Way back in 1996, a little-known high-school teacher named Victor Morales won the Texas Democratic Senate primary. He beat two better-known and better-funded members of Congress, John Bryant and Jim Chapman Jr., and Morales was the first non-white candidate for Senate to win the nomination of either party in state history. The media were enraptured with the tale of a humble teacher who put 60,000 miles onto the odometer of his dented white pickup, crisscrossing Texas, taking on incumbent GOP senator Phil Gramm.
Richard Estrada of the Dallas Morning News wrote that “Morales fairly oozes sincerity. He is the consummate outsider. In truth, Morales is not just a viable candidate, the enthusiastic response he is receiving signals that he is a political phenomenon.” The New York Times declared that Morales “could energize Hispanic Democrats to turn out for him this November, maybe even providing major help for President Clinton here or for other Democrats.”
Texas Monthly tracked how Morales had become a media phenomenon: “Morales has been profiled in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Miami Herald and on the Today show, Dateline, and CNN. Perhaps most important, he has sat for the obligatory, underdog-championing portrait in People.”
Despite all the hype about Morales, the race was never all that competitive; Gramm went on to win by eleven points, one of the early chapters of a long, painful stretch for Texas Democrats. No Democrat has received more than 45 percent of the vote in a race for senator or governor since 1994. Democrats, both inside and out of the Lone Star State, desperately want a candidate who could win Texas, because a Democrat who could win the state’s 38 electoral votes in a presidential race would end the competition before it began.
In past cycles, the yearning to believe in Texas Democratic candidates got national reporters to breathlessly hype the chances and potential of figures such as former Houston mayor Bill White, state legislator Wendy Davis, and former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, and to tout the formation in 2014 of the progressive grassroots-organizing group Battleground Texas. “There’s no doubt the group has put a scare into the long-dominant Texas GOP,” declared MSNBC, a few months before Republicans had one of their best election days ever.
This is how the stage was set when Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke decided to run against first-term incumbent senator Ted Cruz.
The national media started sending correspondents to hang out with O’Rourke, and just about all of them fell in love with him: Vanity Fair, Town and Country, Spin, GQ (twice!), BuzzFeed, Yahoo News, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Time, the Washington Post (twice!), the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg News, the BBC . . .
Correspondents seemed oddly fixated on his sweat. Politico swooned, “Sweat pours off his lean, 6-foot-4-inch frame.” In Vanity Fair, Peter Hamby described him “sweating through a button-down shirt at one of his jam-packed town halls.” The BBC wrote, “His toes are well over the edge of the boards” of the stage “and his suede shoes are soaking up dark splashes of sweat from his brow.”
It’s Texas. It’s summer. It’s hot. Everybody sweats at outdoor events.
Beyond their not-so-hidden partisan preference, many reporters want to discover the southern Democrat with national potential — Bill Clinton 2.0 — and write the first glossy profile piece of a future president. The piece will double as a book proposal, and the book will allow its author to spend the latter half of his or her career as a quasi-historian expert on a particular president.
Reading through all of these profiles as they emphasize the same points over and over again — He was in a punk-rock band! He skateboards! He’s handsome! He’s Kennedyesque! He speaks fluent Spanish! — one keeps waiting for the section that describes what makes O’Rourke actually unique among Democratic candidates. And that section never arrives. There is no hardscrabble climb out of poverty, no tale of military heroism, no running into a burning building to save orphans, not even an occasion of helping get an old lady’s cat out of a tree.
O’Rourke’s father was a well-connected judge and entrepreneur, and his mother ran a furniture store. He went to Columbia and formed a punk-rock band. He spent his initial post-college years “holding down a series of entry-level and temp jobs,” as Texas Monthly put it. Unhappy with life in New York City, he moved back to El Paso and eventually formed a company that managed websites.
O’Rourke ran for city council and, depending on your point of view, either spearheaded an exciting revitalization of the city or encouraged gentrification to help his career, supporting the use of eminent domain to drive out poor residents. He married into the family of his region’s most influential businessmen.
All of those glowing profiles had missed or glossed over the one really dramatic event in O’Rourke’s early life until, at the end of August, the Houston Chronicle uncovered new details about the candidate’s serious DUI car accident on his 26th birthday. O’Rourke “lost control and hit a truck, sending his car careening across the center median into oncoming lanes. . . .” He “recorded 0.136 and 0.134 on police breathalyzers,” well “above a blood-alcohol level of 0.10, the state legal limit at the time.” A witness who stopped at the scene later told police that O’Rourke had tried to drive away, an accusation he denies. (For perspective: Texas Monthly wrote an 8,500-word profile of O’Rourke and mentioned the DUI once.)
In Congress, O’Rourke was little known until his Senate bid; he’s been the primary sponsor of just three bills that became law. One of them renamed a federal building in El Paso.
The media looked at O’Rourke’s fairly mundane life and standard-issue national-Democratic positions and convinced themselves they had found a transformational political talent, in some cases by simply asserting that the Democratic nominee was something he wasn’t. He’s not Latino — “Beto” is a childhood nickname — but headlines keep leaving the impression that he is, as with MSNBC’s “In Texas, Beto O’Rourke’s rise fuels hope for Latino Democrats.”
He gets labeled an “outsider” despite having been in elected office since 2005 and in Congress since 2013. The Associated Press eventually noticed that he’s got an everyman image but a net worth of about $9 million.
O’Rourke has some strengths. He’s handsome, he’s good on the stump, and he uses social media in creative ways. He won his past Democratic primaries by out-hustling comfortable incumbents. And O’Rourke is indisputably unusual for a Texas Democratic candidate in that he’s running on a stridently liberal platform: banning AR-15s, for example, and abolishing ICE.
It’s hard to tell whether the media pushed the liberal grassroots to love O’Rourke or the liberal grassroots pushed the media to love O’Rourke. Or is all of this Beto-mania symbiotic? Clearly, liberal donors fell head over heels for a Texas statewide candidate who sounds like an MSNBC talking head. O’Rourke raised $38 million in the third quarter, by far the largest amount raised in a quarter by a Senate candidate ever. Top-tier presidential candidates envy that kind of fundraising, and endangered Democratic Senate incumbents such as Heidi Heitkamp, Claire McCaskill, and Joe Donnelly would feel a lot more secure if they had half of it.
This overwhelming media love and avalanche of donations are going to a candidate who hasn’t led a RealClearPolitics average of polls even once this year. Whatever his flaws, Ted Cruz has led every reliable survey by anywhere from one to nine points.
With an O’Rourke victory looking less and less likely, the goalposts are moving again, to turn his expected defeat into a moral victory. CNN’s James Moore declared that, “against the odds, win or lose, he’s already changing Texas.” Alex Shephard wrote in The New Republic that O’Rourke has “shown Democrats how to run brave, uncompromised campaigns in the Trump era.” And Hamby gushed that he’s offered “an antidote to the entire stupid artifice of American politics in the Trump era.”
Maybe they’re right; maybe even a defeated O’Rourke campaign would herald a permanent change in the state’s politics.
Then again, everybody eventually forgot about Victor Morales, too.