What’s so special about Beto?

Beyond red and blue.
Beyond red and blue.
Image: Reuters/William Philpott
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The race between Republican Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke has stirred national interest in the battle for the US Senate seat up for grabs in Texas.

It’s easy to see why O’Rourke, a congressman who remains the underdog, has developed a fan base in reliably blue areas like New York City and Los Angeles. He appears to be personable and hip, is passionate about liberal causes, and is running against Cruz, a conservative who can come off as less than smooth and faces disapproval even from within his own party.

What’s less obvious is how Beto-mania has taken hold over big swaths of the Lone Star State, a place where no Democrat has won statewide office since 1994. Over the past few months, Beto paraphernalia has cropped up in yards and on SUV bumpers all over my Dallas neighborhood. Last week, hundreds of Beto devotees got up before the sun for the chance to run with their idol around a nearby lake.

He’s transformed Democratic regulars into fervent volunteers, and the politically neutral into committed voters. “He gave me hope,” said Lauren Thompson, a 22-year-old recent college graduate who sat out the 2016 presidential election and is determined to show up for the midterms. O’Rourke is even turning some Republicans. Dianne Martin, a 70-year-old retired high-school Latin teacher who said she once felt conflicted about Barack Obama because of his race, told me now she wants to be “on the right side of history.”

While Beto can thank Donald Trump’s divisive approach for some of that support, the Texan stands out from other Democratic contenders across the country because of his knack for upending the red-blue categories that have polarized US politics.

At his rallies, you can see the outlines of the eclectic coalition that helped him raise a record $38.1 million over the past three months: minorities and whites, gay activists and suburban moms, students and middle-aged professionals. It may not be broad enough to swing Texas—polls consistently show O’Rourke behind Cruz—but it could work elsewhere.

Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke

O’Rourke himself defies categorization often used to explain how Americans vote. He’s white, but grew up in El Paso, a place where Hispanics dominate numerically and culturally.  He goes by Beto, a Spanish nickname for Robert, and is fluent in Mexican culture, often waxing poetic about Ciudad Juárez across the border from his hometown. He’s been a punk rocker and a businessman. He’s a champion for veterans and for the LGBTQ community.

“He’s sort of a chameleon,” says Howard Campbell, an anthropologist at University of Texas at El Paso, who counts O’Rourke as a personal friend. “He has multiple identities that allow him to have this really broad constituency from many walks of life.”

In psychology, that’s called “multiplicity of belonging,” says Sarah Gaither, a Duke University professor who studies identity. It’s a trait developed by biracial people who have to juggle two sets of traditions and norms. (Obama is seen as an example.) Research shows that back-and-forth makes them more flexible and open to other viewpoints.

O’Rourke is not biracial but he describes the border shaping his outlook in similar ways. El Paso is so isolated from the centers of power that locals have to make do on their own, which necessarily requires everyone working together regardless of background, says the former councilman. He also knows firsthand that stereotypes don’t live up to their hype: Instead of the “scary, lawless place” the border is made out to be, El Paso is one of the safest cities in the US, he told me. (El Paso’s crime rate is below the national average.)

His whole campaign is about subverting stereotypes. In his stump speech, there is no Democrat-Republican divide, or the assumptions that come with it: minority-white, pro-choice-pro-life, urban-rural. Instead, the fault lines fall between people and corporate interests, morality and immorality, common aspirations and fear-mongering. This kind of messaging may sound pollyannaish, but it’s also crude electoral math. Democrats in Texas—and in many other places—simply can’t win if they stick to the existing red-blue framework.

An exhausted majority

O’Rourke takes pains to remind supporters that his message hasn’t been filtered through pollsters or focus groups. Yet what he’s doing is exactly what at least some research indicates he should.

The differences between Democrats and Republicans obviously exist, just in a lot fuzzier way than political ads might suggest, according to a recently released study by More in Common, an international nonprofit that studies polarization. Between hardcore liberals and hardcore conservatives, which made up a third of respondents to a national poll conducted by the group, there’s an “exhausted majority” that accounted for almost 70%.  Unlike their counterparts on the extreme wings of the political spectrum, they are more flexible and willing to compromise; they are also tired of political polarization and feel left out.

According to the polling, that dissatisfied middle is primed for O’Rourke’s message: “I just get that people aren’t buying the divisions as an excuse for disfunction anymore,” he says. “Find the guy or gal that you can work with and get it done.”

The study also backs O’Rourke’s decision to delve into touchy issues, such as immigration:

And racism:

Still, it’s one thing to come up with the right messaging and another to have the uncomfortable conversations with potential voters.

Straddling the Republican-Democratic divide

If you go to a O’Rourke rally, he will likely show up wearing his uniform of dark jeans and button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up, and many of the same stories and scripted points. The details he tailors to each locale aim to show he’s a deeply savvy politician, in addition to the idealistic Texan he seeks to portray. Take a rally last week at a hotel conference room in McKinney, a heavily Christian suburb in a county Trump won by 17 points in 2016. “If you’re a Republican and you’re here, you’re in the right place,” he said to applause.

He then warmed up the crowd by going over his kids’ Halloween costumes. One is going to be a skeleton. Another graduated from doughnut to doughnut vendor, he said, drawing laughs. That cute anecdote soon led into him connecting the thousands of immigrant children the Trump administration separated from their parents to the attendees’ own experience:

“Imagine a child, your kid…traveling 2,000 miles, making that journey, maybe surviving it, getting to our front door, and then what?” he asked. “Instead of finding that salvation or that safety that you sought for that child for whom you were willing to risk your live, your worst nightmare: that kid taken from you, by force if necessary.”

And then back to the O’Rourke family, to hammer the point. “I guarantee you, Amy and I, faced with the same dilemma…” he said referring to his wife. “We’d scoop them as well and travel any distance.”

He never used the word God, but framed the immigrants’ plight in no uncertain religious terms. “Strangers in a strange land,” he called immigrants at one point. At another, he brought up a veiled reference to the final judgement. “These things that are going on in this country right now,” he said, “all of us will face some kind of judgment or accounting for what we did or what we failed to do.”

It’s a gutsy narrative to peddle in a majority-white community whose members haven’t always graciously accepted its growing diversity. But it got big claps from the audience. The strategy seems to be working elsewhere in Texas, too. “I care as much about babies at the border as I do about babies in the womb,” an evangelical O’Rourke supporter from Dallas recently told the New York Times.

Race and class and Beto

Just a few days before, O’Rourke had been at University of Texas at Dallas. He had his standard uniform on, with the addition of a green baseball cap with the school’s logo. Here, too, he spoke about immigrant children and commonalities between Republicans and Democrats, with the occasional sprinkling of a curse word.

“Let’s not allow the differences to define us. Differences of party, differences of geography, differences of race or religion, sexual orientation, how many generations you can claim that your family has been in Texas, or whether your family just got here yesterday. Right now we’re all in the same boat,”‘ he said to an ovation.

While his message of unity can start sounding like Obama’s, it goes beyond it. The last Democratic president tended to gloss over racial divisions and didn’t talk about what caused them, says Ian Haney López, author of a book on how politicians use dog-whistling to divide whites and minorities. O’Rourke is a serious student of race relations, as his viral answer explaining his support for NFL players taking a knee during the US national anthem attests, Haney López adds.

At UT Dallas, O’Rourke also spent considerable time going over how everyone in the diverse audience is getting equally swindled by political-action committees driving policy by dangling generous contributions in front of congress members. The most ambitious among them, he said, want to be on committees that regulate big-moneyed industries. “They want to be on Ways and Means, where we rewrite the tax policy,” he said. “And you’re not surprised to find out that those tax cuts and tax bill benefitted not you, but corporations who are already sitting on record piles of cash, the very wealthiest of this country at a time of record income inequality.”

O’Rourke’s chosen tactics are supported by another study, this one funded by Demos, a progressive think tank with offices in New York, Boston, and Washington. Post-Trump, Democrats have been in-fighting over whether they should stick to working-class issues to win back whites who switched sides or go full-on progressive and cater to minorities. Both of those options turn off some “persuadables”—a group that partly overlaps with the “exhausted majority.”

The traditional Democratic message of “working families are struggling” à la Bernie Sanders clashes with the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps belief deeply seated in the American subconscious, says Anat Shenker-Osorio, a communications consultant who participated in the Demos research. “In our culture, if you’re having trouble making ends meet, it’s something you did,” she explains. “Some part of us defaults to ‘Well, did they really try?'” Meanwhile, the traditional way of taking about racial injustice, which pits whites against blacks, makes many whites feel they’re being accused of racism.

“Persuadables” are more likely to buy an argument that combines both class and race and introduces the element of big corporations and politicians purposely fanning racism to divide Americans of all stripes. “It shifts the basic polarity from white vs. non-white to the rich vs. the rest of us,” adds Haney López, who also worked on the Demos study. “It creates the possibility of a real coalition across race lines designed to get the country back.”

The O’Rourke take on those concepts spans age, gender and race. At the rally, it resonated with Kareema Nadurath, a 20-year-old Hispanic student who likes O’Rourke’s focus on minorities. And with Herbert Ganz, a white 63-year-old medical lab director who likes his emphasis on civility and compromise.

That nation beyond Texas

O’Rourke’s pan-Texan approach leaves some unanswered questions. Though he promotes liberal stances, like abortion rights and marijuana legalization, his congressional record is pretty middle of the road. When he was recently asked at a Texas Tribune conference how close he falls to progressive newcomers like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he hesitated for a moment before answering, “I place myself in Texas.”

Despite his background as a company owner, he has been relatively mum on how he would represent the business sector—a notable omission in his staunchly pro-business state. When I asked him about it during an interview, he circled back to some of his more general talking points: healthcare reform and investing in education, which he said would benefit companies through healthier and more qualified workers.

Despite the buzz around his campaign, it’s unclear how many Beto fans will actually show up on election day. Cruz voters easily outnumbered O’Rourke’s supporters in the primaries.

The more pressing question for Americans as a whole is whether his approach is translatable beyond Texas. The US border’s bicultural diversity is very different from the panoply of races and ethnicities of bigger urban areas across the country. And it’s going to be hard to reproduce O’Rourke’s charisma and border-crossing abilities even as a growing number of Americans identifies as multiracial. In theory, though, the research shows that candidates all over the US would do better if they stop pigeonholing voters—and themselves.

It would take dozens of Betos to get the wheels of bipartisanship fully churning. Then again, if O’Rourke wins Texas, he might start a national trend.