EL PASO, Texas — Beto O’Rourke was on the phone in between stops while canvassing in Bexar county, Texas, and he was trying to walk a fine line between not pissing off his friends in the Biden campaign, perhaps even creating a controversy that harms Biden’s chances to win, and making an urgent plea for Joe Biden to come campaign in Texas — now.
“I’m not complaining and I don’t have any beef with the Biden campaign but I’m just trying to make the best case for Texas.”
O’Rourke has made the case privately to Biden and to Kamala Harris. “They have been very responsive in hearing me out, talking it through,” he said. Harris in fact will come here on Friday, making her the highest level campaign figure to hit the state.
O’Rourke has made the case to Jen O’Malley Dillon, his former campaign manager who now manages the Biden campaign. “Jen has been great,” he insisted, though others close to O’Rourke here in El Paso who make up his brain trust told me they have become deeply frustrated with her.
“It’s a cookie cutter campaign strategy,” said one top El Paso Democrat. “I feel like I’m reliving the Clinton campaign, like there’s a book, ‘Recipe for Presidential Campaigns,’ that’s just being followed.”
When the private pleas were ignored, O’Rourke made the case publicly in the Washington Post in early October. “Biden has his foot in the door,” O’Rourke and Tory Gavito, a Texas organizer, wrote about polls showing a tossup race between Biden and President Donald Trump, who won the state by 9 points in 2016, “and needs to kick it open for a quick end to the election.”
But it was one week until Election Day and time was running out. O’Rourke swerved between praising Biden and his team — and pleading with them that they might be blowing the greatest opportunity of the 2020 presidential race.
“Here’s one story that I think is fucking —” he said, pausing and trying to settle down. “They are spending something close to a kajillion dollars in Pennsylvania. I’m not a Pennsylvanian and I’ve only been there like 10 times. But the strategy seems like it’s focused on winning over disaffected white Dems.”
He noted how these were voters who had a habit of voting for Democrats for multiple generations but abandoned the party in 2016 for Trump. Were they really the future? “Maybe we get them back and maybe we don’t,” he said. “Good luck!”
Meanwhile, in Texas, he argued, an enormous and diverse electorate that more closely represents the new Democratic Party was turning out in massive numbers — one Austin area county had already exceeded its 2016 vote — and doing so in the face of the strictest voter laws in the country. All that may be needed to put Biden over the top was a visit from the candidate.
“If Joe Biden would come here it would be catalytic,” he insisted. “There are millions of Texans who have not voted yet.” O’Rourke even had the speech written if Biden came.
“To have Joe Biden come here and say, ‘You have my back and have turned out in record numbers and now I have your back. I know you had to wait eight hours to vote in Fort Bend County and you didn’t have to do that. I know they are shutting down the absentee drops off locations. I know they are trying to stop you from voting and I have your back in this!’ He’s talking about a fight for the soul of the country. This is a fight for the future of democracy."
O’Rourke again said he wanted to point out how much he appreciates Jill Biden being here last week and Kamala’s husband Doug — “he’s great!” — before that. But it wasn’t enough. O’Rourke is one of the most passionate and excitable speakers in American politics. When he gets going about an idea he gets obsessed with it — whether it’s the benefits of immigration, gun control, or why Democrats can win Texas. He starts speaking too fast and spitting out facts in defense of his proposition: coming to Texas — and spending more money in Texas — could prevent a post-election legal challenge by Trump. It could help Democrats take over the state legislature. It could help defeat John Cornyn and make a Democratic Senate takeover a sure thing.
“Can we win Texas?” he asked. “Fuck, people have been saying that forever. But this is about leveraging all of its power!”
But again, he didn’t want to criticize the Biden campaign.
“To state the obvious,” he said, “we are not all the way in agreement.”
The danger of hubris
The Texas temptation is a familiar problem for a presidential candidate to have, especially one ahead in the polls and flush with cash. Every four years presidential candidates on both sides have to grapple with the pleas of leading politicians in states demanding more attention from the top of the ticket.
“You get those all the time,” said an adviser to Biden who has worked on several presidential campaigns. “‘We need the candidate to come here, there, or wherever.’ And they always put it in the language of it being in the interest of the candidate and usually it’s in the state politician’s interest.”
After skipping the Senate race this year, O’Rourke has his eye on the 2022 Texas gubernatorial race, and since ending his presidential campaign he has devoted his efforts to organizing for Biden and Democrats up and down the ballot. “Beto will get credit if Biden wins Texas," said someone close to him.
“Beto is a young man,” said Chuck Rocha, a longtime Texas organizer who worked for the Sanders campaign and is now advising the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “He has a long future ahead of him and wants to help as many young local Democrats in Texas as he can.”
While the upside for O’Rourke is clear, the Biden campaign has greeted the request cautiously. Every campaign remembers the state that seduced its candidate at the last minute only to reject them. Karl Rove, the brains behind George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 victories, recalls the illusion of Hawaii during Bush’s reelection.
“Cheney flew all the way because one public poll suggested it was within striking distance,” he told me. Bush lost it by 9 points.
David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s top political adviser in 2008 and 2012, remembers two states that never lived up to the hype. “Missouri was always fool’s gold for us,” he said. “Georgia was tempting.”
The memories sting a lot more when the decision to invest in a state late in the campaign looks foolish in hindsight. In late October of 2000 Bush campaigned in California, a strategic decision that has long been seen as one of the dumbest in presidential politics given that he ended up losing the state by almost 12 points, losing the popular vote, and only made it to the White House after the Supreme Court intervened to stop a recount in Florida. (The California visit was so misguided that Rove has apparently forgotten about it. “Don’t believe we did,” Rove told me when I asked whether the campaign sent Bush to California.)
The Romney campaign in 2012 thought blue Minnesota was competitive. “We dumped some money in there late when some polls indicated some tightening,” Kevin Madden, who was a senior adviser to Romney, said in a text. “And of course it didn’t materialize on Election Day. ☹️”
In 2016, Hillary Clinton looked toward the Southwest and neglected the Midwest. “She went to Arizona,” said a top member of Clinton’s 2016 braintrust, who didn’t want to be named. “That didn’t work out.”
The danger for Biden is hubris. Nobody on his campaign wants Texas to be what California was to Bush in 2000 or what Arizona was to Clinton in 2016. What if Biden spends one of the six remaining days of the campaign in Texas — then narrowly loses the race to Trump? The recriminations would be brutal: Instead of staying focused on winning 270 electoral votes, he got sucked into a state that Democrats haven’t won since 1976 in a vain attempt to run up the score.
But O’Rourke is persuasive. While it’s true that Democrats have been talking about Texas turning blue since the turn of the century, the trends are clear. In 2016, Hillary Clinton invested little here and she did better than every previous Democratic nominee since her husband in 1996. In 2018, O’Rourke famously came within 3 points of defeating Senator Ted Cruz. He was the first Democrat to win the state’s four big metro areas since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Democrats won 12 statehouse seats and O’Rourke helped usher in a diverse new group of elected officials, including seventeen African American women who won judgeships.
The 2020 data all points toward the trend continuing. Polls have shown a competitive race here all year between Biden and Trump. Harris County, which includes Houston, is the most populous in the state. O’Rourke flipped it blue in his race. The early vote numbers in Harris this year show that turnout has already exceeded the county’s total turnout in 2016, a phenomenon that is playing out in many of the state’s metro and collar counties. The numbers suggest Texas is experiencing a massive suburban revolt against Trump.
“It’s either that or all of those suburban women that Trump asked to love him are suddenly rushing to vote for him,” Rocha said.
Soft support among Latinos
Biden’s weakness in the state is among Latino voters, especially in the border counties of the Rio Grande Valley. While turnout in the metro areas is up by 50 to 60 percent, the increases are closer to 30 percent along the border. And while polls of Texas Latinos have been erratic, Biden’s support has remained soft.
“Latinos still don’t know Joe Biden,” said Rocha. “They know he was the vice president, but they don’t know him.” He said that Biden fares better once Latinos learn more about him, but earlier in the year, when Biden was broke coming out of the primary, Trump invested heavily in Spanish language media. “When Donald Trump went up with his first ads he wasn’t talking about how great he was, he was just talking about how much Joe Biden sucks.”
Biden eventually caught up and has now tripled Trump’s spending on Spanish-language TV and radio, but Rocha said he’s worried that one of his first rules of politics might be tough to overcome: “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”
A top organizer in the Latino community here echoed Rocha. “Let’s be honest,” she said, “people are not super thrilled about Biden. And Kamala, for all she did for the African American community, there’s not a connection with the Latino community.”
Rocha has often been at odds with O’Rourke on state issues and he’s refreshingly candid about why. “I worked in Texas for a quarter-century and would have loved to work for Beto in 2018 and I didn’t, so maybe it starts there.”
He’s not as confident as O’Rourke that a Biden visit would help. “I love Beto’s energy around the state,” he said.” We don’t always agree on tactics but he’s a great cheerleader for Texas. A Biden visit would help because a rally would get on the front-pages of the papers, but is it the end-all be-all? No. It’s kind of out of Biden’s hands now.”
Boosting turnout among working-class Latino voters along the border is time-consuming, resource-intensive work. Rep. Veronica Escobar, who now holds O’Rourke’s old seat, has for the last few years been focusing on what she refers to “zero of three voters,” people who haven’t turned out in the last three elections.
Campaigns tend to ignore them. They don’t get mail. They don’t receive phone calls. In some of the border areas they might live in news deserts where the local newspaper and TV station doesn’t cover local politics. She sometimes spends 20 minutes talking to a single voter. This week, Escobar talked to a Latina woman from a family of immigrants. She was in her 20s and was registered but had never voted before and wasn’t planning to do so this year. Escobar finally realized that the issue was that she didn’t know how to vote. She walked her through the mechanics, explaining the details of the ATM-like touchscreen she would encounter at the polling place.
“I’ve never done it because I didn’t know how and nobody ever explained it to me,” the young woman said.
“It made me almost cry,” Escobar told me.
‘It’s galling and offensive’
The results in Texas will be known on election night. Democrats, including senior members of the Biden campaign, fear that in close states, Trump will turn to the courts to stop late-arriving mail-in ballots from being counted or perhaps gin up some other legal argument that makes its way top a now very pro-Trump Supreme Court. A recent decision in a Wisconsin case about mail-in ballot deadlines made clear this is not a far-fetched fear. Justice Brett Kavanaugh argued that late ballots could “flip the results of an election.” While Justice Elena Kagan responded that “there are no results to ‘flip’ until all valid votes are counted,” the Kavanaugh view prevailed in a 5-3 decision that refused the state to allow a deadline extension for absentee ballots.
“The antidote to that is Texas,” O’Rourke said. “We did not expand mail-in voting. We will know election night totals by 7 p.m. Texas could make Biden president and avert any constitutional nightmare.”
But O’Rourke also frames the case for a late Biden visit as a social justice cause. A recent comprehensive study ranked Texas as having the most restrictive voting laws in the nation. Voter registration stops 30 days before the election. The number of polling places has sharply declined across the state, and according to the study, Texas “has the most restrictive pre-registration law in the country.” (States like California allow new voters to pre-register at age 16, but Texas requires waiting until two months before one’s 18th birthday.)
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott recently closed absentee drop-off locations across the state, “bolstering GOP efforts to restrict voting,” as the Texas Tribune put it. Ominously, on Monday the state national guard announced that 1,000 troops would head to major cities over the coming days for “guarding historical landmarks such as the Alamo and the State Capitol.”
To O’Rourke, the announcement looked eerily familiar. In 2018, Border Patrol announced it would be conducting an undefined border control exercise in El Paso on Election Day. “I’ve lived in El Paso my whole life and there’s never been a fucking border patrol exercise!” he told me. (It was canceled amid an outcry.)
His plea to Biden is that Democratic voters here should be rewarded for the surge in enthusiasm.
More people have voted in Texas (population: 29 million) than in California (population: 39 million). “A state that ranked 50th in terms of ease of voting because of voter suppression is now first in turnout,” he said. “This is without the Biden campaign or the national party having spent much at all. This is being done against the most racist, unconstitutional suppression tactics in the country.”
Not everyone is as diplomatic as he is. “It’s galling and offensive,” said the person close to O’Rourke. “I just feel like, fuck you guys, we are doing the work on the ground and spending our own resources not for our own races but for Biden! Are you trying to depress turnout? It kills me!” (Biden has spent several million dollars on ads in Texas, but it only goes so far in a state this mammoth.)
O’Rourke seems to die a little inside every time he sees Biden return to Pennsylvania or Ohio or Iowa. “It’s tough when we see so much being spent on voters in the upper Midwest, who may or may not come back to us,” he said, “when we have the most diverse electorate swinging towards us and they just want to see the respect of the candidate showing up.”
He added, “So when you hear the note of frustration from Democrats in the state of Texas, that’s why.”
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