On the upswing, Beto O’Rourke stays positive

Good Monday Austin:

You can’t quite tell it from this photo, but Ashley McKay of Austin got emotional when she met Beto O’Rourke in person for the first time on Sunday after a rally at Pearl Snap Hall in Georgetown.

“I just cried like a silly person,” McKay said just after the encounter.

“She just cries a lot,” said her husband, Blair, an architect.

“I cry a lot,” she agreed. “He’s just inspiring to me so it was exciting to meet him. We didn’t really talk about much,  except `Thanks.'”

The McKays, who are both from Houston but have lived in Austin – now near Windsor Park – for a dozen years, came to the Georgetown rally with their two young children –  Maisie Jane, who is almost a year old, and Reid, who is almost 4. They both have March birthdays.

“He’s just positive,” Ashley McKay said of O’Rourke. “He’s making no effort to be divisive in his politics and he wants to listen and he cares.”

“I follow him on Facebook. I hear speeches on-line, in videos, but I’ve been waiting for him to come to town,” she said. “He lived up to my expectations and then some. He said things I’ve never heard politicians say. Just talking about things our country has done that may have negatively affected other countries that never get acknowledged or recognized.”

Is it possible that O’Rourke could get elected?

“Yeah, with the way he’s campaigning hard all over the smaller areas and regions that don’t have any other  media or outlets to hear an alternative message to what they’ll hear on AM radio,” said Blair McKay. “I think getting out there and putting  a face to a name early and taking the time to do it well before the election, I think he has a really good chance. He’ll have some reputability before they try to tear him down.”

“He’s a machine,” Ashley said. “He just keeps on going.”

“He’s very eloquent; he has those Obamaesque qualities,” Blair said. “He not only speaks well but can speak on any subject you throw at him, and is very genuine and authentic when he comes across to people. And he lives what he preaches. His kids are going to public school in El Paso. They’re getting the dual language program integrated into the culture of El Paso. And his kids are going to the same school he went to, which is really impressive. He’s a politician, and yet he’s so close to home. He’s very impressive.

O’Rourke rolled into Georgetown – the latest in a succession of rallies drawing large and enthusiastic crowds – coming off very good fundraising numbers.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has raised nearly three times as much money as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.

O’Rourke, a third-term Democratic congressman from El Paso, has raised $2.3 million through Feb. 14 toward his U.S. Senate campaign. Cruz, a Houston Republican seeking his second term, raised $800,000.

Asked about O’Rourke’s fundraising momentum at a recent campaign stop in New Braunfels on behalf of Republican congressional candidate Chip Roy, Cruz told reporters he does not underestimate the passion on the left.

“They’re angry, they hate the president,” Cruz said. “We’ve seen all across the country the Democrats’ fundraising numbers are through the roof because their base is so energized.”

“This is a volatile political time,” Cruz said. “That energy on the hard left is dangerous … if conservatives are complacent, if conservatives stay home. I hope that doesn’t happen.”

“There are a lot more conservatives than liberals in the state of Texas, but they have to show up at the polls for their votes to count,” Cruz said.

But the tone in Georgetown was exuberant, upbeat.

I believe that O’Rourke only mentioned Cruz once, and only to indicate that that he remains obstructionist by nature.

O’Rourke also spent very little time on Trump, only mentioning him at the end of a rhetorical thread on the failure of the War on Drugs, and likening it to what O’Rourke considers the president’s unhealthy obsession with a border wall.

Kimberly Owens, a 58-year-old accountant in Georgetown, who grew up in a staunch Republican household and whose husband voted for Trump, shook hands with O’Rourke, just ahead of the McKays.

After becoming aware of O’Rourke and very much liking the first impression, “I did some more research on him and I think he’s great. This is what the country needs. Young people. Get rid of the older people, even though I’m the older people now. It’s time for a change.”

“My mom was a diehard Republican supporter, and so was my dad. She was always pro-life, which – she would have been 100 this year – so that was way back when. But they always told us to vote for the best person, no matter what party.”

Did she vote for Cruz last time?

“No, I cannot stand the man,” Owens said. ” He looks like the guy from the Munsters. He is evil. Everything that comes out of his mouth is so wrong. I’ve never been a fan of Ted Cruz.”

“I’ve almost got my husband convinced, so that’s good,” Owens said. “He’s a real Trump supporter. I think there’s hope.”

“Also, I think the problem, which (O’Rourke’s) addressed, is that we tend to be a non-voting state. And I think that’s where it lies, to get people who always say, “It won’t matter whether I vote,’ to vote for him, because I think it will matter.”

Owens said President Trump should, “quit calling people names, quit bullying people. I work with kids in a Scouting program and everything we teach our children not to do, he does.”

I mentioned to her the political tension among Democrats this year about whether to concentrate on rousing the base, or seek to appeal to the center.

“You need to do both,” she said.

On Saturday I went to a town hall of sorts at the Tamale House East with Democratic political consultant Joe Trippi. Trippi was in Texas to spend a day tagging along with one office clients, Joseph Kopser who is seeking the Democratic nomination in the 21st Congressional District, now held by Republican Lamar Smith.

Trippi wasn’t there to talk about the 21st, but to talk more generally about the lessons of Democrat Doug Jones narrow triumph over Judge Roy Moore i  last year’s Alabama special U.S. Senate election. Trippi was Jones’ chief media strategist.

“There are a lot of people who say, if you just get all the Democrats out,” Trippi said. “There were just not enough Democrats in Alabama to win that election. It doesn’t work that way and there are plenty of districts where it doesn’t work that.”

“What we discovered its that the common ground message we wanted to deliver was the  most powerful message in the race,” Trippi said. “This is what’s going on in my view. Trump is fueling two things. He is absolutely fueling the energy among the Democratic base, minority and young voters in particular. To give you an idea, in 2008 for Barack Obama, African-Americans, who are 24 percent of the population, were 27 percent of the vote. In 2017, for Doug Jones, they were 29, 30 percent of the vote. Young people. Obama in 2008 won under-45’s nationwide by 15 percent. Doug Jones won the under-45 group by 28 points.”

Trippi said that Republican women, particularly in the suburbs, and under-25 college educated voters, “they can’t take the chaos,” under Trump.

“They may even like some  the things that he’s doing, but they can’t stand the chaos. They’re exhausted by constantly being on edge, this feeling of chaos and exhaustion they just want it to end. I call it chaos exhaustion,” Trippi said. “They talk in terms of, `I can’t believe I’m saying this but for the first time in my life  I’m actually thinking of voting for a Democrat,’ which is a huge opening, particularly for Republican women who are thinking like that, and what we discovered is finding common ground and ending chaos and division does not chill the Democratic base, the intensity we went up, the more we talked about it.”

Trippi said the critical ad for the Jones campaign was one that drew on the lessons of the Civil War, and made the case that “there’s honor in civility and compromise.”

“The Republican women in our tracking moved immediately. that’s when we close to within one point, 46-45.

That thing had been running for a week, with the theme of common ground, rejecting hostilities, we closed the ap and the next day the Washington Post story came out,” alleging Moore’s history of inappropriate behavior with young women.

“For anybody who thinks, “Oh gosh, Moore’s dead, you’ve got it in the bag,” let me tell everybody, you’re out of your freaking mind. It helped him. Why? Because it’s an attack from the Washington Post, it’s a fake yearbook, people are starting to go to their partisan corners again.”

In places where Democrats cannot win with Democratic votes alone, Democratic candidates have to be careful not to trigger tribal party loyalties.

O’Rourke treads the line well.

He is all about being open to everyone, to reaching out, talking and listening to people regardless of party or ideology, going to places where Democrats seldom if ever go. But he is not a political milquetoast, he takes clear stands on issues and he clearly excites Democratic passions like no candidate in recent Texas history.

I asked him after the rally about walking that line.

“It’s not a line that I’m conscious of, that’s for sure,” he said. “You know somebody who came along just now to say hello, said, `Thank you for being positive and talking about what we’re going to do and what we’re going to achieve and the way we are going to listen to everyone. That’s just the way that I feel.’ And I think that it’s so unusual that it moves all of us.”

“I was just talking to the police officer who said he was, like, scanning the crowd, walking through, and it was so positive,” O’Rourke said. “He was just so shocked because you think at this type of thing people might want to get angry, you may assume people want to get angry and we just want to hate on somebody, but that’s just not where we are and not what excites us and not what this campaign’s about. We’re just following the lead of the people that we’re with and it’s very positive.”

A big part of O’Rourke’s appeal is his persona and openness. He is live streaming almost everything he does.

On Saturday, he began by giving a report from back home in El Paso, relaying a telephone conversation he had just had with his wife about their son, Ulysses.

“He’s 11-years-old. He plays for the El Paso Apes,” O’Rourke said.

“I think today he’s going to play outfield,” O’Rourke said. He also pitches, but, “he’s not the fastest or the strongest pitcher in the roster. In fact he pitches fairly slow compared to most of his other teammates, but there’ just some kind of sneaky spin when he lets go. And they put him in yesterday and he was able to get all of the first three batters he faced out, so we’re really proud of him.”

“Amy took him yesterday to his Destination Imagination competition,” O’Rourke continued. ”I don’t know if any of you have participated in a DI competition locally, but this would be frightening for me. They were supposed to put on a five-minute, one-act play. They were given two minutes to prepare. The are given the props and the scenario and they get two minutes to huddle together, and they have to act this out over the course of five minutes . And Ulysses and his DI team under the guidance of Miss Fernandez of Mesita Elementary, the same public school I went to growing up in El Paso, got first place and they are going on to the state competition.”

“But of all those things,” O’Rourke said, “the baseball game, retiring the first three batters that came up in the last inning, winning the DI competition along with his teammates, the thing that Amy was proudest of – and please don’t share this outside this meeting right here – Ulysses spent 23 minutes on the phone with a girl in his class as they were driving out to the baseball game, and Amy said, he’s never done that before. And  I said, `Well, what were they  talking about,” and she said, “They were just talking about whatever was on their mind and they just had a great conversation.'”

“And I thought that was great and it made me happy how excited Amy was about Ulysses connecting with someone in that special way – 11-years-old. It’s crazy how quickly they grow up.”

“This has just been, outside of family … this campaign, getting to do this with you over the more than 12  or 13 months, has been the most amazing, the most thrilling experience of my life, and I’m just so proud of us, of this state, regardless of party. Right? That does not matter. No importa. Republican, Democrat, Independent. Voter, non-voter. All 28 million of us. All human beings, Americans before we are anything else. We’re standing up and doing what our country needs from us at its most critical moment.”

“And it’s so exciting to be part of it,” O’Rourke said. “And I’ve had the special pleasure this weekend, for the first time in the campaign, of having my, mom, Melissa with me, and Tia Patricia, her sister, Patricia, here with us today here in Georgetown.”

“Nothing beats having your mom as your driver on the campaign trail,” O’Rourke said.

“Bringing your luggage up to your room, having her lay out your clothes for the next day, ironing your shirt, sewing that button back on your suit,” he said. “And eating donuts.”

“We had breakfast today at Jack and Jill Donuts in Lorena, Texas”.

“And we play a game called Donut Roulette, where the person who goes in gets to pick the donuts for everyone else in the van, and if you don’t eat the donut that was picked for you, you lose a point”.

“And even better was my mom drove us to the ice cream parlor last night in Waco at Heritage Creamery, and we had a town hall there that began at 9:30 and ended at 11 p.m., and I was eating ice cream for dinner, which is every child’s fantasy of what adult life will be like. Your mom’s going to be driving you around the state of Texas eating ice cream for dinner and donuts for breakfast, and it just felt right. This is the right way to do this,” O’Rourke said.

“We’re doing this only with people, human beings, no PACs, or corporations or special interest groups involved. Just us.”

There were some slight differences in tone, though not substance, between the afternoon family gathering in Georgetown and the night-time town hall with a mostly Baylor University crowd in Waco.

In Georgetown, there was this.

He talked about this for a few minutes in Georgetown, but in Waco, he went on for longer and at a  higher emotional pitch:

How fucked up is it that PTA meetings are now being conducted to help parents tell their kids that when some guy with an AR-15 walks into their room – and you know what the message is today for those little third-graders and fourth-grades, and fifth graders – and I’m the father of a fifth-grader, a fourth-grader and a first-grader? The message is you’re supposed to create as much chaos as you possibly can. They want you to yell and scream and dance around and throw books and just keep moving. And when the question is asked, how is that going to save my 7-year-old, or my 11-year-old, or my 9-year-old, and they say, it might not, but what it will do is it will buy some more time for other kids in the class. It will take ten seconds if no one does anything and they’re slaughtered like sheep. It will take 20 seconds if there’s movement and activity and chaos in the classroom, and yes, most kids will die, but maybe two or three will be able to escape through an open door in the midst of that chaos.

Why in the world are we in 2018, in the wealthiest, most powerful country, the inspiration for so much of the rest of the world, having these discussions at PTA meetings, in our schools, in our lives, in our communities, here in Texas. What if we decided that no one should be able to buy an AR-15. No matter how fun it is to shoot, it’s only purpose, it was only intended to take lives and we’re taking too many lives with it.

It may not poll well, it may not be popular, it may lose us some votes from some people in this state, but I don’t care because I have to look myself and my kids in the eye and account for what I did when I had the opportunity, when I was in a position of public trust, when we had the power to do the right thing. 

I’ve been in Congress for five years, we have not had one debate on guns, on gun safety, on saving lives. It’s why I don’t take a dime from the NRA.

There was one question in Georgetown that O’Rourke did not directly answer.

Afterward, I asked O’Rourke about that.

“I wish I had just said to her, which I can say to you on the record,” O’Rourke said. “I will not run for president. I want to be the full-time senator for Texas.”

Here is O’Rourke from last night arriving in Austin.

And here holding a running town hall first thing this morning in Austin.

Lastly, here are figures from the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, indicating that, for all O’Rourke’s campaigning across the state, a large swath of the electorate still doesn’t know who he is or have a fix on him.

 

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