Story by McKenna Middleton | Photos by Meredith Wagner & Claire Gilbreath

Before El Paso Congressman Robert “Beto” O’Rourke took the Common Grounds stage on Oct. 5, a thick crowd of Baylor students and community members sang along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” awaiting the arrival of the 2018 Democratic Senate candidate.

O’Rourke had visited Waco seven times since announcing his campaign in March 2017, a surprisingly conservative town for a progressive candidate—but then again, many consider O’Rourke to be a surprisingly progressive candidate for such a conservative state. Some perceived incumbent U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Houston, to be a better fit for Texas.

When Cruz and O’Rourke debated on Sept. 21 at Southern Methodist University, Cruz suggested his challenger was out of touch with Texas values.

“Congressman O’Rourke doesn’t seem to understand that representing Texas is not doing a photo op in each county in Texas with reporters in tow,” Cruz said at the debate. “Representing Texas is actually standing up and fighting for Texans—not big liberal interests.”

O’Rourke’s platform stands for what he believes the people of Texas want despite the difficulties of campaigning as a Democrat in Texas.

A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in April 2018 pointed to a more nuanced vision of Texas, rather than the deep red state it is typically perceived to be. According to the poll, 53 percent of Texas voters surveyed oppose Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the Mexican-American border, and 64 percent said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S. and eventually offered a path to citizenship. In addition, 55 percent of polled Texas voters support stricter gun laws, and 94 percent support requiring background checks for all gun buyers. Even 61 percent of polled Texas voters support some form of marijuana legalization, a position O’Rourke holds that has been criticized by Cruz and other conservatives.

An analysis of Politico’s election results map suggests O’Rourke’s supporters mostly resided in large cities like Dallas and Austin, as well as counties like Webb County, which lines the Mexican-American border. Cruz found conservative support in rural areas like west Texas, as well as counties that are home to smaller towns.

Some see Cruz as a candidate that recognizes and addresses their priorities in his platform. Portland, Ore., Baylor junior Eric Soo, Baylor College Republicans chapter chair, said Cruz speaks to his idea of Texas values by standing up for tighter border control and other conservative values like the right to bear arms.

“Even though my father emigrated from China legally in order to settle in the United States, and even though my mother is Puerto Rican, many College Republicans like myself have been called Nazis and fascists for believing that illegal immigration is harmful to our country,” Soo said. “Both the media and some progressives fail to make a distinction between illegal and legal immigration, and Senator Cruz can be trusted to enforce a stronger and safer border.”

Despite Texas’ reputation as a traditionally conservative state, many say O’Rourke’s platform reflects a shift in Texas values—an anomaly that resulted in widespread media attention. He has especially gained exposure for his commitment to travel to all 254 counties in Texas.

“I just love how he went to every county in Texas,” said Edinburg Baylor junior Samantha Villarreal, a volunteer with the Beto campaign. “And I remember at the last debate, he mentioned a lady that he met in a certain county, and he remembered her name and her story, and I really liked how he pulled people out of his mind because he actually met them.”

Supporters and political analysts have described O’Rourke’s run for the Senate seat as significant, not only for the traction he has against a Republican incumbent in a red state, but also for the grassroots nature of his campaign.

“One of the things I think has distinguished this campaign is… [we are] not taking PAC money or help from special interests or corporations,” O’Rourke said. “We are not defining ourselves by what we are against, who we don’t like, the other party that we are trying to defeat. We want to be known by our ambitions—the big things that we want to do which we will only achieve by coming together. That’s what’s really exciting right now in Texas. I just feel extraordinarily lucky to be a part of that.”

Though his platform aligns with progressive politics, O’Rourke focuses much of his rhetoric on narrowing the partisan divide in Texas and in the U.S.

“It’s important that we, the people of Texas, lead the way in coming together—seeing each other not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Texans, as Americans, as human beings—and treating one another like human beings going forward. That is a Texas value,” Beto said at the Common Grounds rally on Oct. 5. “For the most part, we all want to be able to do the same things, achieve the same aspirations and goals. Sometimes, we see a different path to get there. We differ on the means. Which makes us no less American for coming to a different conclusion about how to get there.”

Cruz visited Waco for a campaign rally on Oct. 19 at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. He said he would prioritize tax cuts and small businesses.

“It ain’t rocket science: cut taxes, simplify tax code, repeal job-killing regulations. Small businesses will prosper and expand, and the state of Texas does well,” Cruz said.

In his victory speech, Cruz said he also hoped the divisive political climate could be overcome with civility across party lines.

“It is my hope that with the bitterness and division we see nationally that Texas can be a model for how we could come together. Disagree, yes, but with civility. Respecting each other’s decency. Respecting each other’s humanity. Treating each other the way each of us would like to be treated,” Cruz said.

Baylor students at O’Rourke’s rally said that, although Baylor is generally accepting of all political beliefs, the student population tends to lean conservatively. O’Rourke has focused a large portion of his energy on reaching young voters and college students, taking time on the campaign trail to visit Baylor, Texas A&M, UT-Austin and other universities.

Huxley, Iowa, Baylor senior Austin Allaire said he sees O’Rourke’s campaign as reflective of a larger cultural movement toward standing up for issues that are important to younger generations, despite the political risk of focusing on millennial and Generation Z voters.

“One thing I’ve been so impressed by with Beto’s campaign is his focus on millennials and his focus on college students. And it is a risk. I think any political strategist would say it’s a risk because the numbers aren’t there necessarily in terms of how often millennials and college students actually turn out to vote,” Allaire said. “But I think it’s absolutely a risk worth taking because our generation is a generation that has the opportunity to decide the future of this country.”

O’Rourke echoed these sentiments at his rally at Common Grounds. He said his campaign has focused its energy on young people despite the data demonstrating that young people do not vote. In fact, Pew Research Center reported that only 51 percent of millennials said they voted in 2016.

“I would not vote either, if no one ever showed up, introduced themselves to me, heard what was on my mind, incorporated my story, my dreams, my aspirations into their campaign, into the work that we want to do over the next six years. I just want to tell you: You are every bit a part of this success as anyone else that we hear,” O’Rourke told the crowd.

O’Rourke emphasized the ways young leadership has driven the energy and platform of his campaign as well.

“Young people are standing up. They’re grabbing a hold of the conscience of this country. And they’re going to force us to act,” O’Rourke said. “So I’m following the leadership, the energy, the future of this country. And it happens to be here in Waco and everywhere that we go that people are willing to stand up and be countered.”

Both younger and older generations in Waco connected with O’Rourke’s progressive messages at his rally. McGregor resident Tammie Hartgroves, Senate District 22 Committeewoman of the State Democratic Executive Committee, said she thinks O’Rourke’s message applies to all Texans.

“He speaks for everyone,” Hartgroves said. “He doesn’t just speak for the upper crust—the elitists. He has a message for every socio-economic group, every gender group.”
In his victory speech, Cruz said he stands for the people of Texas.

“This election was a battle of ideas… The people of Texas rendered a verdict that we want a future with more jobs, and more security, and more freedom,” Cruz said. “Securing the border and keeping our community safe and defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and that is a common sense agenda that unites Texans from every part of the state.”

Though Texas and Baylor are often identified as conservative spaces, Allaire said O’Rourke’s campaign points to the future of the historically red state.

“Beto is paving the way for further progressive candidates and is providing a model for what it would look like for a progressive to win in the state of Texas,” Allaire said. “And maybe 2018 isn’t the year for that. But what’s to say 2020 isn’t?”