.

“No great, difficult, important thing ever happens in this country because of the enlightenment of people in positions of public trust,” O’Rourke said.

That statement was so cynical, particularly coming from a member of the House of Representatives, that it was profoundly comforting to hear spoken out loud. Maybe O’Rourke isn’t going to convince a plurality of Texas voters that he’s worth a damn, but he’s doing whatever he can to convince them that he’s listening.

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