How a web designer named O’Rourke slew a congressional giant in El Paso

O'Rourke, door-to-door. (Beto O'Rourke for Congress, via flickr)
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This week's Texas primary results, which mathematically clinched the Republican presidential nomination for Mitt Romney, also delivered an undercard shock to House Democrats.

In a district that covers the city of El Paso, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, an eight-term incumbent and former chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, was handily defeated by a 39-year-old former city councilman, Columbia student and rock musician named Robert (Beto) O’Rourke. 

Even before ballots were cast, outsiders were sizing up the national implications of the potential upset.

Last week, the Economist’s “Democracy in America” blog suggested that O’Rourke’s rising fortunes were owed to anti-incumbency fervor—a mini Tea Party rebellion that has seen moderate House Democrats like Pennsylvania’s Tim Holden dispatched by challenges from the left. And Reyes was part of a bipartisan group of congressmen targeted by The Campaign for Primary Accountability, a super PAC that aims to oust incumbents. Some liberal blogs also attributed O’Rourke’s victory to his favorable stance towards marijuana legalization, an issue with particular salience in a district that sits across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juarez, which has been ravaged by Mexico’s drug war.

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Some of the people who followed the race most closely, however, ascribe its outcome to a more specific, less universally profound factor: O’Rourke is a really talented politician.

“I think Beto has great potential to be a national star,” Sito Negron, a longtime El Paso journalist, told me when I called him to talk over the race.

I got to know Negron when I spent some time in El Paso in last year, writing a magazine article about the border region. He is an acerbic observer of the city’s political culture, which is corrupt enough to turn anyone cynical, so I took his opinion as something other than morning afterglow. Negron has been saying for months that he thought O’Rourke would likely win, though he argues that outsiders misunderstand the reasons why.

I saw a lot of O’Rourke while I was reporting the story too, in part because he seemed to be everywhere. He was in the audience for a speech by President Obama, where Reyes occupied a conspicuous place in the presidential entourage. He also showed up at a march protesting the Obama administration’s deportation policies a few days later. Reyes, a former Border Patrol officer, only sent a staff member.

El Paso’s population is 80 percent Hispanic, so as an “Anglo”—as English-speaking white people are called in Texas—O’Rourke knew he had to overcome skepticism. He addressed the crowd in Spanish.

O’Rourke grew up in El Paso, and acquired his Spanish nickname as a schoolboy. His late father, Pat, was a county judge and a local power broker. But he went away to New York for school, and lived in Brooklyn for a while afterward, and he told me he wasn’t always certain about returning to his remote hometown, which has been hemorrhaging young people for generations.

But he did, eventually starting a web-design firm and following his father's lead into politics. The first time we got together, last February, O’Rourke took me to The Tap, a downtown dive bar, which he told me he liked for its mixed clientele: old guys in cowboy hats, toughs with tattoos, a few scattered bohemians. He told me how he and a cadre of youthful reformers were trying to revive the city.

It was the middle of cold snap, the most frigid weather to hit El Paso in decades—an event that iced over roads, shut down power, and paralyzed the city. But O’Rourke, tall and lanky, was wearing nothing heavier than a blazer. Though drug cartel violence was raging just a short walk away—at the time, Juarez was vying for the title of the Most Dangerous City in the World—O’Rourke wanted to talk about his idea for trying to revitalize a corridor along the heavily fortified riverfront that the two cities face.

“It’s so easy for people today to say, ‘What are you talking about? 3,100 people just got murdered there,’” he said. “But it’s not going to be that way forever. Lots of communities would love to have that international waterfront.”

Redeveloping the old Mexican-American barrios along the border is a fraught political issue in El Paso. Many local activists were highly suspicious of O’Rourke, in part because he married the daughter of the richest developer in town, Bill Sanders. (Reyes’ campaign would later make an issue of Sanders, when it emerged that a company connected to him donated a substantial sum to the super PAC that was targeting him.) Some of the activists make a point of referring to O’Rourke as “Robert.”

At the time, O’Rourke was already talking quietly about mounting a primary challenge to Reyes, but his chances looked slim: How many El Paso Democrats would forsake an incumbent named Reyes for a newcomer named O’Rourke?

Reyes tried to make an issue of his challenger's pot-legalization stance, and painted him as a hipster lightweight. (O'Rourke's colorful past included a stint as a guitarist in an indie band called Foss, whose catalogue includes "I'm All Fucked Up."

Near the end, Reyes was even able to call in a chit from Bill Clinton, bringing in the former president to do some last-minute stumping for him.

O'Rourke ended up winning the primary by a substantial margin: 50.5 percent to 44.4 percent. He’s expected to face only token Republican opposition in the general.

The primary result certainly owed something to the super PAC expenditures: a reported $240,000 in a market where advertising dollars stretch a long way. O’Rourke denied any coordination—which would violate federal law—but Reyes complained bitterly in defeat, calling him an “opponent who deliberately ran a nasty, dirty campaign.”

And O'Rourke had the rare-for-an-insurgent advantage of backing from many prominent members of the city’s business establishment.

But there was also his adaptability, and seemingly endless energy: He knocked on some 16,000 voters’ doors, according to the El Paso Times. And though O’Rourke raised less than half the money Reyes did (around $400,000 according to FEC reports), he amplified those resources by recruiting an army of volunteers.

“He inspired a lot of young people to basically run through walls for him,” Negron said. “Beto had that unique combination of running a guerrilla campaign and having the highest-level backing that you can have in El Paso."