Dozens of Texans gathered in a grassy courtyard between a historic hotel and a foodie bistro. They brought their kids and their dogs and set up in camping chairs in the patches of shade they could find.
They were waiting for Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic congressman from El Paso who is challenging Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and doing so by campaigning in all of Texas’s 254 counties, hitting many repeatedly. What started as a familiar campaign tactic has turned into something of a phenomenon, with O’Rourke greeted along the way by large crowds yearning for a specific sort of message.
Here in Fort Davis, located in a far-west Texas county where 1,191 people voted for president in 2016, more than 300 showed up on a Sunday evening. In Muleshoe in the deeply conservative Texas Panhandle — home to a statue of Old Pete, a mule that attended George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration — more than 50 showed up for a meeting during the middle of the workday. In Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast, more than 1,000 packed into a sweltering bingo hall on a Wednesday night; dozens more listened from outside, and more than 100,000 people watched online.
Although Democratic enthusiasm has exploded across the country, few candidates have found the fervent level of interest O’Rourke has consistently attracted, drawing surprisingly large crowds in unexpected places. At a time when politics has become increasingly nasty and divisive — when President Trump has been blamed for ended friendships and a deterioration of civility — O’Rourke has laid down a potent counterargument: compassion.
O’Rourke, 45, says he’s intent on running a positive campaign, one focused not on Trump or the famously acerbic Cruz but on soothing hot anger with a promise of something different.
O’Rourke’s positions are more liberal than statewide candidates in Texas usually dare to espouse. He has called for banning the sale of assault rifles that can blow a hole “the size of an orange” in a victim, legalizing marijuana, confronting climate change, increasing the federal minimum wage and giving everyone access to medical care.
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