It's a full day after Ted Cruz lit up the internet for allegedly liking a hardcore porn account's tweet on Sept. 12, and I'm on the phone with his 2018 Texas Senate opponent, Beto O'Rourke. So, of course, I bring it up. Cruz is known for his "evangelical voting conscience," which, in Texas, is the short-form slang for a few key issues.
Cruz is anti-health care access, anti-choice for women, and has an unwavering passion for gun rights that was initially supported by the NRA on the senate level, but faded quickly once the organization backed Trump's 2016 presidential ticket instead. (Cruz still walked away with $36,000 in donations from the NRA in 2016, and was a key speaker at a 2017 NRA event.) In reference to the issue at hand — the tweet — I should point out that Cruz once pulled a campaign ad he filmed after discovering one of the actors had appeared in softcore porn years earlier.
But O'Rourke, unsurprisingly, isn't fazed by the Cruz headlines. In fact, he's not even paying attention. Over the phone for an exclusive interview with Elite Daily, he tells me, in reference to the tweet, "Yesterday was our first day back in DC and we're -- as you can imagine -- doing our best to try and make sure we're responding to those who have been hurt by [Hurricane] Harvey and now [Hurricane] Irma in Florida. I just have not had a lot of time to get online and to see that." He adds, "But I don't take any joy out of anyone else's misfortune."
And that was that on Ted Cruz.
It's hard, however, to talk about O'Rourke without bringing up his political opponent. After all, Cruz has been leading the Texas Senate since his election in 2012, and the Texas senator was a major talking point in the 2016 presidential election, though he ultimately lost the Republican primary to now-President Donald Trump. Cruz is also notably disliked within his own party. Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott once called out the way Cruz handled himself on the Senate floor for calling Mitch McConnell a liar, and former President George W. Bush once said, "I just don't like the guy." O'Rourke stands in opposition to just about every one of Cruz's political beliefs. For starters, O'Rourke is pro-choice, supports equal access to healthcare, and is looking to legalize marijuana.
O'Rourke is also gaining notoriety, and not just due to his contrasting political POVs. Before he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2012, O'Rourke was a businessman in El Paso, Texas. However, before that, O'Rourke was a punk rocker. In fact, there are still grainy videos of O'Rourke and his band, Foss, floating around YouTube, and one of Foss' ex-members (Cedric Bixler-Zavala) even went on to join the bands Mars Volta and At the Drive-In. O'Rourke was on bass and vocals, and in true punk-rock, Kurt-Cobain fashion, even shows up in what appears to be a floral dress on the band's album cover.
Somewhere in Texas, you can practically hear Cruz's shuddering in his pantsuit.
Looking back, O'Rourke's band days may have served as his first foray into politics, long before even he realized it. He says being around others in the music scene who were putting out their own music, booking their own tours, and publishing their own zines had a huge influence on him. "It just demonstrated the power that we all have when we just decide to take matters into our own hands [and not] wait for someone else to do it," he says.
O'Rourke is looking to that same "power of the people" mindset to help fund his campaign for Senate. He's been vocal about his refusal to accept Political Action Committee (PAC) money, which, he says boils down to the fact that "special interests don't have a home" in his campaign. In fact, he's so against PAC involvement in campaigns that O'Rourke even introduced the No PAC Act into congress.
PAC money isn't exactly Texas' biggest problem. Although a Democrat hasn't been elected to the Texas Senate since 1994, Republicans aren't exactly the problem, either. "Texas isn't a red state or a blue state, it's a non-voting state," O'Rourke tells me. He points to gerrymandering — representatives having the power to draw literal re-zoning lines, which gives them the power to choose their voters and not the other way around — as the cause. This means that those congressmen and women only have to appeal to their voters; hence, little change actually gets made. "If you don't feel like your vote is going to count and you feel like the system is rigged, why would you waste your time voting?"
Texas was number five on Huffpo's 2016 list of top 10 states with the lowest voter turnout. According to O'Rourke, "the way the system works right now is, literally, members of Congress choose their voters instead of the other way around, so I think young people get that that's not the way it's supposed to work."
Although gerrymandering has been going on for years, it only recently gained attention as a constitutional problem. The Supreme Court is set to hear a case on the issue in October with Gill v. Whitford, involving alleged unconstitutional redistricting in Wisconsin from 2011. With mostly Democrats backing the case and a few Republicans (John McCain, to be exact) lending their support, ending the issue could be closer than we think. But O'Rourke doesn't have time to kill waiting.
Gerrymandering is one of the biggest issues he sees in Texas that he quite literally can't sit with. If Texas is a "non-voting state," as he calls it, then it's doomed to repeat a cycle of electing representatives who just don't listen to the needs of their peers. It's what motivated his run and decision to reject PAC money in the first place. He wants voters to be involved in the democratic process again.
Of course, now we're all wondering the same thing: Does O'Rourke have a shot at unseating Cruz? As we saw with the November 2016 presidential election, elections are hard to pinpoint. But as we also saw as a result of the 2016 election, people are starting to take more notice at what's going on. They are the people O'Rourke wants to talk to.
O'Rourke first began his fight for the Senate in mid-2017, a full year ahead of the November 2018 elections. Instead of running a campaign centered on calling out Cruz's "flaws," O'Rourke is focusing on what matters: Texans. By the time we talk on the phone about his campaign, he's just recently finished a 34-day tour across Texas, where he visited small towns and met with supporters and critics alike. When Hurricane Harvey hit, he headed to Houston. "We're going to the places where people often feel like perhaps they are forgotten or their voices aren't being heard," O'Rourke says.
In his first quarter as a candidate alone, O'Rourke has already raised $2.1 million, a startling figure, especially when compared to Cruz, who has only raised $1.6 million. Another jaw dropping number? Cruz kicked off the Senate race with $5.7 million available for campaign expenses. O'Rourke, however, started with a modest $1.9 million.
Recent polls show close numbers between Cruz and O'Rourke. An April 2017 poll completed by Lyceum of 897 people throughout Texas listed O'Rourke's approval at 30 percent -- identical to Cruz's. Speaking with such a small sampling of Texans (a state that boasts 15 million eligible voters), it's hard to say exactly who voters are backing, but such strong numbers could bode well for O'Rourke in the future.
But if the first year of O'Rourke's campaign is any indication of what's to come, it's safe to say more recognition of the liberal from Texas will only pick up from here. He cites young people, especially those just graduating high school or beginning their careers, as some of the toughest Texans he's encountered so far. He mentions that Trump's refusal to legitimately address growing concerns about climate change and his insistence on reversing Obama-era protections on net neutrality are at the forefront of young people's minds, and O'Rourke is not just taking notes -- he's listening.
"It's been incredibly encouraging to see [young people's] interest," he says. "It gives me some very strong cause for optimism going forward."
If the most unsettling aspect of the political landscape in Texas isn't concern over whether it's "red" or "blue," but more the fact that it's silent, then O'Rourke's biggest challenge now is to make some noise. As someone who once thrashed in a punk band on local TV, the challenge, it seems, is one he's already accepted.