- Rep. Beto O’Rourke is quickly emerging as a national figure for the Democratic Party at a time when it’s struggling to find a clear leader and overcome its somewhat stale image with voters nationwide.
- O’Rourke is running against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas in one of the most watched races in the 2018 midterm elections.
- O’Rourke drew massive crowds along the campaign trail, and some polls have found him trailing Cruz by only single digits.
- The Democratic congressman went viral after defending NFL players who kneel during the national anthem, giving him a new level of exposure.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke is quickly emerging as a national figure for the Democratic Party at a time when it’s struggling to find a clear leader and overcome its somewhat stale image with voters nationwide.
O’Rourke, 44, who represents Texas’ 16th Congressional District and has generally been a low-profile member of Congress, is now at the center of the most watched Senate race in the country as he seeks to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
The El Paso native has a realistic shot of handing the Democratic Party a victory on Tuesday in a state it has habitually struggled to win over. And he’s running against one of President Donald Trump’s closest allies in Congress.
The ‘punk-rock Democrat’
O’Rourke, who was virtually unknown outside his district until recently, is rapidly winning over voters in Texas with his energetic campaign. His charisma and the ease at which he engages with voters have led some to describe O’Rourke as “Kennedyesque.”
Though O’Rourke is not exactly a household name, he isn’t a political novice. He ran for El Paso City Council in 2005 and served for two terms before running for Congress and winning in 2012.
The Texas congressman’s full name is Robert Francis O’Rourke, but he has gone by the nickname “Beto” since he was a kid.
Beto is a common Mexican nickname for Roberto, and some conservatives, including Cruz’s campaign, have attempted to portray O’Rourke as pandering to Latino voters with such a name, given that he’s of Irish descent.
But it’s notable that O’Rourke is fluent in Spanish in a state that borders Mexico and has a large number of Latino voters. Comparatively, Cruz, who is the son of a Cuban immigrant and was born Rafael Edward Cruz (taking on the nickname “Ted” as a kid), has acknowledged his Spanish isn’t as good as he’d like it to be.
As a young person in El Paso, O’Rourke became enamoured with the punk-rock scene, eventually joining a band and moving to New York City for a time. This has led some to label O’Rourke the “punk-rock Democrat.”
O’Rourke is an anti-Trump progressive
O’Rourke is a progressive Democrat who has championed policies such as legalizing marijuana, talked about wanting to curb the influence of corporate money in Washington, refused to take PAC money, and characterised healthcare as a “basic human right, not a privilege.”
The Democratic congressman has been highly critical of Trump’s approach to immigration, especially the “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in the separation of thousands of migrant families at the US-Mexico border.
“We try to tell ourselves, this is not America,” O’Rourke tells a crowd of a few thousand outside the kid tent city in Tornillo. “At the moment, it is.” pic.twitter.com/3cGbWC7bZ2
— chris hooks (@cd_hooks) June 17, 2018
In Congress, O’Rourke has served on the House Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committees, and he has focused heavily on improving healthcare for veterans.
By working together and moving beyond party, we were able to write, introduce, pass, and have signed into law a bill that expands mental health care access for veterans. pic.twitter.com/X8OAkzuIk7
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) August 22, 2018
O’Rourke’s viral moment
O’Rourke went viral over the summer after he defended NFL players who knelt during the national anthem to bring attention to police brutality and systemic racism.
When questioned about it by a veteran at a campaign stop, O’Rourke said: “Nonviolently, peacefully, while the eyes of this country are watching these games, they take a knee to bring our attention and our focus to this problem to ensure that we fix it. That is why they are doing it.”
O’Rourke added: “I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, any time, anywhere, in any place.”
The Democratic Senate candidate’s speech, which went on for nearly five minutes, was widely shared across social media.
‘I can think of nothing more American.’ — Beto O'Rourke — the man taking on Ted Cruz — brilliantly explains why NFL players kneeling during the anthem is not disrespectful pic.twitter.com/bEqOAYpxEL
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) August 21, 2018
O’Rourke was broadly praised for his remarks, which gave him a new level of national exposure.
O’Rourke has some political experience but is not viewed as part of the establishment
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset primary win over Rep. Joe Crowley earlier this summer in New York was undeniably momentous and widely viewed as yet another sign voters fervently desire new blood in Washington.
Ocasio-Cortez’s underdog story and tenacious but amicable demeanour immediately charmed people across the country. The 28-year-old became an overnight superstar for Democrats and was labelled the new face of the party.
But after stumbling in several interviews in the wake of her big win, Ocasio-Cortez has acknowledged she still has much to learn about how to do the job.
O’Rourke, who has similar policy positions to Ocasio-Cortez but has more political experience, arguably could be a more natural figure for the Democratic Party to lean toward as it remakes itself in the Trump era.
After spending over half a decade in Congress, O’Rourke has the advantage of being fairly seasoned and familiar with Washington without being widely viewed as linked to its corruption and elitism.
At a time when voters are rebelling against establishment politicians, candidates like O’Rourke and Ocasio-Cortez could be the new model for Democrats in their fight to take back Congress and the White House from the GOP.
O’Rourke could breathe new life into the Democratic Party
Texas hasn’t seen a Democrat win a statewide election in over 20 years, and it’s been roughly 30 years since a Democrat has won a Senate seat in the Lone Star State.
If O’Rourke defeats Cruz on Tuesday night, it would be a shot of adrenaline for the beleaguered Democratic Party, which is desperate to make up for 2016’s devastating loss by shattering the Republican majority in Congress in November’s midterms.
In this context, a victory could also push O’Rourke to the forefront of national politics and position him to rapidly rise in the ranks of the party.
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