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U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke on 34-Day Road Trip in Underdog Senate Bid

Looking to overcome the long odds in his U.S. Senate campaign, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, has hit the road for an aggressive 34-day tour of Texas.

O’Rourke launched the trip without much fanfare at the end of last month, when he flew to San Antonio and bought a new truck for the trip. He does not plan to return home to El Paso until Aug. 31, when he’s due for a monthly town hall with his constituents.

No other candidate is currently campaigning across Texas quite as aggressively.

“I want to do this as hard as I can and make every effort to meet every Texan as possible,” O’Rourke said in an interview Thursday. In a state as large as Texas, he added, such an itinerary is the “only way you’re going to have any hope of meeting the people that you want to represent.”

O’Rourke’s campaign has a name for the trip: “Town Hauling Across Texas.”

The trip, much of which O’Rourke has been livestreaming on his Facebook page, has already taken him to the Rio Grande Valley, Far West Texas and the Panhandle. In those places, he has held traditional campaign events such as town halls and meet and greets, as well as less-formal activities — such as block walking Thursday in Wichita Falls.

Over the next week, he’s set to hit North Texas and East Texas, with stops planned after that in Houston, College Station, Waco, Victoria, LaGrange, San Angelo, Midland, Odessa and Abilene.

It’s an intense pace of campaigning more than a year out from the November election, but it also reflects the work required if O’Rourke wants to stand a chance against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The state has not elected a Democrat to statewide office in over two decades.

O’Rourke has had some early success, though. He outraised Cruz by half a million dollars in the second quarter and has drawn big crowds in some of the reddest areas in the state — almost 500 people turned out for an event he did Tuesday in Amarillo, according to local media.

Both Cruz and O’Rourke have August off for the congressional recess. Cruz, who is running for re-election but has not made an official campaign announcement yet, visited East Texas on Friday in his capacity as a U.S. senator, making stops at two local businesses and a junior college.

As he travels the state, O’Rourke said he is encountering community leaders who tell him they haven’t had the same level of outreach from the incumbent in Cruz’s four and a half years in office. “They haven’t seen him,” O’Rourke said.

A Cruz spokesperson did not return a call for comment Thursday.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Texas Democrats may not have a full statewide slate yet, but they are seeing early and intense interest in several congressional races. [Full story]
  • Ahead of his 2018 bid for re-election, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has an imposing war chest collected through three allied groups. [Full story]
  • No Texas Democrat has won a U.S. Senate seat in nearly 30 years or any statewide office since 1994.  But U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke is optimistic he can break the streak, in part by eschewing consultants, pollsters and PAC money. [Full story]

Author:  PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

Beto O’Rourke Posts $2 Million in Fundraising in bid Against Ted Cruz

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, raised “more than $2 million dollars” in his first quarter as a U.S. Senate candidate, according to a statement he released on Facebook Thursday morning.

That sum is quite large for a challenger to a sitting Senator – it surpasses the fundraising of some U.S. Senate Democratic incumbents in other states who are the subject of major party pushes to hold their seats in 2018.

Texas, in comparison, is far less of a priority for the national party because of its size, conservative makeup and the high cost of advertising in the state.

“We raised more than $2 million over the last three months, from more than 45,000 unique donations, most of them from Texas, every one of them that wanted to take back our state, take back the senate and take back this country,” O’Rourke said.

He added that none of that money came from “PACs or special interests or corporate donors.”

O’Rourke is the underdog in a race against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who has yet to announce his quarterly haul. The junior senator from Texas had a fierce fundraising machine during his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and acquired a massive conservative following.

O’Rourke has deftly built an online following in recent months and standing-room only crowds have shown up at his events across the state. But he is still mostly unknown and on his own in this race.

The challenger will need every dime he can raise to build up his name identification. And for now, it is unlikely the national party will help him in this effort as they focus resources on other states.

National Democrats say they will prioritize supporting the ten Senate incumbents who represent states President Donald Trump carried in 2018.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • No Texas Democrat has won a U.S. Senate seat in nearly 30 years or any statewide office since 1994.  But U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke is optimistic he can break the streak, in part by eschewing consultants, pollsters and PAC money. [link]
  • To many familiar with U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the 2012 Democratic primary for the 16th Congressional District is not exactly a blueprint for his 2018 effort to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — but it’s certainly instructive. [link]
  • In February, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz reported having $4.2 million cash on hand as he prepared for a re-election race in 2018. [link]

Author:  ABBY LIVINGSTON – The Texas Tribune

O’Rourke: President Trump’s Withdrawal from Paris Agreement ‘One of the Worst Executive Actions to Date”

On Thursday, President Donald Trump announced that the US would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change; below is a statement posted to Facebook by El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke, regarding his feelings on the President’s decision.

Today, President Trump announced that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change—one of his worst executive actions to date. In 2015, the U.S. agreed to modestly curb greenhouse gas emissions and provide funding to help developing countries adopt renewable energy at a faster rate.

The U.S. pulling out of the agreement signals to the rest of the world that we don’t intend to reach our emissions targets and that we will not be making those contributions.

The practical effects of leaving the agreement are dire. The primary goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep worldwide average temperatures from rising more than 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit above the pre-industrial era. Right now, we’re already almost halfway there and we’ve seen storms that have destroyed billions worth of property, shrinking ice caps, and droughts that have resulted in political instability and even wars.

Most importantly for El Paso and the state of Texas, it’s estimated that by 2050, the number of extremely hot days in Texas (temperatures exceeding 95 degrees) will double, resulting in an estimated 4,500 additional heat-related deaths. Additionally, it’s estimated that there will be a $650 million per year increase in storm-related losses along the Texas coast.

By taking the U.S. out of this agreement, all of these problems stand an increased chance of getting worse.

Just as important, President Trump is sending a signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. is no longer interested in being a world leader. Any progress we make economically, diplomatically, and militarily all depends on our credibility as a nation. By pulling out of the agreement, we are signaling to traditional and potential partners that they cannot depend on Americans to stick with them during difficult times.

Leaving the agreement also means we’re going to let others lead on what the world’s renewable energy future will be. Doing so puts our domestic wind turbine and solar panel manufacturers and other renewable energy providers at a disadvantage relative to countries that are participating in the Paris Agreement. This is a mistake at a time when our state is home to nearly a quarter of the country’s wind power jobs. Texas is a leader in renewable energy production, and El Paso is poised to play an important role. Diminishing the U.S. role will have direct effects on our local economy.

Removing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement makes us one of only three countries, along with Syria and Nicaragua, to not join—even North Korea is part of the agreement. Historically, the U.S. has put more carbon into the atmosphere than any other country, so we must be a leader in curbing worldwide emissions.

I’m hopeful that the rest of the world continues to make progress on this front, and that we can revisit and rejoin the effort once we have a Congress and a President willing to lead because we have much to gain, and even more to lose.

McCaul, Castro and O’Rourke Give Cornyn’s Senate Seat a Look

WASHINGTON — At least three members of the U.S. House are mulling a run for a possible U.S. Senate vacancy, should President Donald Trump appoint U.S. Sen. John Cornyn as the new FBI director.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, an Austin Republican, is one of those hopefuls for the would-be vacancy, along with Democratic U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio and Beto O’Rourke of El Paso.

“McCaul has put himself in a good position to be toward the top of the list of people who might succeed Sen. Cornyn,” a source close to McCaul told The Texas Tribune. “He’s built statewide name recognition and a political effort that could be quickly turned on for a statewide campaign for Senate.” 

There was a similar readout on the Democratic side.

“If there’s a special election called, Joaquin would strongly consider that,” a source close to Castro told the Tribune of a would-be Senate vacancy.

“He’s already running for Senate, and … if an election came up for a Texas [U.S.] Senate [seat] before that, he would undoubtedly look at it,” a source close to O’Rourke told the Tribune. “There’s no question he would take a look at it.”

O’Rourke is currently running against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, as the junior senator aims for a second term in 2018. The O’Rourke source did not elaborate on what these deliberations might mean for the 2018 race.

The Senate vacancy is a serious possibility: Cornyn met with his former Senate colleague, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on Saturday afternoon at the Department of Justice headquarters to interview for the job, according to news reports.

Should Cornyn leave the Senate, Gov. Greg Abbott would appoint a placeholder, and then the state would hold a special election several months later.

The political calculations for Castro and McCaul — both men of stature within their party caucuses who’ve mulled Senate runs in the past — are a little different. A special election would allow each man a free pass — a chance to run without vacating their House seats.

McCaul considered running for the Senate in 2012, and again last year in what would have been a primary challenge to Cruz. McCaul is chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, and he could be on deck for the gavel at the House Foreign Affairs Committee once he is term-limited out of his current leadership role.

Castro recently passed on a challenge to Cruz after a lengthy deliberation process.

In his previous deliberations, Castro had to weigh leaving behind his climbing rank within the U.S. House — he’s a deputy whip within his caucus, and he is racking up seniority as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

But more than anything, Castro in recent months has become a high-profile party spokesman on the investigation into the 2016 Russian cyberattacks on the U.S., thanks to his assignment on the House Intelligence Committee.

The positioning in the GOP field is highly volatile and involves a different calculation.

In the event of a vacancy, it is assumed Abbott would appoint a Republican, which could — or could not — clear the nomination field for the special election. Senate hopefuls are both gaming out who might be his pick, and whether that person would be a weak enough primary candidate to challenge in a special election.

Since Friday morning, political insiders across the state have weighed the different scenarios and contenders. But actual Republican contenders are fairly quiet — for the time being.

A key consideration for many GOP contenders is the 2012 Senate race. A number of high-profile Republicans passed on running for retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison‘s Senate seat, out of a fear of then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — only to see the once-unknown Ted Cruz take the nomination.

This could be a second chance for ambitious GOP politicians eyeing the Senate. And the same circumstances as Castro would also apply to Republicans: They can run in this special election without risking their current seats in the congressional delegation or in state government.

Despite the Democratic interest, this is still a likely hold for the Republicans. No Democrat has won a statewide race since 1994.

All the speculating aside, there are no assurances this race will come to pass: Cornyn is one of around a dozen serious contenders for the FBI post.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • U.S. Sen. John Cornyn could be the next FBI director, a White House official says. Cornyn is one of about 11 contenders for the post, according to a news report.
  • U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, has decided not to challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2018.

Author:  ABBY LIVINGSTON –  The Texas Tribune

For Texans in U.S. House, 2018 Landscape Begins to Take Shape

WASHINGTON — The 2018 midterms may seem like a long ways off, but the national parties — and a growing list of potential contenders — are quietly mulling and preparing for campaigns for a slew of Texas-based House seats.

Democrats are feeling some momentum in the state, thanks to Hillary Clinton’s strong performance in its large urban areas in the fall. The national party has high hopes to take back the U.S. House. If that happens, they will have to improve their record in Texas.

Meanwhile, Republicans are bracing for contentious primaries as the years-long civil war between hard-line conservatives and more moderate Republicans shows no signs of waning. At least one Texas chairman is already on the Tea Party’s target list.

And there will be at least two races for open House seats, as two incumbents — Republican Sam Johnson of Richardson and Democrat Beto O’Rourke of El Paso — have already announced they won’t be running for re-election.

Federal fundraising reports that were due on Saturday provide, in parts, a telling snapshot of which incumbents are bracing for a re-election fight and those who are perhaps not.

But the 2018 landscape still remains very much in flux. Watch for other recruits to jump in after the state’s legislative session concludes this summer. And history suggests some might wait until just before the December filing deadline to mount a sneak attack on an incumbent.

Two other big unknowns: Will a court force Texas to redraw its congressional map ahead of 2018? And will U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro launch a bid against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz or cede the Democratic nomination to O’Rourke?

Here are the U.S. House seats drawing the most interest ahead of 2018:

Incumbent: Sam Johnson, R-Richardson

District: 3

Expected to run again? No

The race to replace Johnson has seen few developments since he announced his plans to retire in January. The conventional wisdom now is the same as then — that this is state Sen. Van Taylor‘s race to lose. 

Taylor, a Plano Republican, has not officially announced his candidacy and is unlikely to do so until after the state legislative session is over. 

Collin County Judge Keith Self, who had previously said he was considering a campaign for the seat, told the Tribune on Monday that he has ruled out a run. 

While open-seat U.S. House races tend to attract crowded fields, much of the area’s ambition is instead being channeled into the state Senate seat that Taylor is expected to vacate. 

Incumbent: John Culberson, R-Houston

District: 7

Expected to run again? Yes

Texas was a rare bright spot on the electoral map for Clinton in 2016, thanks to her outperforming historical Democratic turnout in urban areas like in Culberson’s west Houston seat.

National Democrats are making noise about this race, albeit cautiously.

To play here, it will have to be a full-throated spending effort. The Houston media market is one of the most expensive in the state.

National Democrats are interested in Houston attorney Collin Cox and Alex Triantaphyllis, the director of Immigration and Economic Opportunity at Neighborhood Centers Inc., a Houston nonprofit, as possible recruits. 

Conservative groups have also hinted at a possible primary challenge to Culberson. The Club for Growth just announced it was launching a TV ad in his district urging him to oppose a border adjustment tax.

Culberson only posted about $132,000 in cash on hand for the first quarter. But he serves on the House Appropriations Committee — a magnet for donors. He is no stranger to challenges and can turn on the fundraising when under the gun, and colleagues were quick to rally behind him financially when he faced a 2016 primary challenge.

Incumbent: Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands

District: 8

Expected to run again? Yes

Brady, the House Ways and Means chairman, narrowly escaped a 2016 primary runoff. And his Houston exurban district has one of the most organized Tea Party apparatuses in the state.

As a result, he has a target on his back from conservative circles.

Though no names of potential challengers have emerged yet, Brady is taking the threat of one seriously. He raised over a million dollars in the first quarter and has over $2 million in cash on hand. His campaign spending shows an incumbent who is carefully preparing his war chest with a stable of state-based consultants.

Incumbent: Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso

District: 16

Expected to run again? No

This race has mostly been in a holding pattern since O’Rourke announced he was forgoing a re-election bid to challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar, a Democrat, is at the center of local and Washington speculation but is taking her time deciding on making a run official. 

Other contenders are watching her movements, and they may soon get impatient. Other frequently mentioned names include state Rep. Cesar Blanco, who is well-regarded in Washington from his days as a staffer in the U.S. House to Democrat Pete Gallego. He is also mentioned as a potential Democratic recruit for the 23rd District.

Incumbent: Will Hurd, R-Helotes

District: 23

Expected to run again? Yes

Hurd is aiming for a third term in the only Texas district both sides will agree is competitive. Not since former U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla lost re-election in 2006 has an incumbent been able to hold onto this seat for more than two terms in this swing southwest Texas seat.

Democrats are anxious that Hurd, who reported a strong first-quarter haul of $500,000, is becoming entrenched in the district. He also outperformed his party’s presidential nominee last fall, in a year when most Democrats expected Donald Trump to pull him under.

The key here, in the Democratic worldview, is whether the 23rd District’s lines are redrawn amid ongoing redistricting litigation. Should new lines make this district easier for Democrats, look for a competitive primary.

Hurd’s rival from the past two cycles, Democratic former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, told the Tribune he would consider running for the seat again under new lines.

“If there’s a new map, then there’s a new race,” Gallego said. Other Democrats are likely to give the seat a serious look, including Blanco, the El Paso-based state representative.

But national Democrats are also looking into an up-and-comer in San Antonio: Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Hulings. A former Capitol Hill staffer on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Hulings is a member of the Castro twins’ Harvard Law School class.

Incumbent: Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi

District: 27

Expected to run again? Yes

This is the general election race most reliant on external factors.

Former state Rep. Solomon Ortiz Jr. told the Tribune he is considering a Democratic run for this Corpus Christi-based seat — but on the condition that the district’s lines change amid ongoing redistricting litigation.

Farenthold begins the cycle in a weak political position — he has about $50,000 in cash on hand — and has had a series of political missteps over his four terms in the U.S. House, including a sexual harassment lawsuit that was later dismissed after an out-of-court agreement between the congressman’s office and the plaintiff. For now, though, the district’s Republican makeup should inoculate him from a competitive general election.

But if the map changes, watch for Ortiz to jump in and run for the seat his father, former U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz Sr., once represented.

“Absolutely, but I think we’re still a long way from any final decision,” the younger Ortiz said of the possibility of him challenging Farenthold. “Should the maps get altered, that’s something I would consider.”

Incumbent: Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas

District: 30

Expected to run again? Unclear

At 81, Johnson is the most frequently mentioned Texas member when it comes to speculation on possible retirements. Her low fundraising in the first quarter, just $1,000, only fuels that speculation.

But there is a major hitch: As chatter increases that Democrats might have a shot at taking back the U.S. House in 2018, Johnson’s seniority would position her as the one Texas Democrat likely to chair a committee, in her case, the Space, Science and Technology Committee currently led by another Texan, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of San Antonio.

If she does opt for retirement, the two most frequently mentioned names in Texas and Washington Democratic circles to replace her are state Rep. Eric Johnson of Dallas and Jane Hamilton, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey. Earlier this year, The Dallas Morning News added a slew of other names to the mix: state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, state Reps. Yvonne Davis of Dallas and Helen Giddings of DeSoto, former state Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway of Dallas and former DeSoto Mayor Carl Sherman.

Incumbent: Pete Sessions, R-Dallas

District: 32

Expected to run again? Yes

If this race is competitive in the fall of 2018, it will suggest that Republicans are in serious trouble nationwide.

Democrats are looking at Sessions’ seat for the same reason there is interest in Culberson’s: Hillary Clinton carried the district in 2016. The hope for Democrats, strategists say, is that they can lure voters who are socially liberal yet fiscally conservative, particularly white women, to their candidates both in Dallas and Houston.

There is no shortage of Democrats considering a challenge to Sessions. Dallas school board member Miguel Solis, Children’s Medical Center senior vice president Regina Montoya, former NFL player Colin Allred and former Hillary Clinton staffer Ed Meier are frequently named as possible recruits.

But taking on Sessions is no small chore. Besides the challenges of campaigning in the expensive Dallas media market, Sessions is a committee chairman who formerly ran the National Republican Congressional Committee. As he’s shown in recent years fending off primary challenges, he will likely have no shortage of money, and his political instincts are sharper than the average Texas congressman.

Related Tribune coverage:

Patrick Svitek and Jim Malewitz contributed to this report. 

Author:  ABBY LIVINGSTON – The Texas Tribune

Rep O’Rourke: Vet Connect Act to Be Signed Into Law

U.S Representative Beto O’Rourke issued the following statement regarding the Vet Connect Act and his upcoming El Paso-are town hall:

Great news for veterans as the bipartisan Vet Connect Act that I authored was included as part of the Veterans Choice Program extension legislation. It has passed the Senate, the House and is now on its way to the President’s desk for signature into law.

This bill will make it easier to share a veteran’s medical record with their community doctor, improving overall care and reducing red tape. Click play on the video above to learn more.

The only ones who are really paying for the wars we wage today are the service members who fight them and their families (fewer than 1% of the people in this county). For the rest of us — we’ve put the expense on the national credit card to be paid by future generations.

Harvard’s Linda Bilmes found that over the next 40 to 50 years, the costs related to health care and disability compensation for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be nearly a trillion dollars. Further, peak costs occur decades after the end of the conflict. For example, the peak costs for World War I veterans was in 1969; the largest expenditures for World War II veterans were in the late 1980s; and costs for Vietnam and first Gulf War veterans are still climbing.

We are failing to account for the true cost of war and in turn failing to ensure the necessary resources are available to care for our nation’s veterans.

That is why I recently introduced the bipartisan Veterans Health Care Trust Fund Act which will require everyone in this country to participate in paying for the full cost of our wars — most importantly, taking care of our veterans — as we wage them. Those not required to pay into the trust fund are those who have already paid far more in service to our country — our service members and veterans.

Taking steps to address these costs now ensures that Congress fully accounts for these costs when considering the use of military force and that our nation is better postured to address the long-term and unforeseen health care needs of its veterans.

You can read the bill here:

We all want greater accountability, transparency and responsiveness from our government. Town hall meetings are my effort to deliver that as directly as possible.  Join me on Thursday, April 13th at the College, Career and Technology Academy, Building A Theater (2851 Grant Avenue, El Paso, Texas 79930) at 4:00 p.m. for my next town hall meeting.

 RSVP here

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, In Long-Shot bid for Senate, Is No Stranger to “Calculated Risks”

To many familiar with U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the 2012 Democratic primary for the 16th Congressional District is not exactly a blueprint for his 2018 effort to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — but it’s certainly instructive.

Half a decade ago, Beto O’Rourke stood at Tabla, a Spanish restaurant in El Paso’s entertainment district, and drew from his business experience as he laid out the improbable case for a congressional campaign.

“Probably most importantly, I learned the lesson of taking a calculated risk when I saw an opportunity to grow that business,” said O’Rourke, who had returned to his native El Paso a few years after college graduation to create a software company.

“Sometimes it paid off, sometimes it didn’t,” O’Rourke added, according to archived audio of the announcement, “but if I didn’t take those risks — calculated risks — we wouldn’t have been able to grow.”

Eight and half months later, the biggest calculated risk of O’Rourke’s political career until that point paid off. He defeated U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, an eight-term incumbent, in a Democratic primary upset that reverberated across the country.

It was not the first time O’Rourke beat the odds in El Paso politics. Seven years earlier, he had won a seat on the City Council after knocking off a two-term Democratic incumbent, Anthony Cobos. The victory made O’Rourke one of the youngest members the council had ever seen.

Now O’Rourke, 44, is turning his attention to what would be his biggest upset yet in a political career built on exceeding expectations. In announcing Friday his challenge to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, O’Rourke threw himself into a long-shot race that he has vowed to approach much like his El Paso campaigns: without much regard for the established political order, the pricey trappings of modern campaigns or what the political prognosticators think.

The question to many now — especially those watching from his hometown — is whether the devil-may-care politics that made him a star in El Paso are convertible to the massive undertaking that is a statewide campaign in Texas.

“Something that is very doable on a local level over time — can you scale that to an 18-month statewide campaign?” asked El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar, a longtime O’Rourke ally. “I think you can with the kind of work ethic Beto has and the kind of passion and enthusiasm Beto has.”

To many familiar with O’Rourke, the 2012 race is not exactly a blueprint for his 2018 effort — but it’s certainly instructive.

A revealing resolution

Before getting elected to Congress, O’Rourke had been perhaps best known outside El Paso for his stance in favor of marijuana legalization. It would lead him to publish a book in 2011 — two months after he launched his House campaign — that argued for ending the prohibition on pot as a way to fight the drug war unfolding just across the city’s border with Mexico.

That position fueled one of his first clashes with Reyes. As a council member in 2009, O’Rourke proposed a resolution calling for a nationalDealing_Death_and_Drugs_TT conversation about legalizing marijuana. The resolution passed unanimously, but the mayor vetoed it, and when O’Rourke tried to mount an override effort, in his recollection, the council started getting calls from Reyes.

“He asked us not to move forward with the resolution and delivered a thinly veiled threat: failure to do so would result in the withholding of stimulus funds for our city, the third poorest in the United States,” O’Rourke recalled in his book, “Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico.”

Reyes was apparently persuasive — the override effort fell short. Yet the episode proved illuminating for even O’Rourke’s critics at the time.

“He was really able to articulate a lot of the issues, but even though they had their flaws, it was perceived as at least he was proposing ideas,” said Vincent Perez, a former Reyes staffer and current El Paso County commissioner who once appeared opposite O’Rourke on a local TV show to debate the war on drugs. “Strategically, it was difficult because Beto was able to use … [Reyes’ stance] against legalization as part of a larger problem with the federal government.”

Despite the timing of the book, which O’Rourke published in November 2011 with council ally Susie Byrd, he did not make his pot stance a central issue in his 2012 campaign — even de-emphasizing it, by some accounts. It did not come up in his announcement speech, which nonetheless offered a careful case for sending Reyes home.

“Silvestre Reyes has served 16 years in the U.S. Congress — 16 years that he’s had to spend much of his time in Washington, D.C., he’s had to sacrifice time with his family, and he’s done what I think he thought was in the best interests of our city, and for that we owe him our respect and we owe him our gratitude,” O’Rourke said, “but we do not owe him another term in office.”

A unique landscape

2012 was a unique year for Texas elections. The court battle over Texas’ redistricting maps pushed the 2012 primary from March 6 to May 29, affording upstart challengers the most precious resource in politics: time. That benefited both O’Rourke and Cruz, who used the extended period to pull off his own massive upset — over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

The newly redrawn 16th Congressional District was also seen as bad news for Reyes. It no longer included part of the region’s Lower Valley, which had been a reliable stronghold for Reyes over the years.

It was also a notable time in El Paso politics, which was seeing the rise of a distinct group of Democrats aligned with former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh. Generally speaking, they were young and progressive-minded and did not have as strong ties to the local party as some of their colleagues — meaning they were not necessarily the types to wait their turns in politics.

“They cared less about pissing people off,” recalled Morris Pittle, an ad maker involved in the 2012 campaign. “Sometimes that’s what it takes to make these things happen.”

“For those of us who were in on the campaign from the beginning, especially those of us who were elected officials — and there were very few of us — what it meant was going against a longtime member of Congress, a Hispanic leader, someone who had quite a following in the Democratic Party,” said Escobar, the El Paso County judge.

It was not lost on the city’s more entrenched Democrats that the white O’Rourke — he is a fourth-generation Irish American — was looking to unseat a Hispanic lawmaker in a district that has an overwhelming Hispanic majority. Some critics still needle O’Rourke by calling him “Robert O’Rourke” — his legal name — as opposed to the more popular “Beto,” which uses a Mexican nickname he took on in his childhood.

Yet as he built his profile in El Paso, O’Rourke had found cachet with the city’s Hispanic voters thanks to his fluent Spanish and willingness to wade deep into issues important to them.

“I think O’Rourke out-raza-ed Reyes,” said Richard Pineda, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who directs the school’s Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies. (In Spanish, raza refers to race.)

“Everything should’ve gone the other way with Reyes when it came to the candidate that had that Spanish connection,” Pineda said.

The “Great Depression campaign”

Reyes was not exactly caught flatfooted by O’Rourke’s challenge — he had been rumored to be interested in higher office long before he announced — but it soon became clear O’Rourke was the workhorse in the race. He spent months knocking on doors — over 16,000 by his count — and showed up everywhere, while Reyes was not fond of block walking and sent a staffer to most campaign forums.

People involved in the O’Rourke campaign jokingly referred to it as the “Great Depression campaign” due to its lack of financial resources — and tightfistedness when it had them. The campaign was made up of mostly unpaid volunteers, not the high-priced consultants and pollsters that O’Rourke has also sworn off for his Senate campaign.

O’Rourke’s shoestring operation provided a vivid contrast to Reyes’ well-funded bid, which had all the makings of a modern campaign — including a slick 60-second TV ad that aired during the Super Bowl. Reyes also had on his side President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton, who traveled to the far-flung district to stump for the incumbent.

O’Rourke’s most memorable endorsement may have been that of the El Paso Times, which said Reyes had “stood on the sidelines” as decisions had been made affecting the border region.

It was a theme O’Rourke frequently echoed throughout the race as he promised to be a more forceful, engaged advocate for the region in Washington. O’Rourke also was not afraid to raise ethical questions about Reyes, who doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to himself and family members, according to a 2012 study that got ample attention in the race.

Reyes did not exactly shy away from his long congressional tenure, presenting himself as the seasoned legislator who knew how to rake in federal dollars for the district — “Reyes Works” was his campaign slogan. The Super Bowl spot showed him driving around town, surveying the projects that had received federal assistance as dollar amounts flashed across the screen.

In the final few months of the race, Reyes increasingly cast doubt on whether voters could trust O’Rourke given his drug stance and arrest record from the 1990s. One ad showed children making angry faces, shouting “No!” and shaking their heads in disbelief as it spelled out O’Rourke’s support for legalization. “Say NO to drugs. Say NO to Beto,” the commercial read in conclusion.


Another commercial opened with O’Rourke’s mugshot as it highlighted his two arrests: first in 1995 for attempted burglary and then in 1998 for driving while intoxicated. He was never convicted in the cases, which he has attributed to foolish mistakes as a young man.

Helping out with Reyes’ ads was Pittle, who had previously assisted with O’Rourke’s city council campaigns and briefly worked for his congressional bid at its start.

Looking back on the marijuana and arrest record ads, Pittle said they were “not effective at all,” though he acknowledged they were for a Democratic primary and not the kind of general election O’Rourke would face against Cruz. On marijuana in particular, Pittle said, “Given the way we are in our society today, I don’t think that matters to people anymore.”

By the time Reyes’ campaign launched those attacks, it was already becoming clear that O’Rourke would come out on top in the primary.

On May 29, 2012, O’Rourke won with 50.5 percent of the vote, beating Reyes by 6 points. His 3,000-vote victory meant he narrowly avoided a run-off election.

Outside help

By the end of the race, Reyes had vastly outraised and outspent O’Rourke — by margins of roughly 2-to-1 at most points throughout the campaign. O’Rourke did receive help from a Houston-based super PAC, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, that reportedly spent $240,000 against Reyes as part of a broader effort to defeat longtime incumbents in both parties.

Along the way, the group collected a $18,750 check from Campr II Partners, a firm with ties to O’Rourke’s father-in-law, El Paso developer Bill Sanders. The donation drew cries of nepotism from Reyes, who said the super PAC money was being used to “undermine the vote and will of the people.”

The super PAC had such an outsized role in the race that it even appeared to draw the attention of Clinton, the former president, who said during his visit to El Paso that Reyes was the victim of “sneak attacks” by an outside group. “Follow the money,” Clinton told El Pasoans, according to video posted online.

Candidates do not have direct control over a super PAC’s activities. The group’s involvement in the 2012 contest still casts something of a pall over O’Rourke, who has long railed against the corrosive influence of money in politics. In his Senate campaign, he has vowed to continue rejecting PAC money.

The super PAC connection certainly left an impression with Reyes. On Election Night, the congressman asked whether El Pasoans would let “people in Houston” decide their elections and later told reporters O’Rourke “deliberately ran a nasty, dirty, filthy campaign.”

“We must move on”

El Paso Democrats say there are still some hard feelings over the 2012 race, especially among the Reyes family and its allies. The contest has “always left a bitter taste in the mouth of a certain Democrat in El Paso,” said Pineda, the UTEP professor.

Reyes and his brother, who served his campaign manager, did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment for this story. Reyes has not entirely receded from the political spotlight — he has made a number of media appearances since the 2016 election, criticizing President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We must move on,” said one Democratic official involved in Reyes’ campaign, who like some others, preferred not to speak on the record about a race that is still a sensitive subject in El Paso. “It’s a different time. We must look at the greater good, and the greater good is taking over our Senate seat, which we haven’t held.”

Even among O’Rourke’s skeptics, the 2012 race continues to be a touchstone for his penchant for seemingly quixotic endeavors. Perez, the county commissioner, said the ambitious O’Rourke had a choice back then: Either wait for Reyes’ seat to open up and join the inevitably crowded race to replace him or take the much lonelier route that he took in 2012.

“I think he took a very strategic and calculated risk in challenging him in the primary, and ultimately I think that strategy paid off,” Perez said. “Nobody really had the guts to do what he did.”

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Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

Author:  PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

To Beat Ted Cruz, Beto O’Rourke Plans to Throw out the Democratic Playbook

WASHINGTON – On what could be his last normal Thursday morning as a rank-and-file member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Beto O’Rourke calmly ate a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee in the dining room he shares with two other congressmen in a townhouse just off Capitol Hill. 

He was due to the chamber in an hour or so for votes. The following morning, he would officially launch his bid to unseat one of Texas’ savviest politicians in modern history, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.  

“I’m not going to do this and lose,” O’Rourke told the Tribune between bites. “I’m only going to do this if we can win, and I’m going to run to win, and I know no [Democrat has] figured out how to do this.”

No Texas Democrat has won a U.S. Senate seat in nearly thirty years or any statewide office since 1994. It is hard to find a political operative in Washington or back in Texas who would bet money – or professional credibility – on O’Rourke winning this race. 

But the El Paso Democrat is earnestly bullish that he will go to the Senate through a strategy of bringing retail politics to a state of 27 million people. 

He has no pollster and no consultants at this point, and said he has no interest in hiring operatives of that ilk. 

“Since 1988, when Lloyd Bentsen won re-election to the Senate, Democrats have spent close to a billion dollars on consultants and pollsters and experts and campaign wizards and have performed terribly,” he said.

The approach offers a clear contrast with Cruz, who has used his own consultants to devastating effect in his races for the U.S. Senate and the White House. Last month, several members of Cruz’s political team showed attendees at the Conservative Political Action Convention a presentation of his presidential campaign’s investment and innovations in data analytics. 

When O’Rourke first floated the notion of running for Senate in an early November interview with the Tribune, many people in Texas and Washington responded with, “Who?” 

But the shock registered most at home in El Paso. 

“The first surprised call was from my wife, like, ‘What? What? Excuse me? What’s going on?’” he said. But four days later, O’Rourke and his wife, Amy, were watching with horror at Donald Trump’s victory on Election Night. At that moment, the decision was all but made. 

“It was Amy who said, ‘I think you should go see if you can’t do something that’s more effective than what you’re doing now.’” 

In a conventional campaign, O’Rourke would try to raise somewhere in the ballpark of $30 million in federally mandated $2,700 increments. Then he would turn to the campaign committees and beg them to invest millions more. 

But the national Democratic committees are overtly telegraphing that the priority in 2018 is to protect the ten party incumbents who represent states Trump carried in 2016. 

To complicate matters, it is hard to overstate how unknown this third-term Democrat is in both Texas and Washington. 

He represents El Paso, which is so remote it is in a separate time zone from the rest of the state. It is a shorter drive from his district to San Diego than to Beaumont. 

Back in November, at least one high-profile Democratic official in the state confessed to having never heard of him.

And amid Wednesday’s giddiness in Washington Democratic circles around his pending announcement, seasoned players referred to him as “Bee-to,” mispronouncing the Spanish nickname for his Anglo given name of Robert.

Another potential stumbling block: He has a pair of arrests – but no convictions – on his record from the 90s: one for breaking and entering and another for drunken driving.

But most of all, he is taking on a wily and hardworking incumbent who was the second-place finisher for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. 

How in the world does he plan to beat Ted Cruz? 

“Tactically, strategically, I don’t know,” O’Rourke said. “It’ll come from Texas, and I have faith and trust the people of this state will make the best decision in the interest of their families and their kids…I just trust that. My challenge, I guess, is to meet enough of them so that they can make an informed decision.” 

His aim, he said, is to campaign beyond urban strongholds in a case-by-case basis. 

In a 38-minute long interview the day before his official announcement, it was apparent that O’Rourke was not going to make his campaign all about Cruz – a temptation given the senator’s polarizing image among even some in his own party. O’Rourke never once mentioned Cruz by name or directly criticized his potential rival. Instead, he focused on topics like immigration, the border, and advocacy for his hometown. 

The approach brought to mind the discipline Cruz has shown in his campaigns for U.S. Senate and president. 

And then there is money. Traditionally, the best way to build name recognition has been through television advertising, and a statewide buy runs at least $1 million a week.

Cruz begins the race with $4.2 million in campaign money. And the early signs amid O’Rourke’s run is that tea party groups and establishment organizations will line up with tens of millions of dollars to back Cruz at the slightest sign of trouble. 

Nationally, Democrats have no appetite at this point to spend serious money in Texas, and O’Rourke is not accepting money from political action committees. He, like all federal candidates, has no control over whether a super PAC opts to get involved. 

But anyone opposing Cruz is a likely magnet for angry liberal dollars. And O’Rourke could have the makings of a Bernie Sanders-type fundraising operation. He is one of the most adept politicians when it comes to social media and was an early adapter of building a following with Facebook Live, a means of broadcasting events through that website. 

The results of those efforts are often viral frenzies. Most recently, his bipartisan road trip with U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, earned both men a storm of positive publicity. So much so, that a handful of Republican operatives in Washington began to sit up and watch O’Rourke more closely. 

But before O’Rourke can face off against Cruz, there is the issue of sorting out his primary. 

For years on end now, many expected it would be one of the Castro twins leading the charge to turn Texas blue, and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, is still openly mulling a Senate run of his own. 

Oddly, though, O’Rourke said Castro was the one who planted the seeds to launch this campaign. 

“I remember this summer at the convention, Joaquin…publicly said that he was thinking about running, which I thought was exciting, and I thought, ‘Hey, let me know,’ and he said, ‘If I don’t do this, you should think about doing it.’” 

“It got me thinking,” O’Rourke added. 

Once it became clear on Wednesday the O’Rourke campaign was on the verge of a launch, Castro put out a statement gently reminding the press that he was still in the mix. 

O’Rourke said he wished Castro luck on Wednesday in making his own decision. O’Rourke insisted if the primary is competitive, they will both “try and do this in a way that will make Texas proud.” 

“It’s good for Texas…you want a competitive democracy,” he said. 

But, he added, the mutual interest was indicative of improved conditions for the party. 

“It shows you that something’s happening,” he said.

The 2016 election gave Democrats cautious hope for Texas. Trump’s margins were narrower than other recent GOP standard-bearers and Democrats made enormous headway into urban centers.

O’Rourke, however, spent much of his time in the lead up to Friday’s announcement in mid-sized towns, including: Wichita Falls, College Station, Killeen, Lubbock, Midland, Waco, Corpus Christi and Odessa.  

O’Rourke said he had expected a few dozen attendees at each of these events. Oftentimes, over a hundred people showed up, having heard of the event through word-of-mouth or Facebook.

The larger aim is to look beyond the cities and take his case to rural voters. The idea is not to win those regions, but to lose less-badly. 

It is the same tactic former President Barack Obama credited with his victories as a candidate in Iowa. 

“There were some counties where I might have lost, but maybe I lost by 20 points instead of 50 points,” Obama said in November. 

But Texas is a whole lot larger than Iowa. Can any of this work? 

“We’ll find out,” O’Rourke said.

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Author:  ABBY LIVINGSTON – The Texas Tribune

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke Promises “Big Announcement” on Friday

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has scheduled a major political event on Friday, prompting speculation that the third-term Democratic congressman will launch a bid to challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.

O’Rourke has spent the last several weeks traveling the state and has said in recent weeks that he is likely to launch a bid for U.S. Senate. In an email to supporters on Wednesday, his campaign wrote, “Together, we can do something really big, and really powerful for the state of Texas — and for this country. Congressman Beto O’Rourke has a big announcement to make on Friday.”

A Cruz spokesperson declined to comment on the announcement.

If O’Rourke does enter the race, he could face a competitive primary; U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio is considering a bid.

A Castro bid is no sure thing; he has a rising profile in Congress, he’s on the leadership track in the House of Representatives and he’s deeply involved in the investigations into whether Russia interfered with the 2016 elections.

O’Rourke, by contrast, has made plain since his insurgent initial race for the House in 2012 that he would impose term-limits on himself. A logical next step would be a race for Senate.

There is an additional potential outlier in this mix: Former George W. Bush strategist Matthew Dowd, an on-air commentator, is considering an independent run for Senate.

No matter who the Democratic nominee is, a race against Cruz will be an uphill slog. The state is still firmly conservative and Texas has not elected a Democrat statewide since 1994. O’Rourke is still relatively unknown in Washington and in Texas, and El Paso has never produced a statewide elected official. 

Cruz, meanwhile, appears to be steadying his political ship after a rough post-presidential campaign stretch that included being booed off the stage at the Republican National Convention. The incumbent kept many of his presidential campaign staffers within his sphere, and has built a reputation for running well-funded and tactically savvy campaigns.

From a national perspective, the U.S. Senate race in Texas is an afterthought. The Democratic Party is preoccupied with protecting 10 incumbents who represent states President Donald Trump carried in 2016. Hardly anyone in state or national politics considers it realistic that the national party will heavily invest in this race.

But the race could still garner attention. O’Rourke has a knack for harnessing the Internet. Last year, he was one of the members who livestreamed a Democratic protest on the floor of the House chamber, and he shared a cult following with U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, on a recent bipartisan cross-country road trip.

And while it’s not yet clear what 2018 will bring, but the early months of the Trump presidency have been turbulent for the president and congressional Republicans, who last week admitted they couldn’t get their party together to support a proposed overhaul of President Obama’s signature health care bill.

O’Rourke first floated the notion of a Senate campaign to The Texas Tribune just before Election Day last fall.

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Author:  ABBY LIVINGSTON –  The Texas Tribune

After Road Trip, Hurd and O’Rourke Sign on to One Another’s Bills

After spending two days in a car together, U.S. Reps. Will Hurd and Beto O’Rourke showed Friday their bipartisan road trip was not for nothing.

Back at the U.S. Capitol, the two Texas congressmen signed on to legislation one another is working on, with Hurd, a Helotes Republican, lending his support to a cause that usually divides his party and Democrats: immigration. He became a co-sponsor on O’Rourke’s American Families United Act, which would let family members of U.S. citizens who are barred from ever re-entering the United States on a technical issue to go before a federal judge to decide if they can return.

“It’s not comprehensive immigration reform, but it’s part of immigration law that is not working for U.S. citizens right now, helps folks in our districts, helps folks throughout the United States,” said O’Rourke, an El Paso Democrat, during a livestream of his meeting with Hurd on Friday. “And let’s hope that it shows our colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, that there’s a way to work on a contentious issue like immigration and find some common ground.”

For his part, O’Rourke added his name to Hurd’s American Law Enforcement Heroes Act, which would make it easier for local police departments to hire veterans. Hurd is collaborating on the bill with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Like their road trip earlier this week — which began after winter weather derailed Hurd’s flight back to Washington — the event Friday was livestreamed and put on display their budding friendship. After signing on as co-sponsors to one another’s bills, they exchanged gifts.

O’Rourke, who is of Irish descent, gave Hurd a green tie because he was not wearing the color for St. Patrick’s Day. Hurd gave O’Rourke a framed map of their initial route to Nashville that Hurd had drawn.

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Author:  PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

O’Rourke on Cruz challenge in 2018: “I really want to do this”

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, is sailing toward a 2018 Senate campaign, an uphill battle that would pit the little-known congressman against one of the state’s most prominent Republicans in the unpredictable era of President Donald Trump.

“I really want to do this,” O’Rourke said in an interview Saturday in which he also promised to run a positive campaign against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — no matter how much animus the incumbent inspires among Texas Democrats.

“Being against Ted Cruz is not a strategy,” O’Rourke said. “It might motivate some folks and might make the election of a Democrat for the first time in 30 years more likely, but it in itself is not a strategy, and so I’m really putting my time and my efforts and my thinking into what makes Texas a better place and what makes the lives of the people who live in this state better, and so I’m just going to stay focused on that.”

O’Rourke has said for weeks that he is likely to take on Cruz but has not set a timeline for an official announcement. He said Saturday he wants to make sure he is mindful of his current constituents and that “I’m thoughtful in how I make this decision and keep El Paso, my family, foremost in mind.”

“I don’t want to run unless we’re going to win, and I’m confident we can,” O’Rourke said. “I just want to make sure the way we do this, we set ourselves up for victory.”

O’Rourke’s case for the Senate seat is two-pronged. He said he believes it is more important than ever for the Senate to serve as a check on the president, and he also believes he brings a unique perspective to the immigration debate as a Democrat from El Paso — “the Ellis Island of the western hemisphere.”

O’Rourke may have Democratic company in his campaign to unseat Cruz. U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio is also weighing a bid and plans to announce his decision in early April, a timeline that O’Rourke said has no bearing on his own.

“I have the greatest respect for him, consider him a good friend and have told him I think he’d make an outstanding candidate and a terrific senator for the state of Texas, but his decision-making process is outside of my control, so I can only focus on what I can do,” O’Rourke said.

If it came to it, O’Rourke said he would be open to a contested primary against Castro, again noting that is beyond his control.

If O’Rourke runs for Senate, fundraising would likely be one of his biggest challenges. While he was the underdog in his 2012 Senate campaign, Cruz has since built a national fundraising network, partly through his 2016 presidential bid.

O’Rourke has already made clear he plans not to accept PAC money in a potential Senate campaign. Asked Saturday if that would apply to money from national Democratic groups who may want to help him out, O’Rourke held firm that he “won’t take money from political action committees — and that’s across the spectrum.”

“I think folks just need to know that, clean and simple,” O’Rourke said. “When you start picking and choosing then, you know, it becomes a slippery slope and you just start doing what everyone else is doing, what everyone is so sick of and what has made Washington so dysfunctional and corporate.”

O’Rourke was visiting Austin on Saturday to speak at a rally at the Texas Capitol against some of Trump’s early actions as president, including his proposed border wall. Castro was also scheduled to address the rally. O’Rourke told the crowd that it is a “time for us take back our communities, our state, the United States Senate and the United States of America.”

Castro also spoke at the rally, invoking Cruz twice as he denounced Trump’s policies. “I hope today that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz can hear us from Washington, D.C,” Castro said shortly after taking the stage to loud cheers.

Working the crowd afterward, Castro encountered some supporters who encouraged him to run for Senate — including a man who said he had never donated the maximum amount to a campaign before but said he would do so for Castro.

Speaking with the Tribune after the rally, Castro said he is looking to announce his 2018 decision “by the end of April” and took a pass on responding to recent jabs from Cruz. The incumbent had suggested in a radio interview that Castro would be “retired from public service” if he got into the 2018 race.

“Everything that’s going on now is bigger than Ted Cruz,” Castro said, “and it’s bigger than me, honestly.”

Author:  PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

Texas Democrats Begin to Plot out Strategy for 2018

In late January, a high-profile forum for candidates vying to be the next Democratic National Committee chair brought hordes of Democrats to Houston ready to plot the party’s national future. But for Texans in the party, the more consequential meeting may have occurred the day before in Austin.

A tight-knit group of Texas Democratic leaders traveled to the state capital that day to begin preliminary conversations about the 2018 midterm races.

According to over a dozen interviews with Texas Democratic insiders and national Democrats with ties to the state, the meeting included some of the party’s most well-known figures from Texas including former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, his twin brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Texas Democratic Party Finance Chairman Mike Collier, former state Sen. Wendy Davis, state Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, former Houston Mayor Annise Parker and state Reps. Rafael Anchia of Dallas and Chris Turner of Grand Prairie.

Their main agenda: mapping out a strategy for the 2018 midterm elections.

The expectations in the room were not soaring but were cautiously hopeful. That optimism was mostly rooted around one person: President Donald Trump.

“I think 2018 will be the most favorable environment Texas Democrats have had in a midterm election in well over a decade,” said Turner, who declined to comment on the meeting. “I think when you look at the actions of the Trump administration just three weeks in, you’re seeing a president with historically low approval ratings in what should be a honeymoon period, and no indication that’s going to change given his divisive actions.”

Trump’s presidency brings together a confluence of several factors that Democrats hope will get candidates over the line: a stronger-than-past Texas Democratic performance last November in urban centers, the traditional backlash against a sitting president in the midterms and an increasingly expected added drag that Trump will create for Republicans. 

The Democratic calculation is that in this unpredictable and angry climate, a full 2018 slate could produce a surprising win or two statewide or down-ballot. 

At the Jan. 27 gathering in Austin, attendees strategized how to make inroads in the state at any level, from municipal races up to the ultimate prize, taking down U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who will be up for re-election for the first time next year. 

That meeting roster largely reflects a new generation of Texas Democrats who only know life as part of a minority party that often functions as an afterthought in state politics. A Democrat has not won statewide office in Texas since 1994.

Despite attendees’ omerta-esque unwillingness to comment on the meeting, what can be gleaned is that the powwow pulled together politicians from disparate regions who, in at least one case, only a few months ago had not even heard of some of the people in the room. 

Sources say no decisions were made on whom should run in which slot, nor was that widely discussed. Instead, the emphasis was on ensuring that state leaders would work together to present the strongest slate possible. 

And also unlike past cycles, the Democratic planning this term centers on the political climate, rather than on a singularly compelling personality running for governor. 

That the meeting happened at the outset of the state’s legislative session was also no coincidence. Democrats sense an opportunity to win over some of the business community, particularly as the “bathroom bill” touted by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick continues to percolate at the state Capitol and as immigration, and particularly Trump’s proposals for a border wall and Mexican tariffs, roil national politics.

Parker did emphasize to the Tribune that the conversations about 2018 are happening throughout the state. 

“It’s never going to be about what a small group of people said or do in a room,” she said. “It’s about what the people of Texas tell us what they need. Many of us have committed to going out and having those conversations.”

The nascent battle plan is to charge the hill.  

The assumption is that only a few candidates will break through and lay the foundation for the future. But candidates need to be in place to help the collective whole, the thinking goes. 

Some Democratic insiders pointed to the 1990 election, which, at first blush, was just another year of Texas Democrats continuing their ancestral dominance of the state’s politics. 

But two relatively unknown GOP candidates, Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison, won lower-level statewide races: agriculture commissioner and treasurer, respectively. Those two Republicans helped usher in the full GOP sweep that was to come later in the decade. 

In that vein, the gubernatorial race is unlikely to take center stage.  

Since the Jan. 27 meeting, Julian Castro, the most-speculated Democratic contender to take on Gov. Greg Abbotthas made clear he is unlikely to run statewide in 2018. He all but closed the door on that possibility in an early morning tweet Thursday

Instead, the most frequently floated gubernatorial candidate is Collier, a 2014 state comptroller candidate. Collier is relatively unknown statewide but impressed several Democrats in that previous run. He has also been suggested as a possible contender to run for lieutenant governor.

It’s the U.S. Senate race that is quickly becoming the center of the Democratic world, in part because of the incumbent, Cruz, and because of the two Democratic up-and-comers mulling runs: O’Rourke and Joaquin Castro. 

Both men are in the same 2012 congressional class and are considered friendly with each other. 

Democrats in the state and in Congress are closely watching how the two men maneuver around a possible primary race against each other, but the betting money is that O’Rourke is more likely to follow through with a run.

The possible independent candidacy of Texas-based political operative Matthew Dowd only increases the intrigue surrounding the Senate seat. 

Party insiders are also coveting two other statewide offices: attorney general and agriculture commissioner. The two Republican incumbents, Ken Paxton and Sid Miller, respectively, have faced a series of political struggles that could complicate their re-election campaigns.

”I think you’ll see with a lot of the troubles that Ken Paxton and Sid Miller have found themselves in over the last couple years, I think you’re going to see considerable interest in those seats as well,” Turner said. 

But no Democratic challengers emerged among these interviews. 

Todd Smith, Miller’s political consultant, told the Tribune that the Miller campaign “had no concern about a Democratic opponent in the general election.” 

“We feel very confident about where we are in a re-election planning and our position in strength in the race, and we welcome all comers: Republican, Democratic and independent, and we have a great story to tell and look forward to telling the people of Texas that story,” Smith said. 

The House Democratic campaign arm recently announced it was eyeing three GOP-held congressional districts: U.S. Rep. John Culberson‘s 7th District, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd‘s 23rd District and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions‘ 32nd District. Only the appearance of Hurd’s district on the list was unexpected.

Democrats did not spend money in either Culberson’s or Sessions’ districts in recent cycles, but presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s performance there in 2016 encouraged the party to take a second look. Dallas school board member Miguel Solis recently told the Tribune he was considering a challenge to Sessions.

One prominent Texas Democrat who is not outwardly entertaining a 2018 run is Davis, as observers detect little interest from her. However, she is very much in the strategic mix, with sources saying she is positioning herself as a font of advice after her brutal 2014 gubernatorial run. 

To be sure, there is nothing new about this planning. 

Back in July, when most Democrats assumed Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, Texans at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia offhandedly floated the notion that a Trump presidency would present a morbid opportunity for Texas Democrats to do well amid a 2018 backlash. 

But now a Trump administration is a reality and thousands of Democrats are marching in the streets across the state. And more than once, in conversations with the Tribune, Democrats noted that the Trump-Clinton margin in Texas in November – 9 percentage points – was nearly as narrow as that of perennial battleground Ohio. 

And yet, there’s a clear-eyed understanding of just how difficult any of this will be.

Any Democratic candidate is likely to begin a statewide race with a double-digit deficit to a Republican incumbent. The Congressional and state legislative maps were drawn years ago stacked in favor of the GOP with few competitive seats. 

The way to narrow those gaps is typically to swamp voters with television advertising, which in Texas is prohibitively expensive. 

Fundraising remains a constant struggle for state Democrats, and there will be no shortage of Republican money. Abbott alone recently reported a $34.4 million war chest. And while Cruz had an unsteady landing after his presidential campaign, he was a money magnet as a candidate. 

And there is little optimism that the national Democratic campaign arms for gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races will be inclined to invest in the state. 

In effect, these Texas Democrats assume they are on their own.

Republican pollster Chris Perkins said there is some semblance of logic to the Democratic mindset but remains dubious that the opposition will make an effective case to voters.

“I can see the Democrats’ argument for optimism, based on national historical trends — but this is Texas,” he said. “We’re a conservative state and the Democrats’ most recent rhetoric suggests that they will once again run hard to the left and alienate independent-leaning voters.”

Still, Parker, the former Houston mayor, told the Tribune she sees more value to this cycle than just wins and losses. 

“I’m really excited as I interact with Democrats around the state, how many young electeds are ready to move up in the leadership,” she said. “There’s a lot of young Turks out there who are planning their future.” 

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An earlier version of this story misidentified U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions’ congressional district.


Rep O’Rourke: America and “the Better Angels of our Nature”

I’m writing to you as I fly back from the inauguration:  Greetings from seat 14D.

I have to begin by telling you that despite my deep disappointment in the results of our Presidential election in November, today’s inauguration deepened my faith in this country and my gratitude to be an American.

Where else could so much power — over the world’s largest economy, it’s most fearsome military and the bureaucracy that makes it all run — be peacefully handed over by one leader to a rival who has vowed to undo the very work that his predecessor spent 8 years carrying out?

Personally seeing Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the same stage, solemnly fulfilling their constitutional obligations, is to witness our unique experiment in democracy and the power of our institutions.

As difficult a moment as this transfer is for so many, it is something to honor.

It’s my belief in our institutions that compelled me to attend today’s joint meeting of Congress which hosted the inauguration. And it is my belief in our democracy that will guide me as we look for ways to work with the new administration whenever it is to this country’s advantage.

And it’s that same faith that tells me that together we have the power to stop or reverse those policies that will harm the United States.

I congratulate Donald Trump as he assumes the Presidency, and I want him — for the sake of the country — to be successful. His newly confirmed Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis, and his pick for the VA, David Shulkin, show promise and give me hope that our work on the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees will find willing partners.

But some of the themes in today’s inaugural address show us how important it is that we stick together to stop what could be a dangerous slide towards isolation and paranoia.

Despite the heroic sacrifice of the Greatest Generation — those brave men and women who survived the Great Depression, won World War II and secured for America a leading place in the world and the international commitments to ensure that we keep it — President Trump committed this country to, in his words, “only America first”.

His inaugural address deepened his obsession on erecting physical and economic barriers with the rest of the world and stoking anxiety and fear about the threats that face us. The world has been down that road before, and it doesn’t end well.

If we were looking for inspiration, we will have to look beyond this speech. “American carnage” is the phrase he used to describe our state of affairs, while also promising to “bring back our borders.”

Where will we bring back our borders from? If he’s talking about our border with Mexico, he does so at a time that El Paso is the safest city in America and the U.S.-Mexico border — by any measure — has never been more secure.

While there are those who have not benefited from this economy, and Trump is right to remind us of that, it was painful to hear a description of America that doesn’t match reality for many, especially the part of America where I was born, that I have the honor to serve and where Amy and I raise our children — we can, and must, find inspiration and comfort in those institutions that worked the way they were intended to today.

And we can find it in each other.

Watching the leadership from different parties and parts of the U.S. come together at the inauguration today, and afterwards squeezing onto a D.C. metro on my way to the airport, with people wearing “Make America Great Again” hats pressed up against protesters and D.C. citizens (who voted against Trump 96% to 4%); and even being on this airplane flying back with people who came to celebrate, protest or just witness the inauguration — that all gives me hope that we will not only survive the focus on fear and the divisions that this election laid bare, but that we will find a way to come together and do something inspired by hope and fearlessness.

It just depends on what Abraham Lincoln referred to in his first inaugural, “the better angels of our nature.”

Rep O’Rourke to Hold Community Meeting on ‘DREAMers’ Sunday


Congressman Beto O’Rourke says that El Paso is at the center of a national debate when it comes to immigration policy.

“The President-elect has promised to immediately terminate President Obama’s executive actions on immigration to include deportation protections granted to DREAMers, young people brought to this country as children and who have registered with the government while they pursue their studies, serve in the military and continue to contribute to this country,” O’Rourke stated in a news release.

According to the American Immigration Council, there are approximately 1.8 million immigrants in the United States who might be, or might become, eligible for the Obama Administration’s “deferred action” initiative for unauthorized youth brought to this country as children, better known as the DREAMers.

DREAMers are named for the DREAM (is acronym for (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, the legislative proposal for a multi-phase process for undocumented immigrants in the US. The DREAM Act would first grant conditional residency and, upon meeting further qualifications, permanent residency.

In order to better understand the position these DREAMers are in, Rep. O’Rourke is hosting a community meeting this weekend to hear from Borderland residents on the subject.

O’Rourke adds, “I will be joined by community, faith and civic leaders to share DREAMers stories, discuss policy ideas and hear from you.”

The DREAMers Community Meeting is scheduled for  Sunday, January 15th at 1:30 p.m. in San Jacinto Plaza in downtown El Paso.


Rep. Beto O’Rourke “very likely” to run for Sen. Ted Cruz’s seat in 2018

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke said Thursday he is all but certain to make a run for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz‘s seat in 2018.

“I’ve had the chance to talk to a lot of people around the state of Texas over the last six weeks, and I will tell you, I’m very encouraged,” he told The Texas Tribune on Thursday in an interview. “And I am continuing to listen to and talk to folks, and I’m just becoming more and more encouraged.” 

“It’s very likely that I will run for Senate in 2018,” the El Paso Democrat added. 

In a previous interview with the Tribune, O’Rourke kept the door open to a run in 2018 or 2020. O’Rourke just began his third term in the U.S. House and has promised to term-limit himself in that chamber. 

The comments came just hours after former George W. Bush operative Matthew Dowd told the Tribune that he, too, was considering a bid against Cruz as an independent. 

O’Rourke reacted to the Dowd news positively. 

“Anyone who’s willing to take something like this on deserves our respect, and so I think that would be great,” he said. “I think the more voices, perspectives, experience that can be fielded, the better for Texas.” 

National Democrats are cautiously watching the early movement of the race. The national map is extremely challenging for the party, and 10 Senate Democratic incumbents are up for re-election in states President-elect Donald Trump carried.

It is all but certain those races will take precedence for the national party over Texas, an expensive state where no Democrat has won statewide since 1994. But the political climate is highly unpredictable this early in the cycle.

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