Beto O’Rourke Matters Even If He Loses

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke on Friday announced a ridiculous third-quarter fundraising haul of $38.1 million. The tally, which brings his Senate campaign total to more than $61 million, mostly raised from small donors, puts him around $25 million ahead of Republican incumbent  Senator Ted Cruz, who’s no slouch in the money racket.

This mark of O’Rourke’s extraordinary political success is all the more poignant because it comes after a wave of public polls registering that he is on course to lose in November.

Texas is still Texas.

Perhaps O’Rourke, 46, a three-term congressman from El Paso, will yet pull out a victory. It’s possible.

But if he falls short, the cynics will have a good laugh about the golden boy who sucked up tens of millions in liberal money, along with untold column inches in the political press, only to slam head first into the thick conservatism of Lyndon Johnson’s home state.  They’ll point out that O’Rourke was selling authenticity as surely as Cruz sells a sharp kick at the underdog with a spritz of Christian piety. If it’s Cruz who closes the sale, won’t that be further confirmation that American politics is a garbage heap?

Win or lose, O’Rourke has run perhaps the most consequential race of the 2018 election cycle. The evolution of Texas from red to, someday, purple is entirely beside the point. So is O’Rourke’s shunning of pollsters and the trappings of professionalized politics. (There is plenty of polish on O’Rourke’s run.)

Any Democratic candidate in 2018 is a vehicle for disgust with Donald Trump and with the GOP’s wholesale capitulation to cruelty, incompetence, racism, sexism, corruption. (The short list.) Nor is O’Rourke unique in offering honesty, although he’s openly running on gun regulation in the land of gun nuttery, and his unflinching support of football players protesting police violence was so radical in its truth, if not its live-and-let-live simplicity, that the video of his remarks has been watched tens of millions of times.

O’Rourke is not the only candidate modeling decency as an antidote to Trumpism. But he’s the one who has best harnessed the anxiety and rage generated by Trumpism’s assaults on democratic values and transformed them into willful, defiant optimism.    

A Washington Post reporter who interviewed more than 120 Texans who attended O’Rourke town halls over the summer wrote that “it was not unusual for people to grow emotional as they explained why they were drawn to his campaign.”

Trump took his supporters’ anxiety over race and culture and sexual politics and channeled it into hatred and a lust for dominance. O’Rourke is taking the rage felt by millions of liberals and trying to make something better of it. 

Vaclav Havel wrote that rule of law, political parties and elections are insufficient to create a decent state. “People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence,” he said.

Here’s the Texas translation:

“I would like Texas to be the example, to be the bridge over the small stuff, the partisanship, the bickering, the pettiness, the meanness, the name-calling, the bigotry, the racism, the hatred, the anxiety, and the paranoia that dominates so much of the national conversation today,” O’Rourke told a group of voters. “I would love for us to be the big, bold, confident, ambitious, big-hearted, aspirational answer to all that small, weak crap that dominates the national news every single night that has kept us from who we are supposed to be as a country.”

There’s a good deal of Barack Obama in O’Rourke. He expresses a similar desire to rise above pettiness, bridge division, foster unity.

And where did that get us? For one, it kept us above the sewer in which we’re drowning now.

O’Rourke combines aspirational politics with a bluntness that Obama rarely ventured. Running as an unapologetic liberal in a state still dominated by conservatives looks quixotic. Wendy Davis, the liberal Democratic nominee for governor in 2014, received less than 40 percent of the vote.

But Davis ran as a cultural combatant, not a transcender. O’Rourke is running against Trumpism’s corrosive bad faith more than he’s running against Cruz personally or conservatism generally. O’Rourke’s bridge work is a response to a president devoted to turning every crack into a chasm.

O’Rourke may never replicate the passion he’s generating this year. Originality in politics is rare, and the times are volatile. But his campaign is a righteous howl -- a declaration that you have to want a better country, and less grubby politics, to be worthy of leadership. His campaign is a vessel for idealism in a dark time, and a promise that demagogy and corruption needn’t be imitated to be defeated. Other Democratic candidates have made a similarly high-stakes bet, albeit with less electricity.

There’s a market out there for decency. We won’t know until November how big it is. But nurturing that market, sustaining it through a deeply ugly patch of American history, is heroic work. O’Rourke’s campaign won’t be wasted or forgotten. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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