Beto O’Rourke’s third campaign in 6 years embodies Democrats’ unrealized gains

He has been campaigning for 1,175 of the past 2,048 days — for Senate, then president, now Texas governor

Beto O’Rourke campaigns in San Benito, Tex., on Nov. 1. “We’re gonna win. We have to win. There is no alternative,” he often tells supporters. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

In EDINBURG, Texas

This is the last thing they hear from Beto O’Rourke.

It’s not the speech he gives, atop a 16-inch plywood box in the parking lot of a polling place, the one about the failures of the current governor. It’s not the anger that cracks through the small crowd: his anger at the power grid that broke down last winter and “this f---er,” his opponent, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who “can’t keep the lights on”; his anger at the school shooting in Uvalde and the “23 f---ing weeks” that have passed without new gun laws; his anger at voting restrictions, abortion bans, insufficient health care. It’s what happens after the speech is done, when the candidate for governor steps down from the box, and a neat line forms in the parking lot. Two staffers stand in position, ready to take pictures. And it is here, as he meets and then parts with each one of his supporters, that O’Rourke says, “We’re gonna win. We have to win.”

“We gotta do this. There’s no alternative.”

“Please post that photo.”

“It’s really important that you share the photo today on all your networks.”

“Post that, OK? Tell people you voted.”

“We gotta come through. We’re going to come through.”

One after another, O’Rourke’s supporters heard this final invocation. It was a promise — a vow of reassurance to the people who gave their hearts to the Beto campaign four years ago in his race against Sen. Ted Cruz (R), when he came as close as any Democrat in more than 20 years to building a winning coalition in Texas, only to fall short by 2.6 percentage points. It is also a call of defiance — a refusal to believe polls and demographic trends that suggest an even more painful defeat ahead. But more than that, O’Rourke’s mantra was one he seemed to say as much to himself as to the people around him: We’re gonna win. We have to win. There is no alternative.

With a little over a week to go until Election Day, incumbent Governor Greg Abbott, and Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke are making final pitches to voters. (Video: Rich Matthews/The Washington Post)

Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke has spent 1,175 of the past 2,048 days of his life running for office. Three races in six years: U.S. Senate, then president, now governor. O’Rourke is young, just 50 years old. He has become the emblem of unrealized ambition in the Democratic Party, a candidate who has kept going and going and may keep going still, even if he falls short on Tuesday. Polls say Abbott, the eight-year Republican incumbent, a conservative stalwart and a possible presidential contender, has widened his lead in the final stretch of the race. Early-vote numbers in Texas are down compared with 2018, when O’Rourke capitalized on opposition to Donald Trump’s presidency. O’Rourke is well known throughout Texas, but he has attached himself to progressive ideas that many Texans never liked. “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said during his presidential bid, promoting mandatory gun buybacks.

Across the country, Democrats are worried about energizing voters, even in deep-blue states like New York. Control of the House seems all but gone for Democrats, and the Senate majority hangs by a seat here, or a seat there, in Pennsylvania or Georgia or Arizona or Nevada. And then there is O’Rourke, here in Texas, still going, still trying.

“We gotta do everything we can, right?”

“We all need some hope right now. We gotta make sure the hope is fulfilled.”

“We gotta win.”

“Tell everyone, OK?”

And so O’Rourke began the week before the election in his dark gray Toyota Tundra, kicking up gravel on Interstate 2 in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a collection of counties at the tip of Texas that touch the U.S.-Mexico border, telling voters not to give up on an actual victory. He hit eight polling locations in less than 30 hours.

“People do not want to have their hearts broken again,” he told them.

“Believe me that this is possible, because it is possible,” he told them.

What else can he say? There is no alternative.

O’Rourke is looking for something that he may not find. There is a mythical quality to what he seeks: the unseen, yet-to-be reached voter who, if only he could “bring them in,” would expand a coalition that allows him to win. Maybe in another kind of election year, maybe in another kind of state, it would feel more in reach.

But that’s why O’Rourke is in the valley.

His path to victory against Abbott depends on high turnout in the big cities of Texas. But in his mind, it also lies here, through a sometimes neglected portion of the electorate. O’Rourke is trying to reach people who have never voted before, who just turned 18, who just naturalized into the voting process — “people who’ve been drawn out of our elections,” he says. “They’re not in anybody’s polling or turnout universe.”

This is why he’s asking people to take a picture with him and post it on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or the new social media site BeReal. (“Are you on BeReal?” he asks Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro at one stop in Cameron County. O’Rourke certainly is.) If just one person’s post can encourage another to vote — a la an online influencer — then maybe he can achieve a multiplying effect. “This will break through to your friends in the way that I could never,” he tells one woman in Edinburg. Behind the ropeline, his longtime aide Chris Evans stands in the crowd with two phones. On one, he broadcasts the scene live on O’Rourke’s Instagram. On the other, he checks the feed in real-time. At a stop in Harlingen, 299 people are watching. Other people in the crowd are also streaming: Six people watching on one person’s Instagram, five on another, two on another. In total, 312. When each stop is done, O’Rourke jumps behind the wheel of his truck, drives to the next parking lot and does it again. We’re gonna win. We have to win.

“A refrain that makes a ton of sense to me is ‘action is the antidote to despair.’ And it is the key to victory,” O’Rourke says, stopping to talk between visits. “And I have to remind myself of that. We all have to. And not just in elections — in just life. Gettin’ up in the morning and facing the challenges you have. Gotta take action, gotta be in motion, gotta be with people. That all feels good to me.”

O’Rourke is in Edinburg, population 104,871. Then Weslaco, population 41,058. Then San Juan, population 35,582. It’s Monday, Oct. 31, Halloween — eight days until Election Day, though millions are already voting. A supporter in San Juan asks what O’Rourke is seeing in the early-vote returns. “It started a little slow,” he replies. By the following day, there should be more data. “But that’s why we’re here: We want to push and push and push.”

Ten miles up the road, just after 6 p.m., O’Rourke makes his last stop of the day near a polling site in McAllen, one of the largest cities in the Rio Grande Valley. By now, the sky is purple, and a light rain has darkened the parking lot asphalt. Amy O’Rourke, the candidate’s wife, joins the edge of the crowd after a long day of canvassing. She has been by O’Rourke’s side through these six years of campaigns. He hasn’t won a race since 2016, when he was elected to his third term in Congress, limiting himself to serving just six years and seeking a promotion to the Senate. Since then, the rhythms of running for office, though not governing, have become a permanent feature of the O’Rourke family life. What happens on Wednesday morning, Nov. 9, when the O’Rourkes wake up and the race is over? “There will be elements of a campaign that will probably continue,” Amy says. “But we’re also super excited to just be together.”

As her husband poses for pictures, Amy says the first two years of the pandemic, which began soon after O’Rourke dropped out of the presidential race before making it to the Iowa caucuses, was the “most concentrated time we’d ever spent together as a family.” The couple has three kids: Ulysses, 15; Molly, 14; and Henry, 12. At the height of covid isolation, they went on hikes together around their hometown of El Paso. They got a puppy. They built a chicken coop at their house. The chickens roam around in the backyard. “And it was so great!” Finally, the kids had their dad to themselves — they don’t like the “hoopla,” she says. “They just want to be normal kids.” And then O’Rourke jumped into another race. What’s different about this one is the kids are old enough to understand the stakes. Molly never showed much interest in politics, Amy says, but after the shooting in Uvalde, where 19 students and two teachers died at Robb Elementary School in May, she texted her dad, “We’ve gotta win.” A few months later, Ulysses turned to his mom and asked, “If we lose this, what is my future?”

Across the parking lot in McAllen, a group of Abbott supporters form a line facing the Beto crowd.

“What glory is there in being a professional loser?” one man shouts.

“Former congressman — that’ll be his title,” says another.

“Beto,” the first man yells. “WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE?”

Back in the photo line, O’Rourke keeps taking pictures.

“We’re gonna do it.”

“We are gonna win.”

“Spread the word.”

The next morning, the early-vote numbers are in. They don’t look good.

O’Rourke doesn’t mention it. The campaign has just outraised Abbott for the third consecutive reporting period, and he wants to talk about that instead. In San Benito, at the candidate’s first stop of the day, one of five he will make on Tuesday, the Texas Democratic Party chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa, says in a quiet voice, a few yards from the crowd, that turnout “is not where we want it to be.”

Hinojosa, who has served as the top Democrat in the state for 10 years, thinks O’Rourke’s get-out-the-vote operation this year is “the most organized” he’s ever seen in Texas — an extension of the mobilization program he built in 2018. When it came time to find a candidate this time, to take up the challenge of running against a powerful Republican incumbent in a historically challenging year for Democrats, there was no question: “All of us needed someone like him to run against Greg Abbott.”

“I’m sure it was a hard decision for him to make, because of his family,” Hinojosa says. “He’s been campaigning virtually nonstop since 2017.”

And it was hard. Amy O’Rourke says she and her husband “never looked at a poll,” nor did they consider the circumstances of a difficult midterm election year, when a first-term president’s own party historically loses seats across the country. “I don’t know that we considered all the challenges. It was more of, ‘It feels right.’” In Texas, where roughly 1 in 5 voters are Latino, there is another layer of difficulty: some of those voters are moving away from the Democratic Party. In the two heavily Latino border counties O’Rourke visits in this final week, Cameron and Hidalgo, Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential race by margins of 33 and 41 percentage points, respectively. Four years later, that margin shrunk by half: President Biden won Cameron by 13 percentage points and Hidalgo by 17 percentage points.

But who else was going to do it? O’Rourke brings a level of passion and energy that is not easily replicated, putting thousands of miles on his truck, packing his calendar with events. “There’s no substitute for having charismatic, well-funded candidates to take on an incumbent Republican,” Castro says as he watches O’Rourke work his way through a photo line in Brownsville. “He does it all-in.”

Polls show O’Rourke trailing Abbott by an average of 9 percentage points, but on the campaign trail, O’Rourke puts himself in rooms that show a different race entirely: big crowds, “BETO” signs, “BE-TO” chants, Beto supporters who are devoted enough to post that picture, to knock on doors, to call strangers in a phone bank. How he thinks through what he sees on the trail versus what he sees in the data, to O’Rourke, is not that complicated: “It’s just how I’m wired and my constitution. I’ve just never really taken much stock in polls,” he says. In the 2018 Senate race, he proudly reminded voters that he never commissioned a single poll. This time, he did, if only to make sure he has “the best possible data,” as he puts it, to target the way his campaign spends money.

The bigger strategic difference between 2018 and 2022 seems to be O’Rourke’s singular focus on his opponent. In speeches, he talks, most often, about Abbott. Under the governor’s tenure, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed legislation further restricting voting rights across Texas, granting partisan poll watchers more autonomy, adding criminal penalties for breaking voting rules and banning drive-through and 24-hour voting. In the state’s primary election this spring, thousands of mail-in ballots were rejected for failing to meet new ID requirements.

O’Rourke has built a movement to mobilize those voters in a voting system he calls “rigged,” but it’s not clear how much of that volunteer infrastructure depends on his presence at the top of the ticket. On the road, O’Rourke insists the enthusiasm around him in Texas is actually not about him at all — “this won’t happen through a candidate,” he says — so much so that he rarely talks about his own story, sometimes even dropping the first-person pronoun. Gotta take action, gotta be in motion, gotta be with people.

Four years ago, after his loss to Cruz, O’Rourke seemed lost, taking a road trip across the interior West, blogging as he drove more than 1,500 miles in a jagged loop through New Mexico and Kansas and Colorado, then back to New Mexico and home to El Paso. He was “stuck,” he wrote, “in and out of a funk” and looking for “connection.” He grew a beard. He started filming himself in online videos, including at a dentist appointment, in conversation with his hygienist about life on the border. Two months later, he ran for president, but dropped out in November 2019 after failing to break through in a crowded field. By December of that year, he had launched his next venture: a voter registration effort called Powered by People. He wrote a book about voting rights and titled it “We’ve Got to Try.”

It was around the time that O’Rourke thought about running for president, though, in the spring of 2019, that Democrats came to see a candidate whose earnest view of politics, whose ability to inspire young people, was bigger than his ability to deliver an actual victory. “Man, I’m just born to be in it,” he told Vanity Fair in a lengthy interview. The line became the headline. And the story became the cover of the magazine, featuring an Annie Leibovitz photo of O’Rourke posing alongside his Tundra. O’Rourke later said the quote, and the decision to pose for the cover, had been a mistake, reinforcing “a perception of privilege.”

O’Rourke tries to be a more humble candidate now, but when he talks about public service, he doesn’t sound too different from the man on the cover of Vanity Fair. He still wants to be, and talks about being, “in it.” The “it” is the race, the service, the action. When he and his wife debrief their days on the road, canvassing for votes, he asks her afterward, “How do you feel now that you’ve done that?” And Amy, he explains, says she feels “awesome.” Like she’s “not watching this, or a witness to it. ‘I am a player. I’m an actor. I am someone who’s doing something.’ So we all have a choice. And we’re choosing the work.”

O’Rourke speaks often in these last few days of a choice between opposites: action versus despair; a “player” versus someone who decides to “go home, watch the TV”; someone who’s “in it” versus someone who sits it out. The choices are stark — no gray, just black and white. Again, he seems to be in conversation with himself. But one contrast O’Rourke mentions, and he does so often, seems more difficult than the rest: “The hope that you’re bringing people,” he says at one stop. “Do not allow this to be a false hope.” O’Rourke says he wants real political power. Not the kind that comes through national influence. Not even the kind that builds party infrastructure. “The goal is to win and to help people who are being badly hurt by this government right now,” he says. “For any of us who’ve run for office, I don’t know that there’s a lot of conscious [thought] like, ‘Let’s build out the long-term infrastructure.’” He wants the kind of power that changes policy, that wins elections. For a figure who has built a career on “trying” — who, if he comes up short on Tuesday, may keep trying — the line between hope and false hope is hard to draw through the promise and aspiration of your own political brand.

What is false hope to O’Rourke?

“A false hope means not coming through on the aspirations that we've described.”

The night before they leave the Rio Grande Valley, after they meet up in McAllen, Amy O’Rourke, as usual, tells her husband what she heard and felt while knocking on doors that day. There were a few people, she says, who told her she needed to manifest the future she wanted after Nov. 8.

“The power of positive thinking.”

And it occurred to her then, actually, that she hadn’t thought much about it all.

Win or lose, Amy says, “I don’t often think past November 8.”

“Do you?” she says she asked her husband.

He told her he had. The couple talked about what it would look like if O’Rourke is elected, if he somehow proves the polling wrong, how he would govern. The answer they landed on was a simple idea: “How important it is, even once elected, that you keep coming back.” That you keep trying.

The final stop of the night is at a rally at Paso Real Hall, a music venue in Cameron County, 13 miles from the border. Live Tejano music fills the ballroom, lit with blue and pink neon lights. In front of the stage, a crowd of more than 500 forms a circle around the center of the room, chanting the candidate’s name. “Be-to! Be-to!” At the center stands O’Rourke. “This may be the last time that I get a chance to be in this community as your candidate for governor,” he says.

After the speech, Beto and Amy move to a small building behind the hall to collect their things. As he leaves, he sees Amanda Elise Salas, his South Texas coalitions director, a staffer who has been with him since the early days of the 2018 race. “It’s just very personal to me,” she says. “My whole career has been amazing because of his career.”

She tells O’Rourke that “no one else has the balls” to run against Abbott. She thanks him.

“Ah, no,” O’Rourke says. “We’re all doing it. We’re all doing it.”

Salas starts to cry. O’Rourke hugs her.

“We have to win,” he says. “We’re gonna win. We’re gonna win.”

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