Who the hell is Beto O’Rourke?
That’s what many Iowans – myself included – wondered as they squeezed their way into packed coffee shops last week to catch a glimpse of the newly-announced presidential contender. Was O’Rourke the breakout, generational star he was hyped up to be, or a flash-in-the-pan media sensation who benefited merely from challenging someone as reviled as Ted Cruz?
The internet, as it often does, had its opinions.
While O’Rourke’s every move dominated the cable news airwaves, the Twitter crowd was decidedly more skeptical. As many political observers (accurately) pointed out, O’Rourke is certainly not as politically accomplished as most of the other announced Democrats. Was someone coming off a losing senate race deserving of this much attention?
But what played out on the ground during the former Texas congressman’s three-day tour of Iowa was something else entirely.
One thing that I live for as an Iowa Caucus reporter is those rare “moments” on the trail, difficult to describe but obvious to those present when they happen. An event or speech or even little interaction between a candidate and a voter that transcends the usual bounds of a campaign stop and reveals something important. It’s something that caucus-goers realize too, and can help shape or even upend a race.
The “moment” for O’Rourke came on a sun-soaked afternoon in Waterloo, when he jumped onto the bed of a red pickup truck to address a crowd of 300. His booming voice echoing off the downtown buildings, O’Rourke laid out the 2020 fight in lofty, historic terms.
“We cannot allow differences to divide us now at this defining moment of truth that will either make or break the future of this country and our democracy,” O’Rourke said. “The people of the future are counting on the decisions that we make right now. Can this, the wealthiest, most powerful country on the face of the planet, ensure that every single American can see a doctor, can afford their prescriptions, can take their child to a therapist? That’s on us to decide!”
The crowd loved it, roaring at every applause line, swarming him for photos afterward.
And yes, this speech and many others were much heavier on prose than policy, but sometimes the most effective candidates in Iowa are ones who can evoke those emotional, inspiring responses in people (see: Barack Obama). While O’Rourke’s somewhat vague, big-vision approach was often panned on political Twitter, it resonated on the ground in Iowa.
The difference in responses point to how O’Rourke dances on the dangerous double-edged sword of vague aspiration. While O’Rourke is aiming for a call-to-arms rallying pitch that has a broad appeal, its lack of specific policy points can allow people to imprint whatever feelings and thoughts they want onto the candidate, good or bad.
The backlash to his run was swift, and while cable news talking heads apparently praised his entrance, many reporters and opinion writers did not. In the 48 hours after he announced, I saw highly-shared stories that framed O’Rourke as a lightweight, a shady hacker, a misogynist and beneficiary of “unbearable” male privilege, a secret socialist, a secret Republican-funded moderate, a deadbeat dad, and a bad poet. Perhaps my favorite headline was, “Beto O’Rourke wrote poem asking cow to ‘wax my ass’ and ‘scrub my balls.'” Welcome to the big leagues.
It may have also revealed that most of the country – and political writers – really didn’t know much about the guy, other than he came close to defeating Cruz, and wasn’t that neat.
My own knowledge was quite limited. I didn’t have much time to keep an eye on the Texas senate race last year. My first real look at him was seeing his concession speech, where three heavenly white lights beamed down on a dark, smoke-filled stage that O’Rourke stood on. After that, it was the introspective Medium posts that bordered on the bizarre. Then it was the seemingly aimless road trip to find himself or something.
Frankly, it was all a little weird.
But what I think a lot of Iowans saw last week was the unique persona and campaign style that brought O’Rourke within three points of the ultimate upset in 2018. The three-day, 13-county, go-everywhere style tour that began in Southeast Iowa, a place few other presidential candidates have ventured to yet, was an experience. Most people I spoke with said they simply heard about the event through word of mouth, as news of visits quickly spread through the small towns he drove to.
While the entire trip seemed like it was thrown together at the last minute, that too had a certain appeal to it. Many other front-running candidates build their events up as large set pieces, meticulously choreographed with made-for-TV stage setups. The check-in processes at those are clearly superior, and O’Rourke didn’t have enough staff yet to handle data collection, but his unwieldy, messy, standing-on-countertops strategy for events had a different kind of energy to them.
And for all the criticism of how O’Rourke doesn’t have some defining issue or rationale for running, one focus of his did stand out: a call for racial harmony. He seemed at his most passionate when condemning the rising hate speech and violence egged on by Trump, contrasting it to his own border town community of El Paso.
“This intolerance, this hatred, this bigotry, and, yes, let’s call it what it is: racism,” O’Rourke said at a house party in Fairfield when talking about the massacre in New Zealand. “When you say that white nationalists and Klansmen and Neo Nazis are very fine people, when you describe the countries of Africa as ‘shithole nations,’ when you say that people from Haiti bring AIDS to this country, or you don’t want any more from El Salvador, instead you’d like immigrants who look like the people from Sweden … there is a real cost and consequence in human lives to the way in which we talk.”
There were a few other noteworthy exchanges, as well. O’Rourke highlighted public education frequently on his trip, even when not prompted, so watch for that to emerge as a key policy focus for him.
Will any of it be enough in an unpredictable, huge field of Democrats? Who knows at this point. An ability to stand out and send caucus-goers home with a gut feeling of something different certainly can’t hurt.
But one thing was certainly clear from the O’Rourke trip: the online debate about him was happening in a completely different world than what played out in small towns across Eastern Iowa. Maybe that catches up to him at some point as those narratives work their way into more mainstream coverage and the cable news world.
For now, Iowans seem genuinely interested in and excited about the El Paso native. If his next visit comes to your small town, maybe go out and listen in person and judge for yourself just who the hell this Beto O’Rourke guy really is.
by Pat Rynard
Photos by Julie Fleming and Pat Rynard