Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for governor is taking him deep into rural Texas

On a road trip to find untapped votes, the Democratic challenger for governor faces armed protestors, shouting matches and a stolen catalytic converter.

Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks to more than 300 supporters at a town hall meeting in Gov. Greg Abbott's hometown of Wichita Falls, Tex. (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post)
Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke speaks to more than 300 supporters at a town hall meeting in Gov. Greg Abbott’s hometown of Wichita Falls, Tex. (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post)


SPEARMAN, Tex. — Everyone in this 3,087-person Panhandle city knows that Beto O’Rourke is coming to campaign for governor today. It’s a major event, a big-time politician coming all the way out here, deep into rural oil country, where the landscape is dotted with pump jacks and cattle and grain elevators, and the worst drought in 10 years has sucked up all the water in the Canadian River so it’s just a dry bed of red dirt.

“People are buzzing! It’s a big buzz,” says Suzanne Bellsnyder, who owns the one coffee shop downtown. Local gossip networks have already alerted her that Beto (he’s achieved one-name celebrity status in these parts, like Cher) is next door having lunch. It’s a Saturday afternoon, and he’ll be speaking in a park, with the temperature hitting 105 degrees.

People are buzzing in a good way? Like, excited?

She smiles. Well, what do you think? Beto mustered only 8 percent of the vote here in 2018 when he ran as the Democratic candidate for Senate against the Republican incumbent, Sen. Ted Cruz. That’s 138 votes out of 1,710 cast in all of Hansford County. “We don’t even have a Democrat primary,” says Bellsnyder, who is the former chair of the county’s Republican Party. “I mean, they hold one, but 12 people vote or something.” (Fact check: It was actually eight people in 2018 and 14 in 2022.)

The buzz had started in right-wing Facebook groups, where a protest was being planned. There was chatter about whether to bring guns. “Did you see the guy with the AR-15?” Beto asks me a few days later. “He was wearing it, coming toward the door, which is not unusual for us.” It’s also not unusual for a dozen shouting Republicans to confront Beto outside a town hall meeting of 337 people and then post videos on Twitter saying they’d run him out of town.

Maybe it’s a fool’s errand or just a kamikaze mission of hope, but Beto is holding more than 70 public events in 49 days trying to convince people in mostly small, rural and often incredibly red towns around the state that he should be their next governor. It’s part of a campaign strategy fueled by the fact that four years ago he came closer than any Democrat in a generation to winning a statewide office in his Senate race — within 220,000 votes, or 2.6 percent. Which in Texas counts as close.

Beto is targeting GOP strongholds that former president Donald Trump won with 70, 80 or even 90 percent of the vote just two years ago, making his schedule public and inviting the entire community to join. If there are votes out there to push him over the top, that means turning over every couch cushion in every corner of the state — even in conservative oil, agriculture and ranching country where many people are thrilled with two-term incumbent Republican governor Greg Abbott, who signed a trigger law banning most abortions and who has spent the summer busing migrants to D.C. and New York City, while blaming it all on President Biden.

Could a victory for Beto lie not in liberal cities such as Austin or Houston but in spending these last precious three months of the campaign driving his Toyota Tundra to the least populous, most Republican parts of the state, mining for untapped votes?

“I mean, there’s a reason to do this,” Beto says in Spearman, sweating through his white button-down. Having been married for 17 years, Beto often says, he knows no two people agree on everything, but he’s hoping people around here might at least like his plans to repair Texas’s power grid or to pay teachers more.

If nothing else, maybe they’ll respect that he came.

“I understand that if we’re only interested in those who are already with us, we’ll never get there,” he says, “We’ll end up in the same place every Democrat has for the last 28 years.” That’s how long it’s been since Texas had a Democrat as governor, when Ann Richards held the job.

For six days and 10 events, I chased Beto from west to east across the state — a sliver of this mostly rural tour that began in his hometown of El Paso last month and traces the perimeter of the state, including the border with Mexico, before ending near Dallas in September.

And when I say chased, I mean it. The man drives as if he’s a criminal trying to lose a tail, easily going 95 to 100 mph at times.

“If we want to create 30 minutes to eat lunch, we gotta drive fast,” he says, devouring a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone at a Dairy Queen. (A week after I left him, police pulled him over outside of Galveston and warned him to slow down.)

It’s a typical marathon schedule for the 49-year-old father of three, who wakes up at 6 every morning to go for a four-mile run before driving himself and three staffers to every event, as well as knocking on doors in temperatures so high that tar from the road melts onto your shoes.

But does he really have a chance? This time?

It’s a long shot, but maybe. Last week a video of Beto cursing at a heckler at one of his events drew national attention. “It may be funny to you … but it’s not funny to me,” he snapped when an Abbott supporter laughed while he described how 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde had been massacred by an 18-year-old with a legally purchased AR-style rifle. As far as encounters go at his town hall meetings, it was pretty tame.

He also got a fundraising bump in late May after he interrupted Abbott during a news conference in Uvalde, shouting, “You are doing nothing!” after the governor said that tougher gun laws were not the answer and had shifted the focus to mental health.

Recent polls have Beto pulling within five to six percentage points of Abbott’s lead, a five-point gain from where he was in April — and still a football field away from the margin of error. In July, he set a record for the most money ever raised by a Texas candidate in a single quarter, an astounding $27.6 million in four months, most of it through hundreds of thousands of small donations — and $3 million more than Abbott. Still, the governor has $40 million more than Beto ready to deploy on advertising in the fall.

From outside Texas — and certainly among Republicans in Texas — there can be a weariness to seeing Beto back on the trail. This is his third at-bat for a major office in five years: failed Senate run, failed 2020 presidential bid, and now taking on Abbott in what’s predicted to be a terrible election year for Democrats, with an unpopular Democratic president, and in a state where Republicans win the vast majority of elections.

Beto’s no longer the party’s rising star. He’s got a reputation: that guy who runs and loses.

In these rural areas, Beto is essentially drilling for oil. “There are a lot of votes out there,” Beto says. “There are 7 million people who didn’t cast a ballot who were eligible in 2020.” There are the first-time voters and the Democrats who need an extra push to vote in the midterms and the people who don’t stick to party lines. “I would say they are persuadable,” he says.

And then there are the votes no political scientist could tell him how to find. In Dumas, a Panhandle city that’s 55 percent Hispanic, truck driver Pablo Campos tells Beto he woke up at 3:30 a.m. so he could complete half his work shift and have enough time to go to the town hall gathering during his break. There, Mary Jane Garcia, 47, a devout Catholic, stood up to talk about the “spontaneous abortion” that saved her life when she miscarried at 17, and how scared she is that her daughters might be denied that medical care.

Over in Quanah, a city of 2,272, Darby Sparkman, 23, was astounded to see 64 people at Beto’s town hall meeting, since she’s an election worker and “like 10 people vote Democrat.” Edith Aguirre, 26, was among the nearly 200 people who showed up in Bowie, a growing city of 5,534 in verdant North Texas, where the radio stations veer from country to worship to worship country. She was brought here as a child from Mexico so her father could work in the oil fields. She’s not a citizen and can’t vote but brought her sister, Ashley, who turns 18 this year. They wept while talking about how Ashley will be the first voter in her family.

Beto’s visiting many of these small towns for the second, fifth or seventh time. Crowds have been rapturous and far bigger than expected, like the 1,000-plus people who came out in highly conservative Lubbock, or in Whitesboro, a majority-White city of 4,217 near the Oklahoma border, where campaign staffers had to rent another room at the church they’d booked to accommodate the extra 200 people who showed up — for a total of 410 (along with 100 Republican protesters outside, who brought a band). Eventually, a sweat-drenched Beto answered questions standing in a doorway between the people in the pews and the overflow crowd next door.

That frenzied scene eclipses anything from his Senate run, says Glenn Melancon, Democratic chair of Grayson County, who introduced Beto in Whitesboro. He was a sensation in 2018, but he was new and unproven — a relative nobody around the state, even as El Paso’s three-term congressman. Now people across Texas feel as if they have a relationship with him. “The first time around, there’s some excitement,” Melancon says, “but then he came back and he came back, and more and more people get to know it’s not a show. It’s real.”

If deeply conservative places like Spearman are his path to victory, though, it’s going to be a bumpy road.

Beto is holding his town hall gathering in a park. According to Beto’s press director, Chris Evans, the owner of the restaurant they originally booked called and explained that his staff might have signed off, but he was not okay with it.

By the time Beto arrives, people in MAGA and NRA hats, carrying “Pro-life” and “Build the Wall” signs or wearing “Team Jesus” T-shirts make up three-quarters of the 70-person crowd. Beto’s staff has invited them to join the town hall meeting in the shade.

One attendee is wearing a T-shirt that reads “Come and take it,” the Texas independence slogan that’s been adopted to counter Beto’s forceful declaration, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” at a 2019 presidential debate a month after a 21-year-old white supremacist drove six hours to a Walmart store in El Paso with an AK-47 and killed 23 people, on a mission to stop a “Hispanic invasion.” Beto flew home that day from the campaign trail and went straight to the county hospital. He says he still keeps in touch with a woman whose husband was shot while trying to raise money for a girls soccer team to go to Arizona. Her father-in-law also was shot and died.

“Marcela said, ‘Why does anyone need a gun like that?’” Beto says during a lunch break. “And I just knew that if I were to be honest with Marcela, the answer is nobody needs to have an AK-47. Nobody.”

Back in Spearman, Beto is just over a minute into his usually 30-minute introductory speech when the shouting starts.

“You don’t protect the Second Amendment!”

“I am encouraging your right to speak right now,” says Beto. “And I’m glad that you’re here and I’m glad that you said that.”

“You’re trying to take our rights away!”

He rolls with it. “Okay, let’s get right into the question-and-answer portion!” Everybody but the shouting people laughs.

For over an hour he takes the barrage. If he cares about kids, why doesn’t he care about unborn babies? (“I just very strongly and very much trust women to make their own decisions … about their own bodies.”) How’s he going to pay for his free-college plan for people who agree to be nurses or teachers in rural areas? (Legalize cannabis and tax corporations more.) Doesn’t he know people need AR-15s to shoot feral hogs or to hunt deer and birds? (“Well, you know what? You must be a pretty poor shot,” Beto snaps back. Even the guys in MAGA hats laugh at that.)

Leaving the town hall gathering, Gyene Spivey, Republican chair of Hansford County, who organized the protest, says Beto didn’t change any minds, but she respected his right to try. “We love God, we love country, we love our families. We don’t want harm on him. We just don’t want him as our governor.”

Debriefing with his staff later, Beto is in a good mood. He lives to debate. Plus, they got a whole two people to sign up to volunteer.

But there are signs that Spearman exhausted him. He pulls over on a farm road to commune with beautiful brown horses and a pony. “This will be the best part of my day,” he says. And when he arrives at the next stop in Pampa, an oil boom Panhandle city of 16,474, he beelines to the Woody Guthrie Folk Music Center, located in the old pharmacy where the folk music legend once worked.

Beto’s been reading Guthrie’s autobiography with his younger son, Henry, 11, and there is this quote he’s been thinking about a lot. The sentiment goes, Beto says, “‘I don’t like a song that makes you feel fat or skinny or too old or too inexperienced or too this or too that,’” and it’s a lot like what Beto wants to do with his campaign, to help Texans find common ground rather than alienating those who are transgender or immigrants. Guthrie was a uniter, he says. “This guy was for everybody.”

There are more protests down the road in Quanah, where “Come and take it” flags are placed in the windows of his town hall meeting, and in Bowie, where a few dozen Abbott supporters shout “Abbott!” every time someone opens the door.

Things turn tense at the end of that long night in Whitesboro. Beto has stayed around to take photos with constituents. About 60 protesters have stuck it out, too, and a dozen march into the church.

“Hey Beto, we’ve been waiting to talk with you!” says a man with a handgun on his hip. A younger guy has a semiautomatic rifle over his shoulder. Beto meets the man with the handgun in the church aisle and engages with him as he repeats a conspiracy theory that the children in Uvalde died because Biden and the Democratic establishment ordered that the police be held back.

“I think you’re operating in a different reality than the one that we live in right now,” says Beto, only giving up reasoning with the man after he refuses to acknowledge that any police officers died after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

“I want to tell you personally, you’re not welcome in this town. You’re not welcome in this county,” says the man.

“There were a lot of people here who welcomed me into this town and this county,” says Beto, as his road campaign manager Cynthia Cano ushers him out the door.

“Beto, Beto, why are you running away?” protesters shout as Beto inches his truck through the throng. “Why wasn’t he in an electric vehicle and wearing a mask?” one says.

It takes about two minutes for word to spread in Muenster, a hamlet of 1,580 that resembles a German village, in a county he certainly will not win, that Beto’s in town. A white-haired woman shouts, “you’ll never get my AR!” An out-of-towner tells him, “the women and the people with common sense need you,” then refuses to give me her name because she doesn’t want people in her small town to know she likes Beto.

It’s a rare leisurely lunch stop for Beto and his three core staff members — Cano, Evans and videographer Jon Groat. The quartet use his Toyota Tundra as a mobile office and have basically been living on the road since November — but for a brief hiatus in February when someone stole their catalytic converter.

Each day starts with Beto throwing his running clothes over the suitcases in the back of the truck to dry. He drives. Cano sits up front planning events, prepping him for town halls and shooting videos of Beto eating burritos or making a spontaneous detour to a reservoir. Evans and Groat take the back seat, hunched over their computers with noise-canceling headphones.

This is pretty much how they did it in 2018. Only this time, Beto says, they’re more organized. They’ve invested in data to better target voters. Over the past five years they’ve built an army of 80,000 volunteers who knocked on 100,000 doors in June.

He’s also gotten more aggressive. In the Senate race, Beto says, “I wish I’d done more to prosecute the case against Ted Cruz and help people realize how dangerous it was for him to stay in office.” Now, everything he says, he links back to Abbott. “People need to know why their electricity bills are going up, why their property taxes are going up, why the lights didn’t turn on last February,” he says. “It’s Greg Abbott, and just be really clear about that.”

When Beto dropped out of the presidential nomination race in November 2019, he said he didn’t think he’d run for public office again.

He taught a couple college courses on Texas politics. He founded a voting rights organization, Powered by People, aimed at turning Texas blue. He sat around with his family, like everyone else during the pandemic.

But the grid failure in February 2021 that killed hundreds of people outraged him. He started thinking about running for governor, he says, when Democratic lawmakers fled the state in the summer of 2021 to block voting restrictions — only to watch Abbott sign them into law a few months later. Beto entered the race in November.

Before he was a fundraising juggernaut, Beto was a kid who played bass in a punk band. His first true taste of the road was the tours of North America they did on his summer breaks from Columbia University.

This tour, he says, reminds him of those tours. “Driving from town to town, showing up, telling your story, listening to other people’s stories, meeting people in restaurants, bars, cafes, church halls.”

He’s waiting for takeout in the Italian Bistro where he just held his Clarksville town hall, where the heat from 210 bodies — at least 100 more than they were planning for — had overwhelmed the air conditioning.

″Punk rock is about bypassing corporate control of what you listen to and whose story you’re hearing. And the barrier to entry to be able to start a band or put a record out or book a tour — you just do it yourself,” he says. “And this campaign is just, you know, the four of us driving in this truck, going from town to town, showing up, running our own sound system.”

It’s also about going into places where you know you won’t be accepted, and saying what you need to say, in case there’s maybe one person out there who thinks the same way you do and who needs to know they’re not alone.

The takeout arrives, and Beto jumps back into his truck.

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