FORT DAVIS, Tex. — Dozens of Texans gathered in a grassy courtyard between a historic hotel and a foodie bistro. They brought their kids and their dogs and set up in camping chairs in the patches of shade they could find.
They were waiting for Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic congressman from El Paso who is challenging Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and doing so by campaigning in all of Texas’s 254 counties, hitting many repeatedly. What started as a familiar campaign tactic has turned into something of a phenomenon, with O’Rourke greeted along the way by large crowds yearning for a specific sort of message.
Here in Fort Davis, located in a far-west Texas county where 1,191 people voted for president in 2016, more than 300 showed up on a Sunday evening. In Muleshoe in the deeply conservative Texas Panhandle — home to a statue of Old Pete, a mule that attended George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration — more than 50 showed up for a meeting during the middle of the workday. In Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast, more than 1,000 packed into a sweltering bingo hall on a Wednesday night; dozens more listened from outside, and more than 100,000 people watched online.
Although Democratic enthusiasm has exploded across the country, few candidates have found the fervent level of interest O’Rourke has consistently attracted, drawing surprisingly large crowds in unexpected places. At a time when politics has become increasingly nasty and divisive — when President Trump has been blamed for ended friendships and a deterioration of civility — O’Rourke has laid down a potent counterargument: compassion.
O’Rourke, 45, says he’s intent on running a positive campaign, one focused not on Trump or the famously acerbic Cruz but on soothing hot anger with a promise of something different. Even if he doesn’t often say their names, his supporters know his candidacy is a direct critique of those Republicans.
“Everyone seems to be more concerned about how wealthy they are than the well-being of their fellow humans,” said Jim Hines, 70, a self-described “rabid liberal” and retired river guide who saw O’Rourke in Fort Davis. “A lot of it comes back to Trump being such a bully and spreading a message of hatred and trying to divide everybody, and that takes away your compassion for other people when you see them more as an enemy than as a fellow American.”
He added: “We’re supposed to welcome people who are trying to escape danger and welcome them to a country where they have the opportunity to live a free and happy life. Hopefully we can go back to doing that.”
Texans haven’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994, and most Republican leaders don’t consider Cruz’s seat to be at risk. They are focusing their time and money on seemingly closer races.
But by many measures, this race has become tighter than expected — and one that Democrats are eagerly watching, given the impact an improbable win would have on their party. It also will help answer a crucial question before the 2020 presidential contest: Are the odds of defeating Trump stronger with a pugilistic Democrat bent on outfighting him — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts, among others, has made that argument — or someone who represents the opposite of the confrontational president?
An NBC News-Marist College poll released last week found O’Rourke trailing Cruz by just four percentage points in a state Trump won by nine.
The race has quickly become one of the most expensive in the country. Although Cruz and O’Rourke have both raised about $23 million each, O’Rourke’s fundraising has escalated dramatically: In the most recently reported quarter, he raised $10.4 million to Cruz’s $4.6 million — while not accepting donations from political action committees, as Cruz does.
O’Rourke’s crowds are usually dominated by white Texans, especially those in their 50s and 60s, but the audiences tend to mirror the communities he is visiting. During stops in western Texas and near major cities, many Latinos showed up. At a brewery in Amarillo, the average age skewed lower. And at a school in the Houston suburbs, many parents brought their young children.
Besides the large in-person crowds, O’Rourke has benefited from the viral spread of his events. Millions have seen video footage of him explaining at a Houston town hall last month why he supports football players who kneel during the national anthem, protesting racial inequality and police brutality. In the video, O’Rourke said he believes there is “nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere or anyplace.”
“Reasonable people can disagree on this issue,” he said. “And it makes them no less American to come down on a different conclusion.”
Cruz responded in a tweet criticizing O’Rourke for “raising big $$ from Hollywood” off his stance.
“People can protest without disrespecting the flag,” said Cruz, who in another sign of seeming worry invited Trump to campaign for him in Texas. On Friday, Trump said he would campaign for Cruz in October in “the biggest stadium in Texas we can find.”
Republicans have resurrected criticisms of O’Rourke first raised in earlier races, including his 1998 arrest for impaired driving — dismissed after he completed a diversionary program.
But immigration — particularly the administration’s decision to separate parents and children at the border — has been at the forefront. As Cruz pushes his argument that his opponent is out of touch with Texan desires for stronger enforcement, O’Rourke’s town halls are fueled by objections to the Republican approach.
“There is such a lack of compassion in this political climate. We forget that we’re all one race of people, and that is the human race,” said Mary Howell, 37, an executive assistant who sat in the front row at O’Rourke’s town hall in Odessa — the conservative heart of oil and gas country — with her best friend’s mother. “We are each other’s brothers and sisters in this.”
O’Rourke’s positions are more liberal than statewide candidates in Texas usually dare to espouse. He has called for banning the sale of assault rifles that can blow a hole “the size of an orange” in a victim, legalizing marijuana, confronting climate change, increasing the federal minimum wage and giving everyone access to medical care.
“We’re all Americans. We’re all Texans. We’re all human beings,” O’Rourke says at many campaign stops. Some Texans have shown up wearing T-shirts that say: “Humans against Ted Cruz.”
In interviews with more than 120 Texans who attended 15 of O’Rourke’s town halls over two weeks this summer, it was not unusual for people to grow emotional as they explained why they were drawn to his campaign.
“Beto O’Rourke has a good heart,” said Alton Mueller, 71, a Vietnam War veteran and retired English teacher who attended a town hall in Goliad in rural Southeast Texas, a tear sliding down his cheek. “I’m so cynical now about politicians and what their motives are. At my age, it has just been heartbreaking to see all of the cruelty and anger that is feeling free to show itself.”
Mueller votes for Democrats but criticizes many in the party for missing “opportunities to stand up for what’s right.”
Some voters say they value O’Rourke’s promise of compassion more than specific policy stances.
“I’ll be honest: I don’t know his stance on health care. I just hope for more-compassionate health care,” said Tonja Hagy-Valdine, 53, who lives with her wife in Lubbock, where 500 people packed into a historic theater to see O’Rourke. “I almost feel like, in politics now, people have gotten used to feeling bad all of the time. He makes me feel good. He makes me feel hopeful.”
At nearly every town hall, O’Rourke speaks emotionally about the migrant families who venture to the border in hopes of finding safety for their children — something that he says “any human would do.” Although the Trump administration says it has stopped separating such families, hundreds of children still have not been reunited with a parent.
At the clubhouse of an RV resort in Rockport, Patti Bostick stood to tell O’Rourke about raising her two young grandchildren.
“When I lay them down at night in their clean bed with a full tummy, when I think about those babies on the border, it just breaks my heart,” said Bostick, 62, who works in the oil and gas industry. “So, I’m with you, Beto.”
She has been stunned to hear conservatives, including her mother-in-law, defend the practice.
“Her response to that is: ‘It doesn’t affect me; I don’t care.’ I can’t deal with that,” Bostick said afterward. “It’s a wake-up call when you feel like people you’ve known for 12 years all of a sudden don’t share your same basic values. . . . It does affect me, and some people think I’m crazy because I almost cry when I think about it.”
Bostick has been donating $200 a month to O’Rourke’s campaign — the first time she has given to a politician.
The border separations were also defining for Scott Dulaney, a 39-year-old firefighter from Houston who recently moved to the Childress area in the Texas Panhandle to work on a family ranch. Dulaney has always voted for Republicans, including Trump, although he supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage and has sometimes wondered if he’s really a Democrat. He said he and his relatives were greatly troubled by the administration’s family separations.
“It’s started to make me think about the way that I was voting a little more,” said Dulaney, who attended one of O’Rourke’s town halls and is unsure who will get his vote. “I’m kind of on the fence, not sure where I am at politically right now.”
O’Rourke stays focused on big-picture ideas, rarely getting into policy details. He speaks in stories of Texans: the high school salutatorian who was deported. The teacher who died of the flu because she couldn’t afford her prescription. The mentally ill man who purposely gets arrested so he can receive medical care. The food truck owner who fed Texans displaced by the hurricane. The small-town doctor whose medical school bills were paid by his community and the state.
Similar questions arise at many of the town halls, so O’Rourke’s answers have become predictable to regular viewers. But he knows how to read a room and shifts his focus adeptly to the interests of the crowd.
“I trust feel,” O’Rourke said as he sped, at times recklessly, in a rented pickup truck between events. “Rockport, standing room only. Corpus Christi, more than a hundred turned away at the door. Iraan, 12 people took the time to come out and have a conversation.”
His road manager piped up from the back seat: “It was 15 to 20, Beto.”
O’Rourke laughed: “Fifteen people came out. That feels right to me.”
He is running his campaign as simply as possible: His first campaign ad featured snippets of video shot on an iPhone. His campaign staff lacks a pollster or highly paid consultants. He relies on an army of volunteers, many of whom have never been involved with a campaign.
That includes Veronica Pope, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mother of five from the Houston suburbs who was a Republican because she’s opposed to abortion and wants the government to be conservative when it comes to spending. But then Trump became the GOP nominee and, as a Latina, she just couldn’t vote for him, she said. Unless the party dramatically changes, she said, she can’t imagine ever voting for another Republican.
“Republicans have lowered it to the lowest level of rhetoric,” said Pope, who brought her family to see O’Rourke in Katy. “You cannot be ‘pro-life’ when you hate the people who live around you.”
To her, compassion for others should be part of politics.
“It’s a turning point,” she said. “It’s a matter of principle.”