WASHINGTON – On what could be his last normal Thursday morning as a rank-and-file member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Beto O’Rourke calmly ate a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee in the dining room he shares with two other congressmen in a townhouse just off Capitol Hill.
He was due to the chamber in an hour or so for votes. The following morning, he would officially launch his bid to unseat one of Texas’ savviest politicians in modern history, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
“I’m not going to do this and lose,” O’Rourke told the Tribune between bites. “I’m only going to do this if we can win, and I’m going to run to win, and I know no [Democrat has] figured out how to do this.”
No Texas Democrat has won a U.S. Senate seat in nearly thirty years or any statewide office since 1994. It is hard to find a political operative in Washington or back in Texas who would bet money – or professional credibility – on O’Rourke winning this race.
But the El Paso Democrat is earnestly bullish that he will go to the Senate through a strategy of bringing retail politics to a state of 27 million people.
He has no pollster and no consultants at this point, and said he has no interest in hiring operatives of that ilk.
“Since 1988, when Lloyd Bentsen won re-election to the Senate, Democrats have spent close to a billion dollars on consultants and pollsters and experts and campaign wizards and have performed terribly,” he said.
The approach offers a clear contrast with Cruz, who has used his own consultants to devastating effect in his races for the U.S. Senate and the White House. Last month, several members of Cruz’s political team showed attendees at the Conservative Political Action Convention a presentation of his presidential campaign’s investment and innovations in data analytics.
When O’Rourke first floated the notion of running for Senate in an early November interview with the Tribune, many people in Texas and Washington responded with, “Who?”
But the shock registered most at home in El Paso.
“The first surprised call was from my wife, like, ‘What? What? Excuse me? What’s going on?’” he said. But four days later, O’Rourke and his wife, Amy, were watching with horror at Donald Trump’s victory on Election Night. At that moment, the decision was all but made.
“It was Amy who said, ‘I think you should go see if you can’t do something that’s more effective than what you’re doing now.’”
In a conventional campaign, O’Rourke would try to raise somewhere in the ballpark of $30 million in federally mandated $2,700 increments. Then he would turn to the campaign committees and beg them to invest millions more.
But the national Democratic committees are overtly telegraphing that the priority in 2018 is to protect the ten party incumbents who represent states Trump carried in 2016.
To complicate matters, it is hard to overstate how unknown this third-term Democrat is in both Texas and Washington.
He represents El Paso, which is so remote it is in a separate time zone from the rest of the state. It is a shorter drive from his district to San Diego than to Beaumont.
Back in November, at least one high-profile Democratic official in the state confessed to having never heard of him.
And amid Wednesday’s giddiness in Washington Democratic circles around his pending announcement, seasoned players referred to him as “Bee-to,” mispronouncing the Spanish nickname for his Anglo given name of Robert.
Another potential stumbling block: He has a pair of arrests – but no convictions – on his record from the 90s: one for breaking and entering and another for drunken driving.
But most of all, he is taking on a wily and hardworking incumbent who was the second-place finisher for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
How in the world does he plan to beat Ted Cruz?
“Tactically, strategically, I don’t know,” O’Rourke said. “It’ll come from Texas, and I have faith and trust the people of this state will make the best decision in the interest of their families and their kids…I just trust that. My challenge, I guess, is to meet enough of them so that they can make an informed decision.”
His aim, he said, is to campaign beyond urban strongholds in a case-by-case basis.
In a 38-minute long interview the day before his official announcement, it was apparent that O’Rourke was not going to make his campaign all about Cruz – a temptation given the senator’s polarizing image among even some in his own party. O’Rourke never once mentioned Cruz by name or directly criticized his potential rival. Instead, he focused on topics like immigration, the border, and advocacy for his hometown.
The approach brought to mind the discipline Cruz has shown in his campaigns for U.S. Senate and president.
But at his campaign kick-off Friday morning in his hometown of El Paso, O’Rourke gave a short speech in which he vowed to only serve two terms if elected and jabbed at Cruz’s failed presidential run, arguing that the state needed “a senator who’s working full-time for Texas.”
Cruz responded on Twitter.
“A liberal Democrat is announcing a campaign today to try to turn TX blue,” Cruz tweeted, with a link to his campaign’s fundraising page.
And then there is money. Traditionally, the best way to build name recognition has been through television advertising, and a statewide buy runs at least $1 million a week.
Cruz begins the race with $4.2 million in campaign money. And the early signs amid O’Rourke’s run is that tea party groups and establishment organizations will line up with tens of millions of dollars to back Cruz at the slightest sign of trouble.
Nationally, Democrats have no appetite at this point to spend serious money in Texas, and O’Rourke is not accepting money from political action committees. He, like all federal candidates, has no control over whether a super PAC opts to get involved.
But anyone opposing Cruz is a likely magnet for angry liberal dollars. And O’Rourke could have the makings of a Bernie Sanders-type fundraising operation. He is one of the most adept politicians when it comes to social media and was an early adapter of building a following with Facebook Live, a means of broadcasting events through that website.
The results of those efforts are often viral frenzies. Most recently, his bipartisan road trip with U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, earned both men a storm of positive publicity. So much so, that a handful of Republican operatives in Washington began to sit up and watch O’Rourke more closely.
But before O’Rourke can face off against Cruz, there is the issue of sorting out his primary.
For years on end now, many expected it would be one of the Castro twins leading the charge to turn Texas blue, and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, is still openly mulling a Senate run of his own.
Oddly, though, O’Rourke said Castro was the one who planted the seeds to launch this campaign.
“I remember this summer at the convention, Joaquin…publicly said that he was thinking about running, which I thought was exciting, and I thought, ‘Hey, let me know,’ and he said, ‘If I don’t do this, you should think about doing it.’”
“It got me thinking,” O’Rourke added.
Once it became clear on Wednesday the O’Rourke campaign was on the verge of a launch, Castro put out a statement gently reminding the press that he was still in the mix.
O’Rourke said he wished Castro luck on Wednesday in making his own decision. O’Rourke insisted if the primary is competitive, they will both “try and do this in a way that will make Texas proud.”
“It’s good for Texas…you want a competitive democracy,” he said.
But, he added, the mutual interest was indicative of improved conditions for the party.
“It shows you that something’s happening,” he said.
The 2016 election gave Democrats cautious hope for Texas. Trump’s margins were narrower than other recent GOP standard-bearers and Democrats made enormous headway into urban centers.
O’Rourke, however, spent much of his time in the lead up to Friday’s announcement in mid-sized towns, including: Wichita Falls, College Station, Killeen, Lubbock, Midland, Waco, Corpus Christi and Odessa.
O’Rourke said he had expected a few dozen attendees at each of these events. Oftentimes, over a hundred people showed up, having heard of the event through word-of-mouth or Facebook.
The larger aim is to look beyond the cities and take his case to rural voters. The idea is not to win those regions, but to lose less-badly.
It is the same tactic former President Barack Obama credited with his victories as a candidate in Iowa.
“There were some counties where I might have lost, but maybe I lost by 20 points instead of 50 points,” Obama said in November.
But Texas is a whole lot larger than Iowa. Can any of this work?
“We’ll find out,” O’Rourke said.