The Texan jolting US politics is widely known by just his first name — Beto, a telegenic Democrat appealing for an equality-for-all revolution that he hopes leads his party to victory in November’s midterm elections.
But the lanky congressman, whose past life as a punk rocker endears him to young voters, faces a monumental challenge in unseating conservative Senator Ted Cruz and convincing Americans that President Donald Trump’s Republican Party no longer deserves to control Congress.
Beto O’Rourke, 45, arrives like a thunderclap at his campaign events, where supporters wave “Beto Believe It” signs and clamor for selfies with a passionate candidate who gets rock-star treatment.
It almost seems out of place in robustly red Texas, which no Democrat has represented in the US Senate in a quarter century.
But with Democrats on the rise nationally since the Trump presidency began, campaign cash is pouring in for Beto — and not from special interests or corporations, he insists.
His rallies attract overflow crowds, and the non-partisan Cook Political Report just shifted his race with Cruz from leans Republican to “toss up.”
“This looks like Texas, this looks like America, this looks like the future, right?” O’Rourke told supporters packing the pews recently at Good Street Baptist Church in south Dallas.
He addressed years of voter suppression and an unfair justice system he said targets minorities, the need for more healthcare options for Americans, and how Trump’s border policies have kept hundreds of detained immigrant children separated from their parents.
“Preach, Beto!” shouted an approving supporter.
Whether or not O’Rourke is speaking for most Texas voters will become clear on November 6.
The largest Texas cities are Democratic, but the rest of this sprawling southern state is comprised of conservative small towns and cowboy country, where traditions die hard and Cruz rules.
Beto is “very intelligent and he’s a good speaker, but he’s liberal as hell,” said realty executive James Griffith, 74, as he attended the West Texas Fair & Rodeo in Abilene.
– Tightening race –
“He’s socialist to the core,” Winston Ohlhausen, the 78-year-old GOP chairman for Taylor County, told AFP of Beto, claiming the Democrat does not share “Texas values.”
“He’s for sanctuary cities, no border wall, he’s for more taxes, for abortion… I think Cruz is going to wipe him out bad,” Ohlhausen said.
Polls show a tightening race in Texas, but also in Senate battles in Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee where Republicans are the incumbents.
Democrats are struggling to hold several of their Senate seats too. But experts say the political pendulum may be readying to swing left with a so-called blue wave, especially in the House of Representatives.
Democrats have fielded the party’s strongest slate of congressional candidates in years, particularly in Texas, where decorated military veterans and African-American educators are challenging Republican incumbents.
“This community is ready for change,” Colin Allred, a former NFL football player running for Congress in District 32 near Dallas, told AFP before marching in a pride parade.
“For far too long in Texas we have told too many people that they shouldn’t be involved in their own democracy, that they shouldn’t be engaged, that they shouldn’t vote,” Allred said.
The power of incumbency is strong in Texas, where Republicans are said to hold a voter advantage of 900,000 statewide.
But shifting demographics, including thousands of Hispanic immigrants whose citizen children are reaching voting age, are changing the state’s political hue.
“I don’t think Texas is the strict red state that it once was,” office worker Caroline Korst, 23, said at an O’Rourke rally in Plano.
Months of polling shows Americans prefer Democrats to represent them in Congress by nearly eight percentage points over Republicans.
Democrats “have the wind at their back, they have momentum right now and I’m concerned about it,” acknowledged Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist in the state capital Austin.
– Complacency –
The threat to Cruz is so unexpectedly sharp that Trump announced plans to campaign for the senator.
“The danger is that the economy is booming, people are focused on their jobs or their kids or going to church and they just don’t make it out to vote,” Cruz told a crowd in Columbus, Texas. “Our danger is complacency.”
“With Texas 49th out of 50 states in turnout, the midterms will be more about mobilizing than persuading voters, said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
While Henson predicts Democrats will have their best midterm cycle in at least a decade, “it’s going to be hard for them to alter the state-wide monopoly that Republicans hold, and that includes O’Rourke.”
But Beto has resonated in The Lone Star State.
Asked by AFP how he responds to Republican charges that he does not reflect Texan values, Beto said that after campaigning in all 254 counties — some of which went 85 percent to Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 — he feels “very good” about his chances.
“I have a good sense of who we are, and we’re not a people who make our decisions based on fear,” he said of Texans. “We’re not afraid of the future.”