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'Sometimes a Hail Mary works': meet the Democrat trying to beat Ted Cruz in Texas

Jeff Stein
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) told me in an interview in his House office late last month that Sen. Bernie Sanders's single-payer bill was perhaps the best piece of health care legislation that had been introduced in Congress.

But a few hours later, in a phone call that night, the top Democratic challenger to Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 admitted that his staffers entertained doubts as to whether it was a smart move to get behind Sanders's bill.

"Thank God we don't have a pollster, or a consultant, or whatever. Because they'd fire me," O'Rourke said. "I really don't think about [the attack ads] too much, but I would be lying if I told you my team didn't. I got some serious looks from the folks in my office, and for the right reasons. They were saying, 'Look, there may be a better way to get to the things you want to get to.'"

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The 45-year-old, three-term Congress member from El Paso is lighting up the left, raising millions of dollars in grassroots contributions for a race against Cruz that many political analysts expect him to lose. A victory would make O'Rourke, seen as the favorite in the primary, the first Democrat elected to statewide office in Texas since 1994.

But winning or losing isn't the only reason national Democrats are starting to get excited about his campaign. They're excited about a candidate who says, and even acts like, he's unshackled from the normal practicalities of politics — like fundraising from corporate PACs and keeping to a centrist message in a red state. O'Rourke is not just taking on Ted Cruz; he also talks about his campaign as a challenge to both the Democratic Party's big donors and its style of politics.

Not to mention: he's punk rock.

"When you're putting out your own records and booking your own tours and writing your own songs, you get to control what you say," says O'Rourke, comparing his decision not to take PAC money to his days playing in a punk band named Foss and the 1980s punk label Dischord Records. "The campaign is the same thing."

Beto O'Rourke: "Republicans are at least intellectually honest" about campaign finance

O'Rourke, in many ways, couldn't be more different from Bernie Sanders — a 76-year-old Brooklyn-born Vermonter — or Donald Trump. But he says he gets something they both tapped into in 2016.

"Republicans are at least intellectually honest about [campaign cash] — they say, 'Look, money is speech and corporations are people,'" O'Rourke told me in his office in the Longworth House Office Building. "Democrats say, 'This is fucking crazy, the worst thing ever; our democracy is over, but I've got to play the game until we're on top' ... I'm the last to judge, but I think there's a great opening for Democrats to connect with people who know — and Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump used the same word, and it was the right word — that this is 'rigged.'"

O'Rourke backs up his point with a recent poll another House Democrat recently showed him. Researchers, he said, asked two different groups of voters to evaluate the exact same policy. One group of voters was simply told what the policy consisted of. A second group of voters were told about the policy but were told it was a solution to the fact that they had been "getting screwed." Support for the policy skyrocketed when cast as a solution to "getting screwed."

O'Rourke brought up the poll in our interview, perhaps because it appears to offer powerful support for his interpretation of American politics. "[Voters] are understandably anxious and justifiably pissed off by those who have not played by the rules," he said. "Here's the big opening for candidates for Congress: Don't just acknowledge that it's rigged. Have the courage to walk the walk. And my bet is that you will be rewarded."

Texas is still Texas, but maybe not for long

O'Rourke's run may well come to nothing. (The candidate has pointed to early polling suggesting he's running even with Cruz.) But part of the buzz around his rise is tied up in a broader seismic shift in American politics.

As Mother Jones's Tim Murphy noted in an excellent profile of O'Rourke, Hillary Clinton actually improved Democrats' standing in much of the increasingly diverse, increasingly Hispanic Sun Belt (Arizona, Texas, New Mexico), even as Republicans gained ground in the Rust Belt (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio).

O'Rourke, who speaks fluent Spanish and likes to refer to his upbringing in a border town, sounds like he's trying to achieve a synthesis between Sanders's anti-establishment critique of the political system and a message tailored for the New Majority voters who helped powered Barack Obama's presidential victories.

He isn't running like other red-state Democrats who stress their desires to cut taxes and talk about their pro-gun bona fides. Instead, he's trying to win in Texas as a populist progressive — one who criticizes the hold of corporate money over both parties and refuses to take it, advocates for legalized marijuana, and gives TED talks extolling the virtues of immigration. (The journalist Christopher Hooks has chronicled O'Rourke's more centrist 2012 congressional campaign — talk O'Rourke appears to have jettisoned more recently.)

This all makes top Democrats at least cautiously invest hope in O'Rourke's bid. "Winning the Senate is really going to be a long shot in 2018. But if we're going to flip it, we're going to need to win in Texas," one top Democratic strategist said of O'Rourke. "And who knows? Sometimes a Hail Mary works."

I talked with O'Rourke about single-payer health care, his "road to Damascus moment" on campaign contributions, and how his time in a punk rock band informed his politics.

An edited transcript of our conversations follow.

How O'Rourke's punk rock origins connect to his campaign style

Jeff Stein

One of the things a lot of the profiles about you have talked about is the extent to which you're campaigning in small towns and districts where candidates from neither party has shown up in for years, and how you're not taking any corporate or PAC money in your race.

I was wondering if you see that as at all connected to your unusual path to Congress, given your time as a punk rock musician before seeking higher office.

Beto O'Rourke

I'm not sure how familiar you are with the punk rock that came out of DC, like Dischord Records that came out of the early '80s. They were really one of the record labels in America that figured out how to put out your community's own music — to record the bands, to start the distribution, to do the label, to book the tours.

And I loved their music; I'd order any new record on the Dischord catalogue with my $8. That inspired us in El Paso — we loved Dischord and SST Records in LA and Twin Tone in Minneapolis, or Look Out Records in California — and we said, "We should do that here."

That was a big, profound influence because it gave me so much power over the things I really cared about as a teenager. The way I've talked about it is when you're putting out your own records and booking your own tours and writing your own songs, you get to control what you say.

The campaign is the same thing. If I waited for the Democratic Party to pick me, I don't know they would have. I don't know I was the guy. There have been precisely zero candidates from El Paso to win statewide election.

We've started our own label and put out our own stuff and didn't have any corporate involvement — I interviewed some potential managers out of Washington, DC, who ran campaigns before and were used to doing it a certain way. And I wanted us to do it independently, our own way. [O'Rourke is only hiring staffers who live in Texas.] So there really is a tie between those things.

Jeff Stein

I was in the Georgia Sixth for Jon Ossoff's congressional campaign, and one thing Republicans successfully did was to make him out to be the "other." There's a lot of thinking that these cultural and identity factors are just way too strong, particularly in the South, for Democrats to overcome, and I'm curious how you think it can be overcome.

Beto O'Rourke

I just don't think that's the issue.

It doesn't mean we don't have serious challenges in Texas. I was just talking about voter suppression and how Texas has a horrific history that is still being made today — courts have found Texas is gerrymandering districts based on race and ethnicity. I love telling people that less than 100 years ago, we had an all-white Democratic primary. I don't want to minimize the challenge we have in Texas.

But people really want to know whether I'm going to represent them — and really them, they and their families — or if there are other interests at play, including my interests in being reelected [O'Rourke has come out for term limits], or if I'll be captured by people who have more money or have more access.

That is so fundamental. Republican and Democrat, that is so fundamental to the anxiety we all have right now about government and that you see reflected in elections.

Everything else flows from that. If you're voting on a tax deal or on health care, are you voting for us? Is it really rigged?

Jeff Stein

Ted Cruz has a similar message, in a way. His whole 2012 campaign was about not being beholden to the Washington Republican establishment, but in a way you're trying to outflank him on the question of anti-establishment ties.

Beto O'Rourke

Right. He's become the quintessential Washington guy. Changing his support for Trump [during the 2016 presidential election] — and you never want to ascribe motive — but just the fact he did that.

The things Cruz said on the [presidential] campaign trail — supporting police patrols in Muslim communities in America; his shutdown of the government in 2013. It really did seem he was willing to take a pure ideological extreme, and it's changed as the prevailing winds have changed.

He is the poster senator for PAC money and for playing the Washington game and parlaying that senator seat — and his responsibility for 28 million people — into a nearly successful run for the Republican nomination.

O'Rourke on single-payer health care

Jeff Stein

You've supported the idea of single-payer in the past but haven't co-sponsored [Rep. John Conyers's] HR676 in the past because of concerns that the bill eliminates for-profit hospitals.

It seems like Sanders's new health care bill does meet your criteria.

Beto O'Rourke

It does, yeah.

Jeff Stein

So would Sen. Beto O'Rourke support Sanders's proposal? I know you're working on your own plan.

Beto O'Rourke

The answer is yes, I would.

And to address the premise of your question — I could care less about for-profit hospitals. I just think that if the whole idea is that Medicare works pretty well and therefore if we were to expand it to everyone, I don't think you want to screw with how it works right now — which is to provide universal care in both for-profit and nonprofit capacities.

Maybe someone could successfully argue the other side and maybe change my mind on this. But why you would change some fundamental part of how care is reimbursed is beyond me — other than when I talk to some folks who argue for this, and this is a legitimate point of view, they say nobody should make a profit off of health care. Maybe that's as it should be. It's just not the way it works today, and it's not the way I could see feasibly making the transition into a universal health care model.

So here's what I like about Sanders's proposal. It gets us to universal health care. There are many paths to get there, and there are as many proven paths as there are wealthy democracies in the world; everyone has their own path to get there.

I like that Sanders, as I understand it, essentially expands how Medicare works today and doesn't have the provision to prevent private and for-profit providers from participating in the system. I think he's done the best job of anyone up here ever in articulating the goal through legislation, and so I want to support it. There are probably some things with which I could quibble, but that is as good as I've seen it get — and so I want to get behind it and say I support it.

I've also tried to be clear that while [Sanders's plan] is pretty close to ideal, there's so much we can do to make what we have today better. I want to be working on that as well. Some of the ideas that are obvious to anyone looking at this include expanding Medicaid — and I have to think, in Texas as a state that didn't expand Medicaid, now that Graham-Cassidy has failed and we think there's no other likely successful attempt before the end of the fiscal year, the conversation in those states has to turn to, "How do you make this work?"

Expanding Medicaid is one of those ways; perhaps there's some other formulation for it — including President Obama not being in the White House — that allows [Texas Gov.] Greg Abbott or our US senators to say, "This is different enough that we're going to get behind it and expand Medicaid."

The other step beyond that would be to allow people to buy Medicare or Medicaid on the exchanges. We just had a conversation the other day of, "How do we get to where we want to get to?" We talked about the idea of getting Medicaid on the exchanges, which would force the private insurers to compete a little more aggressively.

Jeff Stein

There was an argument some made in 2018 that one of Hillary Clinton's problems was that she was defending a status quo that was not working for too many people, and that the more important shift in the Democratic Party isn't just on the policy of the legislation they're supporting, but the more broad question of whether Democrats would stand up and proclaim, "Health care is broken; we have 28 million people uninsured; millions still struggle with outrageously high deductibles and premiums, and we need to radically overhaul the system to take care of them."

Beto O'Rourke

I think you've really hit upon something. A colleague of mine, in their state, they're running a poll. And they found that whatever policy statement is being tested, if the statement began with, "I know you're getting screwed; therefore, I wanted to do X," the very same question asked — without the "you're getting screwed" bit — is off the charts.

And I've certainly seen that in Texas and all across the country. You have to recognize what we're doing today — in health care, in the ability of people to find a job above a livable wage, in the ability to afford a good education — that too many people feel like they're getting screwed or that they played by the rules and it's just not worked for them. And they are understandably anxious and justifiably pissed off by those who have not played by the rules.

Jeff Stein

[In a follow-up conversation that night]

After we talked today, did you think, "Oh, shit, there's going to be headlines and ads that say, 'Beto wants to represent Texas to support socialist Bernie's socialist medicine plan?'"

Beto O'Rourke

Thank God we don't have a pollster, or a consultant, or whatever. Because they would fire me for telling you what I told you today. I really don't think about [the attack ads] too much, but I would be lying if I told you my team didn't. I got some serious looks from the folks in my office — for the right reasons. They were saying, "Look, there may be a better way to get to some of the things you want to get to."

And I feel like they're right, but also if there's something that is the best articulation of the goal you're trying to get to and you don't have something better, [you have to support what is out there]. I had to answer your question, which was very direct, about whether I would co-sponsor his bill. Absolutely: I want to get that bill before a committee. I want it debated and to see if it's something that can potentially pass.

It is the best articulation yet of how you get to universal [health care]. ... I feel like people are owed your honesty on this, and they gotta know you want to get to universal — and that if this is the best choice in front of us, that you'd be on it.

Beto O'Rourke's "road to Damascus" moment on money in politics

Jeff Stein

Presumably, Democrats haven't been trying to lose. I'm going to guess you'll say you can do this [while] other Democrats have not because you're almost alone in the party in not taking PAC money.

You're rare because some members, like [Rep.] Ro Khanna [CA], never took money. But you did and then changed. What changed in your life after you stopped taking that money?

Beto O'Rourke

It went from a conscious decision to a non-conscious decision. When I ran in 2012, there was only one PAC that gave us a check that was not solicited by us — it was the Marijuana Policy Project. We beat the incumbent through many small contributions.

But the day I won the primary, the PAC checks just flooded in. And I was like: "Cool. Great." I didn't ask for the contributions. They came in. Free money.

And then when I came up here, as most people do, I hired a DC fundraiser. And that really consists of going to mixers, where you're going to meet the representatives of the interests who have business in front of your committees. The people we just met with [today in our office] were from Novartis — a pharmaceutical manufacturer that wants us to allow Medicare Part D to pay for obesity drugs. I assume Novartis has a PAC. And what you'd do is you'd call Novartis later and say, "Hey, love what you guys are doing fighting obesity; by the way, I have a tough reelection so you should help me out." That's how it works.

But I did have a "road to Damascus" moment. I was meeting a lobbyist for lunch at Tortilla Coast [a Mexican restaurant one block from the Capitol]. And they also gave me a $10,000 PAC check, which didn't feel good, and I was thinking, "I guess that's just how this place works."

It was an agricultural interest. And they had one lobbyist — like the sherpa [or handler] who brings you around — who brings you around, and he organized the lunch. And then there were 10 farmers in this given industry — who were very good people trying to deal with a government that works this way, where you buy influence and access and, hopefully, outcomes. That's what they were trying to do: chip in, and go to lunch with this guy, and tell him our personal histories ...

Then we're voting on the floor [of the House] on the farm bill, and there's an amendment that's specific to their interests. My team had recommended I vote against it ... And for a second — and I don't have this industry in my congressional district — for a second the thought crosses my mind, "I should just vote for this, because it really doesn't matter to my constituents; it's like a few million dollars in a $1.2 trillion [federal] budget, and it will ensure next year that they support me." Obviously, I wouldn't be telling you this story if I voted yes [laughs]; I voted no.

But that was my moment. And then I said: "I'm done. I'm never doing this again." And that was before I served on the Armed Services Committee, and that, for me, it underscored the importance not just of not being captured but not even appearing to be conflicted — I never want anyone to think, "Did he just do this because he got $30,000 from Boeing?"

Jeff Stein

Sen. Elizabeth Warren makes this point that the influence of money in the Capitol isn't literally lobbyists trundling through the halls carrying briefcases full of cash, but that money has a much more subtle, gas-like effect where it creeps up quietly behind you.

Beto O'Rourke

Absolutely, yes — that's a great way to describe it. In describing it that way, it actually takes away some of the complicity from members of Congress. Because they were elected into a system that works this way, and their No. 1 goal is to get reelected, if any of them are honest with you. The system as it works today, one of the only ways to get reelected is to traffic in this stuff.

Jeff Stein

So how do you see Congress differently as a result of no longer taking money? Are you now making this case to fellow Democrats that they should also stop taking PAC money?

Beto O'Rourke

Absolutely. Republicans are at least intellectually honest about this stuff, or many Republicans are — they say, "Look, I agree money is speech and corporations are people and, therefore, corporations should spend unlimited amounts to effect outcomes. That's just what I believe, so I'll do business accordingly."

Democrats say, "This is fucking crazy, the worst thing ever; our democracy is over, but I've got to play the game until we're on top, and then I'll change the rule so this won't continue."

Jeff Stein

When I was in Philly for the Democratic National Convention, I had a headline that said, "Democrats in Philly: money corrupts politicians, unless we're the ones taking it. "

Beto O'Rourke

I very much feel that way. I'm the last to judge, and so no judgment, but I think there's a great opening for Democrats to connect with [the fact that] people know — and Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump used the same word, and it was the right word — that this is "rigged." From the inside, I can tell you that it is absolutely rigged. And rigged in kind of a perverse, almost unconscious way, in the way Sen. Warren talks about.

Lawrence Lessig makes this really good point — items 1 through 10 on the reasons you came here, no amount of money is going to change your mind on it. But you'll vote on 1,200 items in a given session of Congress. So items 11-1,200 are open to influence, because you might get a couple of minutes per vote from your staff. You're in an inch deep on this stuff and one mile wide, so it's much easier for money to factor into your calculation — I have subject matter expertise on like three things, and you're not going to change me on any of those.

So here's the big opening for candidates for Congress. Don't just acknowledge that it's rigged. Have the courage to walk the walk. And my bet is that you will be rewarded by people who are so grateful someone is actually going to live accordingly.