The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beto O’Rourke gets more attention than any other 2018 candidate. Will it translate to votes?

U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke at a town hall event in Abilene, Tex. (Ronald W. Erdrich/Abilene Reporter-News/AP)
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The gas tank hit empty, and Beto O’Rourke pulled off the highway, knowing he was being watched.

“We gotta give them something, just so they know we’re alive,” he’d said earlier.

O’Rourke, 45, decided to turn this gas station pit stop into a contest: Whoever watching his Facebook Live broadcast guessed the amount it cost to fill up his Toyota Tundra would win a T-shirt.

Chris Evans, the candidate’s young communications director, shot the shaky footage on his iPhone, while the campaign’s road manager, Cynthia Cano, wrote the day’s schedule on her arm in Sharpie. The meter ticked up to $91.

Back in the truck, O’Rourke asked his audience if they wouldn’t mind chipping in for gas and then put on a tune by the Old 97’s, a Dallas alt-country band: “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have designs on you.”

“Oh s---,” O’Rourke said over the music. “I left my coffee on the back of the truck.”

No problem. Waiting for him at the next event, a roundtable discussion with local elected officials from the Fort Worth area: a man with a fresh cup of coffee.

“I saw what happened,” he said, handing it to the candidate.

He wasn’t the only one who saw. The video has now been viewed 29,000 times, part of O’Rourke’s plan for a jolt bigger than replacement caffeine.

It was Day 17 of the congressman’s latest 34-day jaunt across Texas; 501 days since he announced a long-shot bid against Sen. Ted Cruz to be the first Democratic senator from the state in a quarter century.

In Fort Davis, Tex., population 1,201, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) campaigns for the U.S. Senate and draws a crowd wanting political change. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

Over the past 16 months, but especially recently, the campaign has become a sensation — at least of the media variety — transforming O’Rourke from a relative nobody into the most-watched candidate of the year.

It’s partly because he’s a charismatic candidate running a surprisingly effective liberal campaign — new gun laws, universal health care, loosening the laws on marijuana — in a state redder than a stop sign. But it’s also because O’Rourke is a willing participant. He’s certainly the only politician to ever be interviewed by GQ, Town & Country, Politico and Ethan Hawke.

His is a candidacy born of the Trump era, testing whether the left can have an equal and opposite reaction to the 2016 presidential election, and whether the best way to achieve that goal is to figure out the memeing of life.

O’Rourke is betting that by broadcasting himself on a live stream while campaigning in places he isn’t supposed to show up and saying things he isn’t supposed to say, he can encourage new voters to go to the polls, and even win over some Republicans who may not agree with him on all issues.

“I’m really surprised by how well Trump was able to leverage his popularity and the fact that everybody did know him, and there was this thing they liked about him,” O’Rourke said in an interview.

O’Rourke has become the kind of reality-show character that thousands of people watch eat a hamburger (46,000 Facebook views), skateboard through a parking lot (161,000 views), do his laundry (44,000 views) or answer questions at his town halls about, for example, NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. (That one has been seen by tens of millions.)

He has become something of a celebrity in the process, adored by actual celebrities, followed by at least two documentary crews (is that a drone following him through the parking lot?) and mobbed at events in the Republican hinterlands by fans . . . ahem . . . voters. Even Evans and Cano have signed autographs at town halls, recognized from their roles as side characters in the Beto Show.

It’s gotten to the point where O’Rourke can’t go a day without someone suggesting that win or lose, he should run for president.

“It’s not going to happen if he wins, no way,” said a person associated with his campaign. “If you want him to run for president, you’re better off hoping he loses by a point.”

O’Rourke dreamed of a following like this back when he played in a moderately talented punk rock band in college, back when the crowds were often just drunks who’d been in the bar since the night before. Now he was packing them in with fans who chanted his name; he spoke on the stage where Buddy Holly sang, played guitar with Willie Nelson at the country singer’s Fourth of July picnic and had Britt Daniel from the Austin rock band Spoon open for him.

It was fun, but he was tired. And stressed. “Under the most pressure” of his entire life, as he put it. His what-do-we-have-to-lose campaign had become a holy-hell-we-might-actually-win-this-thing campaign.

Being on all the time — on TV, on for interviews, on live stream in the car — has helped make him famous. But can it make him a senator? Has O’Rourke cracked the code, or will he just be remembered as the guy who skateboarded through a Whataburger parking lot while America amused itself to death watching?

'Just unstoppable'

In a way, O’Rourke’s campaign is a throwback with a modern twist. He’s driving a pickup truck to every county. He’s knocking on thousands of doors and reciting the same stump speech thousands of times. He’s John McCain on the “Straight Talk Express” circa 2000, only now anyone watching O’Rourke’s live stream can come along for the ride.

And, like a candidate from any era, he’s selling himself using the latest technology and pretending like it’s not just a sales pitch.

“It would be extremely unwise for the TV politician to admit such knowledge of his medium,” Joe McGinniss wrote in “The Selling of the President 1968.”

“I honestly don’t know why so many people watch,” O’Rourke said.

“The sophisticated candidate, while analyzing his own on-the-air technique as carefully as a golf pro studies his swing, should still state frequently that there is no place for . . . ‘public relations gimmicks,’ ” McGinnis wrote.

When O’Rourke decided to run for Senate, he knew his low name recognition presented a challenge. But it also came with the opportunity to introduce himself however he wanted. By bringing the live stream into the equation, he hoped voters might see a person — a person who burps, swears, listens to music and has a family — and not just a politician.

It’s a gimmick but one that does come with some moral high ground: he’s able to say honestly that he doesn’t pal around with admen and has restricted access to political hired guns. And by not accepting money from political action committees or special interests, he can say he’s not being bought off. For years, O’Rourke wasn’t the type of candidate who could get billionaires to throw money his way, so why not, in his words, “turn a necessity into a virtue?”

Why so many people are coming to see Beto O’Rourke: A revolt against Trump and a demand for compassion

In turn, he’d spin that virtue into gobs of cash. He has pulled in $23.33 million (to Cruz’s $23.36 million) from thousands of donors, and like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) used to do, he brags onstage about his small-dollar donations, “33 bucks” to Sanders’s oft-repeated “27 dollars.”

And now, public polling has O’Rourke within single digits of Cruz, even if all signs point to long odds for a Democrat winning Texas.

But O’Rourke is the type of person who can imagine things working out for him — they always seem to in the end. He was born Robert O’Rourke (Beto for short), the son of a furniture store owner and a county judge in El Paso. After graduating from Columbia, he kicked around New York working for an art moving company and touring with his punk band, Foss.

The band traveled around in an “old and smelly” Plymouth station wagon, but ultimately went nowhere, and O’Rourke moved back to El Paso.

In 1998, a 26-year-old O’Rourke had gotten drunk and drove his truck into a car on the highway.

In the police report, recently uncovered by the Houston Chronicle, O’Rourke was said to be going a “high rate of speed” in a 75 mph zone when he smashed into a Volvo and was sent spinning across the median. He then tried to flee the scene before being arrested.

Ultimately, the charges were dismissed, a fact O’Rourke says probably had a lot to do with him being white.

“If there’s any value in the stupid decisions that I made more than 20 years ago,” he said at a town hall recently, “perhaps it is in providing a contrast to the experience so many have in the criminal justice system.”

O’Rourke soon found his footing: starting a software company, marrying (he and his wife, Amy Sanders O’Rourke, have three children) and winning a seat on the city council before defeating in 2012 Silvestre Reyes, an eight-term Democratic congressman.

“If he looked at a poll in the beginning of this race or that one, they would have said don’t do this,” said David Wysong, a longtime friend of O’Rourke’s who has taken a leave as his chief of staff to help manage the campaign. “My guess is, to some degree, Barack Hussein Obama, the name alone when he was only known to 2 percent of the country, no poll would have told him to run. Not that I’m comparing the two.”

The night Donald Trump became president-elect, O’Rourke started toying around with the idea of running for Senate. Perhaps it didn’t seem so daunting, considering what it took to get to Congress. And perhaps O’Rourke has something of a hero complex — his favorite book is “The Odyssey,” and he named his son Ulysses.

“When you’re doing something like this, that’s the right book to read,” O’Rourke said. “You just got to do it. . . . Kill the suitors. He’s just unstoppable.”

Rock star vs. regular guy

O’Rourke had arrived on time to the town hall outside of Dallas but was now running late. He couldn’t find the entrance, had no idea where to park and was stuck in a parking lot overcrowded with people wearing “Beto for Senate” T-shirts — a traffic cluster of his own creation.

“We need to have someone drop a pin on Google Maps so this doesn’t happen again,” he said.

He knows it’s a good problem to have. The crowd of more than 2,000 was so large here that they filled up two overflow rooms and still had to turn people away.

But it can be hard to know what the enthusiasm amounts to. Take his most viral moment of the campaign so far: his support for NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. “Reasonable people can disagree” on the issue, he said in a town hall, but he personally finds the peaceful protests aiming to “point out that black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now” to be in line with the nonviolent movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and Rosa Parks, and in that way “can think of nothing more American.”

A video of this moment has been viewed more than 44 million times, according to Vanity Fair, and has earned him plaudits from Hollywood to New York and a September appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’s TV show. All this is good for his campaign, except in the ways it’s not.

In addition to raising name recognition and funds, it also gives ammunition for one of his opponents’ favorite attacks: that O’Rourke is an out-of-touch liberal, more Hollywood than Houston (“Most Texans stand for the flag, but Hollywood liberals are so excited that Beto is siding with NFL players protesting the national anthem that Kevin Bacon just retweeted it,” Cruz tweeted. “That means all of us can now win Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon!”). And as for the NFL video? Well, Cruz made a rough cut of it and has started showing that at his own rallies as a way to rile up his base.

It can be easy, then, to imagine how Cruz will take advantage of O’Rourke’s live stream. His team has already pieced together a 30-second video of O’Rourke leting curse words fly on the trail. They could highlight every time he doesn’t know the answer to a question at a town hall to paint him as unprepared, or, as they’ve done already, use the NFL video to say he doesn’t support veterans. Tracking your opponent has long been part of political tradecraft, and in this case, O’Rourke could be broadcasting his own opposition research.

“It’s true that sometimes it can feel a little like we are flying blind,” Wysong said about the decision to go without pollsters. “Though, ultimately, I think it’s a lot more freeing.”

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Which isn’t to say that the campaign is free from having to make political calculations. For all the live-streaming it does, it doesn’t broadcast from fundraisers at rich people’s houses. When meeting with elected officials, O’Rourke will lay off talk about the evils of PAC money, knowing his audience might not be so pure on the practice.

And along the way, there have also been temptations, including the siren call of a Democratic ad maker, with whom the campaign met but ultimately decided against using.

“It just wasn’t the record I wanted to make,” O’Rourke said.

So which is it, exactly? Is he a rock star trying to make a record or a regular guy just trying to do the right thing? The trick, of course, is that he has to try to be both.

He’ll jump onstage at Emo’s rock club in Austin — a venue his band never imagined they could make it to — exclaiming “this feels so good.” But he blanches when asked in an interview about similarities to his touring days.

“It’s very different,” he said. Yes, it feels good to be recognized at events, or by night attendants at his hotel, or commuters stuck in traffic next to him, but only insofar as he needs them to know who he is in order to win.

“I think he’s weary of the cult of personality that’s all about him,” said Mike Stevens, a close friend and former Foss bandmate. “He’s obviously confident, with confidence to spare. But I don’t think he wants to be seen as a rock star . . . once you actually become a rock star you become an a--hole.”

At HQ, satisfaction

Back in the truck after another raucous town hall, O’Rourke flipped on the radio and heard a familiar voice. His own.

“The only thing that you’re going to find in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos.”

He had said this a few days earlier about running a liberal campaign instead of seeking middle ground, and was now hearing it played back for the first time, having stumbled upon the NPR broadcast.

“O’Rourke even raised the specter of impeachment,” the reporter said.

“What!” O’Rourke shouted in the car. “No, I didn’t!”

“O’Rourke has since walked that back,” the reporter continued.

“F--- that! I didn’t walk it back!”

“At a cafe in San Antonio where he’s come for an interview, O’Rourke can’t even make it to the table because he’s mobbed by customers who recognize him and want a picture together, much to the reporter’s annoyance.”

“Oh, sorry buddy! Much to the reporter’s annoyance? How often does a reporter say some s--- like that?” O’Rourke said as the segment concluded. “He interviewed me that whole time, and all he used was that f---ing line about dead armadillos?”

Try as he might, O’Rourke won’t always be in control of his story. His mug shot from the old driving while intoxicated charge may show up time and again in the comments section of his Facebook page. His stances on marijuana legalization may be used to paint him as a druggie. And sometimes he’ll talk for 45 minutes, and the takeaway will be a quote about roadkill, much to his annoyance.

No problem. O’Rourke was already pulling into a parking lot beside his new Dallas headquarters, where he’d come to celebrate its grand opening. Evans fired up the live stream, and O’Rourke walked into a packed room. The sweaty crowd munched on churros and tacos and danced while the Stoners, a Rolling Stones cover band, sang “We got Beto” to the tune of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

“I want to thank the Stoners for making us all feel good right now,” O’Rourke said. “If this whole Senate thing doesn’t work out, I’m going to see if they need a fifth member.”

He continued.

“We have decided to come together to do the big things,” O’Rourke said over a hushed and captive audience. “The aspirational things, the ambitious things that should distinguish us as a country and as a people.”

Those things, he said, included fighting back against intentional voter suppression, ending the prohibition on marijuana, fighting for universal health care and making sure that every family separated at the border, “a stain that remains with us until we make it right,” is reunited.

The hundreds of supporters listened to every last word. Maybe they were there to see a celebrity, but they were there.

The video has been viewed 72,000 times.