last year, as ted cruz faced a series of debates against his Democratic challenger, I was nervous. The Texas senator’s re-election race was getting increasingly tight, and as someone who has spent decades in conservative media, I tried to prepare him for the big fight.
After watching from the wings, I learned this: Beto O’Rourke is the toughest candidate I have ever prepped against and one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen. The media might not recognize his skills, but voters do—and will in 2020. In fact, being underestimated may be one of his biggest advantages. For those who believe that he’s a lightweight, that his social media habits are not presidential material and that he doesn’t have enough experience or gravitas, I’m here to set you straight. What he managed in Texas in his race against Cruz was no fluke: O’Rourke got out the vote in ways none of us expected. His 4 million votes surpassed Hillary Clinton’s 3.87 million votes in 2016, which had been the highest total ever achieved in Texas by a Democrat.
In a state that’s redder than a red light, a state where a Democrat hasn’t won a statewide election since Governor Ann Richards in 1990, O’Rourke lost by a slim margin: 50.9 percent to 48.3 percent. On that basis alone, he’s the presidential primary front-runner. How will he connect in Michigan? And Wisconsin? And Iowa? He ran the table in Harris County, the largest county in Texas, so my guess is, he can succeed in all kinds of environments. How do I know? I spent lots of time studying O’Rourke. I began by going to the game film. And my goodness, there is a lot. He live-streamed his life the way high school girls live-stream theirs. Beto drinking coffee. Beto bowling. Beto eating a hamburger. Beto riding a skateboard. Even Beto doing his laundry. But what most interested me were the live-streamed town halls. It made studying O’Rourke easy. So did the endless gushing profiles by every website, publication and media outlet imaginable, all essentially anointing him as the next Bobby Kennedy. In May 2017, Vanity Fair published a 1,993-word profile with this headline: “Meet the Kennedyesque Democrat Trying to Beat Ted Cruz.” In February 2018, The New York Times ran its own puff piece, at 1,690 words. Time magazine followed with a 1,658- word press release masquerading as a news report. On July 9, Politico Magazine ran a 4,800-word profile, and Town & Country weighed in with a 3,823-word profile. You heard that right: Town & Country! BuzzFeed would follow with an 8,021-word piece, and not to be outdone, Texas Monthly ran an 8,373-word love letter.
The photos that accompanied the coverage had the feel of a Ralph Lauren ad. O’Rourke always looked great—and he made looking great easy. As always, he looked like a man of the people. I say all of this not to slight him. On the contrary, O’Rourke, it was clear almost instantly, had real star power. And that matters. Democrats dismissed President Ronald Reagan’s star quality, and Republicans dismissed President Barack Obama’s. Critics miss the point about star power. In politics, it’s a big deal. It can’t be taught. Or bought. You either have it or you don’t. O’Rourke had it. O’Rourke loved the camera. And the camera loved him. More important, the people loved him. The people who attended those town halls he livestreamed were not mere Democratic activists or the party faithful. They were, dare I say, fans. And having fans is more important than having voters. He had talent on the stump and didn’t use prepared remarks. He did what great pastors do when they get comfortable: He preached on his feet. His speeches had the feel of a religious revival, without any trace of Elmer Gantry sanctimony. Always, he framed things simply and in a moral dimension—but not with the anti-capitalist shrillness of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
O’Rourke was not an angry candidate. He was the opposite. I might even say he was a joyful candidate, and in this age of anger and resentment, this made him different. Off the stump, he was a star too. I watched him talk to people who lined up for a quick selfie, and he turned even those small moments into something personal, meaningful. Unlike Obama, an introvert who didn’t seem to care for the palm pressing, O’Rourke seemed to draw energy from interacting with the public. In that sense, he had what Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had—an instinctive feel for the interpersonal part of campaigning, the retail nature of the business. O’Rourke was a natural on the debate stage because he understood something profound about the ritual. It isn’t actually a debate. It’s an audition. It was less like Firing Line and more like American Idol. As often as possible, he kept a smile on his face and his eye on the camera, hoping the people watching at home would like him more than my guy. O’Rourke had advantages that critics thought were problems. He didn’t have a speechwriter, didn’t have any outside consultants and didn’t rely on big data. That made him dangerous and difficult to prepare against in battle.
No one understood this better than Obama. “What I liked most about his race was that it didn’t feel constantly poll-tested,” Obama said on The Axe Files about O’Rourke’s campaign. “It felt as if he based his statements and his positions on what he believed. And that, you’d like to think, is normally how things work. Sadly, it’s not.” O’Rourke did things his way. When he committed to visiting all 254 counties in Texas, some people dismissed him, and others wrote it off as a gimmick he’d never manage. But he was serious, logging tens of thousands of miles covering a state that’s so big it could house two Californias, four Floridas, 28 Vermonts or 221 Rhode Islands. Why’d he do it? Because he wanted to win over voters in places that others would have written off. How better to change someone’s mind or heart than to meet him or her? The candidate did a lot of the driving himself, with aides in tow. He often spoke about how his never-ending tour of Texas felt a lot like his days managing his own punk band— called Foss—that he’d assembled in El Paso. He and his bandmates started a record label and booked tours, traveling the country and parts of Canada during his summers off from Columbia University, where he majored in English and captained the crew team. O’Rourke wasn’t the best musician in the band, but he happily told reporters that he was the best roadie. That experience, too, was an big advantage. Many critics made fun of the not-so-proficient outtakes and videos of the band. But O’Rourke learned important things in that period of his life. He learned how to command a stage, how to play with an audience and how to let the audience play with him. No amount of coaching or consultants can teach that.
O’Rourke had a relentless energy , He was fueled by ambition but seemed to enjoy himself. That, I suspect, is something he learned on the road with his bandmates. If a band isn’t having fun, what’s the point? O’Rourke was also good at teasing himself. He often brought up the fact that he was still working hard on one voter in Texas: his mom, who was a Republican. And he could be funny, joking about the low approval ratings for Congress. “Congress has an approval rating of around 9 percent,” he said. “Communism 10 percent. Gonorrhea 8 percent. We’re right in the middle.” O’Rourke was a prodigious fundraiser, reeling in an astonishing $80 million. And more than $61 million came from ActBlue, an online portal for small-dollar supporters. O’Rourke had one last advantage: He had a real story about his roots. His El Paso story. He didn’t always love his hometown, and like so many of us growing up, he couldn’t wait to escape—and leave tensions with his father behind. After wandering for a time and trying life in Brooklyn, he came to a life-altering conclusion: He wasn’t a New Yorker after all. The journey home is a big theme in American life.