On a sweltering July afternoon, around 100 folks gathered inside a massive house in Richardson for a Skype call.
Once the image of Beto O’Rourke appeared on the flat-screen TV, they erupted into applause and cheers.
“The thousands of Texans I’ve spoken to,” said the Democratic congressman from El Paso, want to “make sure Texans can find work that provides a living wage.”
This exchange marked the inaugural event for DFW for Beto, a new volunteer group that is raising funds for and supporting O’Rourke as he campaigns to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. The Lone Star State hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1994. At 5:30 p.m. Friday, O’Rourke is holding a town hall meeting at Benbrook Middle-High School (201 Overcrest Dr).
The congressman pledged to protect Medicaid, properly fund public schools, reform immigration laws, and keep special-interest money out of his run.
“I haven’t accepted a single corporate check or [money from] political action committees or special-interest donations,” he said.
One middle-aged man voiced his past frustrations supporting progressive candidates only to see them electorally pummeled in staunchly red Texas. O’Rourke responded with examples of shifting voter trends, describing his campaign’s strategy of “decreasing the margins we lose by in red counties and gradually increasing the ones we win by in blue counties.”
Several supporters then suggested slogans for his campaign. One woman pitched the phrase, “We’re better with Beto.” And it seemed to stick. The crowd was in high spirits, mingling well after the congressman signed off.
DFW for Beto co-founder Zayna Syed said her group’s game plan involves reaching out to the North Texas community through phone banks, neighborhood block walks, and fundraising events.
“We want to energize the DFW community,” she said. “Beto has low name recognition. We want people to know who he is and what he stands for.”
Last May, Syed (a recent high school graduate) formed DFW for Beto with the help of a couple of friends. She was surprised no similar group existed. In 2016, divisive rhetoric from then-presidential candidate Donald Trump toward Muslims motivated her to become politically active. Syed works for the youth leadership group Muslim Youth of North America.
The biggest challenge facing the 44-year-old congressman, according to several DFW for Beto volunteers I spoke with, is name recognition. Of the news stories that have surfaced, many highlight his time as guitarist and lead vocalist for the ’90s punk band Foss. O’Rourke’s political climb began 12 years ago when he was elected to the El Paso City Council. In 2012, he ousted Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes, who had served eight terms. Two personal blemishes have followed O’Rourke, including a 1995 arrest for breaking and entering at a college campus and, three years later, drunken driving. O’Rourke said the first incident occurred during a “prank.” He received deferred adjudication for the second incident and was never convicted.
When I spoke to O’Rourke in a recent phone interview, he was busy following the senate debate to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). He said he is concerned about the Republican effort to cut billions from Medicaid. One recent proposal could lead to 22 million Americans losing health coverage over nine years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
O’Rourke said his Democratic colleagues would rather see congressional efforts focused on improving the ACA. Long term, the congressman is advocating for a single-payer system that ensures all Americans have health coverage.
“You could do any number of things,” he said. “You can have a public option in the exchanges. You can expand Medicare or Medicaid eligibility. We need to get to universal care. It will make life better for more Texans.”
When asked about the daunting aim of unseating an incumbent senator, O’Rourke said he’s been in this position before.
“I ran against an incumbent in 2012,” he said, referring to Reyes. “I knocked on doors and listened to people. That’s how we won. No one gave me a snowball’s chance. We have a junior senator, [Cruz], who for the past 4 1/2 years has been focusing on himself and his career. And he’s put all those things before the people he should be serving.”
I reached out to Cruz’s office for comment but did not hear back.
With a population topping 7 million, North Texas will be crucial in the upcoming U.S. Senate race.
“Having this DFW group organize, it’s so encouraging and energizing,” he said. “They decided on their own to organize. It’s part of an amazing phenomenon of people in Texas saying they’ve had enough.”
Early last April, O’Rourke made his first campaign visit to Fort Worth. He still remembers the large crowd that turned out to greet him at Chimera Brewing Company on the Near Southside.
“I don’t think anyone knew who Beto O’Rourke was,” he recalled. “They knew someone was feeling the way they were. We’re going to spend time up in North Texas in August. I made some great friends up there. This movement has to involve people in communities getting it done, and I feel North Texas is just a great example of that.”
An April poll by the nonpartisan leadership group Texas Lyceum found Cruz and O’Rourke dead even, with each candidate garnering 30 percent support among potential voters polled. O’Rourke said his campaign raised $2.1 million in the first quarter of the year. Cruz’s camp released a statement saying they raised $1.6 million in the same time period. There are 18 months left in the race.
When I asked Syed if a lesser-known politician like O’Rourke has a chance of unseating a senator with deep-pocketed donors, she didn’t hesitate.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think he had a chance,” she said. “He is reaching out to everyone, no matter what their [political] affiliation is. I like that he doesn’t have any political consultants or pollsters. He is taking things as they come.”