Why Beto O’Rourke’s 254-County Strategy Flopped in the Texas Senate Race
December 22, 2018
PLACID, Texas — JoAnn Randall, a writer and rancher in Placid, a dot on the map 145 miles northwest of Austin in the geographical center of Texas, describes herself as a political independent.
Randall and her husband, Bill, a blues and rock guitarist, vote in the Republican primaries in McCulloch County because that’s the only game in town.
But, this past election, JoAnn Randall was smitten with Beto O’Rourke.
“All you have to do is get in the presence of him and it’s contagious, especially if you’re a woman because he’s so danged good-looking,” said Randall, who is 79 and has lived in the county for 25 years. “The charisma just emits.”
When O’Rourke came to McCulloch County, population 7,957, and neighboring San Saba County, population 5,959, for well-attended town halls on April 6, Randall was his guide.
They were stops 231 and 232 of O’Rourke’s tour of all 254 counties, and, Randall wrote at the time, “It was one of the most exciting, enlightening and hopeful days of my life.”
Seven months later, O’Rourke won just 400 votes in McCulloch County, or 15 percent of the vote.
That was half a percentage point less than Hillary Clinton received in 2016, 3 points less than Barack Obama’s total in 2012 and 9 points less than Obama’s tally in 2008.
O’Rourke’s 11.9 percent of the vote in San Saba County told the same story.
Rural Texas, it seems, was immune to Betomania, or, more accurately, it had symptoms of both the phenomenon and the antibodies creating a rural firewall that saved U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, from defeat.
“It pulled every Republican out of the woodwork,” said Jerry Blankenship, the San Saba County GOP chairman.
In his 2.6-percentage point victory, Cruz out-polled O’Rourke by 214,921 votes thanks to the Republican’s lopsided margin of 446,693 in the state’s 172 rural counties.
Overall, O’Rourke did make some small progress over recent Democratic performances, winning 25.6 percent of the state’s rural vote, a small rebound from the last two cycles, in which Hillary Clinton won 24.3 percent against President Donald Trump in 2016 and Wendy Davis won 23.5 percent against Gov. Greg Abbott in 2014.
But as recently as 2002 — eight years after Texas Democrats last won statewide office — Democrat Ron Kirk won 40 percent of the rural vote and 44 percent of the urban vote running against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, for an open seat in the U.S. Senate.
In the weeks since the election, Democrats have been left to puzzle over why a candidate as good as O’Rourke gained so little ground in rural Texas after covering so much ground to introduce himself, and if there is anything he might have done differently to coax just enough additional votes from these sparsely populated precincts to have won. And, considering O’Rourke’s quick turn from losing Senate candidate to potential presidential prospect, what might his poor showing outside the state’s largest metro areas reveal about O’Rourke’s strengths and weaknesses as a possible national candidate in 2020?
“Democrats see in him maybe a teeny bit the reincarnation of Jack Kennedy,” Blankenship said in an interview in the café at the Dofflemyer Hotel, a six-room boutique hotel located in what was an early 20th century gentlemen’s social club in downtown San Saba. And, Blankenship said, the thinking went, “If Republicans can’t beat him in Texas, then it’s all over. That may have been part of the motivation for the extraordinary turnout among Republicans, overcoming that very possibility.”
Of O’Rourke, Blankenship said, “My sense is that the people in San Saba found him very personable and, as an individual, a likeable fellow, perhaps more so than his opponent who certainly doesn’t give off the warm and fuzzy vibes. But I think people here were concerned about the prospect of Democratic majorities in Congress. What comes with him is potential control of the Senate.”
“I think it’s not so much Republicans being especially inspired by their candidates,” Blankenship said. “It’s more that there’s a perception that the Democratic Party has shifted so far to the left that people are concerned there’s an existential threat to their value system if the Democrats were put into a position of unchecked power, so they’re pretty much motivated to get out to vote.”
Asked to identify those threatened values, Blankenship said, “Traditional rural Texas values of personal liberty, independence, limited government, low levels of taxation, property rights, Second Amendment rights. Those values have been pretty constant across time in rural Texas, and I think there’s a widely held perception that those are more faithfully upheld by the Republican Party these days.”
Blankenship, who has a Ph.D. in math, moved to San Saba from Dallas 24 years ago after retiring at 49 from an oil company. Last year, the county judge asked if he’d fill in as county chairman to administer the primary.
“I pretty much inherited my party affiliation from my mother’s side of the family,” he said. “They were Quakers involved in the anti-slavery movement and in the founding of the Republican Party in the 1850s.”
Blankenship believes rural Texas values are an inheritance from the “common traits of settlers on the frontier. You share a certain set of values.”
Rural Texas represents a declining share of the electorate — 11.1 percent in 2018, down from 15.2 percent in 2002. But it occupies an enormous place in the state’s geography, history, economy, culture and psyche.
“Texas is so overwhelmingly urban and so overwhelmingly rural at the same time,” said Josh Blank, manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.
Roy Spence, the Austin advertising guru, grew up in Brownwood in Brown County, which borders McCulloch and San Saba counties to the north. Rural Texas, Spence said, is the wellspring of the Texas Democratic Party and the party can’t wholly recover politically without reconnecting with its roots and “not just show up but ‘fess up and have a plan to revitalize these communities.”
He quotes T.S. Eliot: “We must not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.”
O’Rourke’s degree from Columbia University is in English literature. His favorite book is Homer’s “The Odyssey,” unabridged. He says the only reason he and his wife, Amy, named their oldest son, Ulysses, was because they didn’t have the guts to name him Odysseus.
His campaign was from start to finish a road trip, a journey of discovery, livestreamed all the way on Facebook, enabling him to establish a uniquely personal, ongoing and interactive relationship with his following. Traveling to all 254 counties was a narrative device, a laudable mission, going places Democrats had stopped going, didn’t care or even feared to tread, that propelled the campaign forward and showed O’Rourke off to his best advantage — caring, earnest, reasonable, open-hearted, post-partisan, perpetually on the go, and, for all his generally liberal positions, more idealistic than ideological — while providing perpetually refreshed opportunities for positive press coverage.
Andrew White, a Houston businessman who decided to run for the Democratic nomination for governor after the death of his father, former Gov. Mark White, in the summer of 2017, said that when he was thinking about running he spoke with O’Rourke, who was already embarked on his Senate run. O’Rourke recalled for White that when he was contemplating running for Senate, “I called your dad” who told him, “Don’t forget it’s a 254-county race.”
Two weeks after the November election, White, who lost his bid for the Democratic nomination as a moderate alternative to former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, wrote an opinion piece that appeared in the Houston Chronicle under the headline, “Ted Cruz was right about Beto.”
“I hate to admit it, but Ted Cruz was right,” he wrote. “Beto O’Rourke was too liberal for Texas voters. Despite his magnetic charisma, unending work ethic and $70 million war chest, O’Rourke lost — and he lost even though he had almost double the votes of any other Democrat in Texas midterm history. So, what happened? The 254-county strategy didn’t work as planned.”
White told the Austin American-Statesman that O’Rourke followed his father’s instructions to campaign in all 254 counties literally, but did not give those more moderate and conservative voters in rural Texas and elsewhere who were drawn to his candidacy a reason to believe he was something other than a standard-issue liberal Democrat.
“He was still knee-jerking to the left,” said White, who said that, for example, while O’Rourke was right to oppose building a border wall, he didn’t make it clear each time he said it that that didn’t mean, as Cruz alleged, that he was for open borders.
“Beto is a true romantic,” White said. “He wants to do it the idealistic way, and, for him that means complete transparency, which he brought into his life and into our world through Facebook, and that complete transparency means no PACs, no consultants, no polls, and I think he wanted it his way and only his way. And he did, and we fell in love with him and people all over the country did, but the question is, can he still be authentic to himself and yet make wise decisions about the choice of words that he makes as he talks about nuanced, difficult issues?”
Angelina Bonetti Deans, who helped arrange O’Rourke’s town hall event in Brady, the McCulloch County seat, said she believes O’Rourke coming to Brady, visiting all the counties, was an important beginning.
“Oh, absolutely, sure, it showed he gave a damn,” she said. “He cared enough to stay on the road.
“I think he needs just a little more of a rough edge,” Deans said. “He needs to play up the rural side of himself. Eat a steak, wear some camo, shoot a gun.”
Cruz strategist Jeff Roe does not think O’Rourke’s 254-county strategy was smart or successful. He assessed its impact as superficial and ephemeral, not a serious attempt to woo rural voters, with no follow-up in the field or on the air.
“Everything was like the Fourth of July, but there was no Fifth of July,” Roe said.
The Cruz campaign was surprised and delighted as O’Rourke, who didn’t distinguish himself as exceptionally liberal in his three terms in Congress or in the run-up to the Democratic primary, appeared to tack left during the campaign, or at any rate, to do very little to parry Cruz’s depiction of him as out of touch with Texas values.
For rural voters, that label stuck. Between his visits to San Saba and Brady in early spring and the November election, O’Rourke transmogrified from intriguing stranger to bad hombre for many rural voters.
In successive UT/Texas Tribune surveys, O’Rourke went from being viewed unfavorably by 15 percent of rural respondents in February, to 29 percent in June to 64 percent in October.
“This election really came down in many ways to voters’ views of Trump. In our post-election polling, Cruz won 92 percent of voters with favorable impressions of Trump, and Beto won 92 percent of voters with unfavorable views of Trump,” said Chris Wilson, who did the polling for Cruz’s campaign. “In counties outside the largest 30 in the state, Trump’s image was 66 percent favorable/22 percent unfavorable. In an election so polarized by the national environment, there really wasn’t much room for Beto to make inroads with rural Texas voters.”
“While Beto did show up in rural counties, the issues he raised — things like supporting kneeling during the national anthem, open borders and impeaching President Trump — are hardly the issue set you’d be talking about if you wanted to actually earn votes outside of the large urban areas in the state,” Wilson said. “If you look at where Beto deployed resources, this becomes clear, his ‘pop-up offices,’ and field efforts were really concentrated in the four major cities, select suburbs and El Paso.”
“I don’t think his strategy was ever one to secure crossover voters,” said Seth McKee, a Texas Tech University expert on Southern politics. “I can’t think of any salient issue where he didn’t look like a national Democrat.”
McKee doesn’t think some strategic word choices or symbolic gestures would have made a difference.
“I still don’t think he would get many rural voters because if you think of rural voters in general and think of how conservative they are on values issues, they are just so strongly wedded to the Republican Party, especially when you think about issues of life, abortion, religious issues like prayer,” he said. “It’s a long reach for a white rural, Southerner, Texan … to vote Democratic. That’s a really hard bridge to span.
“It’s just remarkable how close he got. That’s what’s so amazing. He really ran what looked to be a base campaign, and he came within 3 percentage points,” McKee said. “It just tells you what a good candidate can do in terms of mobilization without trying to get closer to the center.
“And I don’t know what the ultimate lesson is there,” McKee said. “If he tried to make overtures to the center and tried to get some crossover votes, does that dampen some of the turnout on the fringe? We’ll never know, but I don’t think anyone thought he would get that close. He might have showed us how maxed out a Democratic candidate can be.”
Democrats nationally did improve on their performance with rural voters in 2018, but it is hard to draw any certain lessons for O’Rourke.
According to CNN exit polls, Democratic House candidates won 42 percent of the rural vote, up from 34 percent support for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Democrats especially made gains over 2016 in the Rust Belt, where incumbent Democratic senators regained the allegiance of a chunk of Trump voters.
But McKee said that white, rural voters in those swing states are a different species than white, rural voters in Texas and the South.
“Those rural whites in the North, they haven’t realigned like they have in the South,” McKee said. “You take rural whites in swing states outside of the South, they are going to be much more movable, they are just not completely aligned with one party as they are in the South.”
But, he said, in Texas, as in the rest of the South, white rural voters “are the backbone of the Republican Party,” just as they were once the backbone of the Democratic Party.
Under a framed image of the Buddhist temple Angkor Wat at the Cambodian-owned Donut City in downtown San Saba, Eddie Campbell, 83, and his cronies, Tommy Pulatie, 71, and Benton Miller, 93, were talking about the Cruz-O’Rourke Senate race on a recent morning.
“Everyone who runs for office has got to have an eye-catcher,” Campbell said of O’Rourke’s 254-county campaign.
Campbell said that when O’Rourke drew 70 to 80 people to his April town hall at nearby Pepperbelly’s Mexican Restaurant, “that surprised me.”
“I voted for Cruz, but it scared me whenever I saw the size of that crowd,” he said.
What happened between the town hall and the election?
“People came out and listened to him but then decided not to vote for him,” Campbell said. “Free education. Free health care. Open borders. Anybody can come in.”
In San Saba, Campbell said, “We can’t stand even the legal immigration.”
Of O’Rourke’s difficulty in places like San Saba and McCulloch County, McKee published a pertinent study last year with political scientists Daron Shaw at UT and Jeremy Teigen of Ramapo College. Looking at national data for the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, they found that for whites living in racially diverse settings, as the population density of their community increased, so did the likelihood they voted for Obama for president.
In other words, McKee said, “You want to look at really Republican voters, you look at less dense areas, rural areas, with a significant minority presence, and those voters are going to be your most Republican voters. They’re going to be aware of the minorities in their midst, but they are not going to be in close contact with them. Those are the most staunch Republicans you’ll find.”
According to the most recent Census Bureau information, the population of San Saba County is nearly 30 percent Hispanic. McCulloch County is just over 30 percent Hispanic.
The San Saba schools are 45.5 percent Hispanic. Brady’s schools, in McCulloch County, are 46.8 percent Hispanic, according to the most recent Texas Education Agency data.
According to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, 16.4 percent of registered voters in San Saba and 21.6 percent of registered voters in McCulloch have a Hispanic surname.
In an October survey of rural Texans conducted by Strategic Research Associates, 21 percent said border security was the state’s No. 1 issue and 19 percent said immigration. Nothing else was even close.
Bill Spiller, who was born and raised in Brady but moved away to pursue a career in banking, returned home at age 60 and defeated the incumbent county judge in the GOP primary, which meant he was elected without opposition in November. In fact, he said, “the only thing that wasn’t pre-elected was Beto and Cruz.”
“Most of the people that are Democrats here voted for me,” Spiller said, but that would not be near enough to elect him.
“That’s the cold hard facts of living in the country,” he said.
But Spiller said the political polarization is a manifestation of a national alignment that has nothing to do with local issues where, he said, “We’re trying to survive, not dominate and divide and conquer.”
“Right after the primaries, somebody called on the phone and said, ‘Beto is coming to Brady,” Spiller recalled. “I said, ‘Good. Who’s that?’ ‘Oh Beto, he’s running to be senator.’”
He was asked if he would introduce O’Rourke at April’s town hall in the community room at Brady National Bank. He agreed and dismissed some folks’ concern that he might be seen as abetting a Democrat.
“I said this is all about welcoming a guest,” Spiller said. He kept the introduction simple: “It’s my pleasure to introduce Beto O’Rourke.”
O’Rourke talked about guaranteeing universal quality health care, about ways to help students pay to attend public colleges, about the dangers of a trade war for Texas farmers, about how county jails were bearing the considerable costs of mental health care, about protecting Dreamers and their families and about the importance of immigrant workers to the Texas economy.
“If immigration is a problem, it’s the best problem we have,” O’Rourke said.
Spiller liked O’Rourke’s remarks.
“They weren’t so out there, left wing,” he said. “They were pretty much centered down the road, of let’s do it right, let’s do it fair, let’s be honest about this. There wasn’t really anything far-flung in anything he said.”
Who did Spiller vote for?
“I don’t remember,” he answered.
After O’Rourke held town halls in San Saba and Brady, he drove, along with Amy O’Rourke and two campaign aides, an hour northwest to Ballinger and met with the Runnels County Judge Barry Hilliard in his office.
Hilliard, who grew up there, was a detective sergeant with the Midland Police Department until his mother called and said he needed to come back home to run the ranch established by his grandfather in 1880. He has been county judge for eight years.
At first the conversation had the feel of an awkward first date, if the date were being livestreamed on Facebook.
They talked about guns.
O’Rourke mentioned his concern about “weapons of war,” and Hilliard said he didn’t think it made sense to ban semi-automatic weapons.
“We’re different in Texas, in my opinion, we’re special, like you say, we understand the situation with the guns where others in maybe larger metropolitan areas don’t,” he said.
O’Rourke said “some of my best memories” growing up were of hunting and that his three children, “Ulysses and Molly and Henry, when we go to the ranch, they’re starting to use BB guns, and I don’t know if they’ve used a .22 yet. Amy and I compete with shotguns, and Amy’s the better shot, with the clay pigeon.”
O’Rourke, further searching for common ground, said his parents were Republicans and so were Amy’s parents. He also emphasized his positive campaign message.
“He’s a very pleasant fellow. I’d be glad to call him my friend. I just don’t think I agree and rural West Texas agrees with some of his stances,” Hilliard told the Statesman in a post-election interview. “I thought his demeanor was awesome. I really liked him.”
“I felt he was more moderate than what I expected,” Hilliard said. “I consider myself a moderate. I don’t agree with the far right or left.”
When the ballots were counted, O’Rourke won 385 votes in Runnells County, or 11.84 percent, virtually identical to Clinton’s share of the vote two years ago.
“He made a good impression on me. I didn’t vote for him. But it didn’t mean I didn’t appreciate him coming here. We just shared different ideas,” Hilliard said. “If we could convert him a little bit I’d be happy to vote for him.”
©2018 Austin American-Statesman, Texas
Visit Austin American-Statesman, Texas at www.statesman.com
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