What Republicans can learn from O’Rourke

Photo by Abby Livingston/The Texas Tribune

Beto O’Rourke probably won’t win the 2018 senate election in Texas. His likely defeat isn’t a surprise — Texas is a red state — but Republicans should take notice of his high poll numbers and learn a few lessons from his remarkable campaign.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed O’Rourke close behind incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2018 senate race — 44 percent to 47. O’Rourke has also out-fundraised the incumbent senator in the first quarter of 2018 and has a comparable amount of cash on hand. This is even more striking given that O’Rourke has maintained his pledge to avoid superPACs.

The odds should be stacked against Beto. While it is true that the demographics of Texas are changing and the recent waves of Hispanic and Latino immigration may someday alter the patterns of voting, that hasn’t yet happened. Donald Trump won Texas by a 9-point margin, despite being dogged by multiple allegations of misconduct. Even less promising for O’Rourke, this race takes place in an off-year election cycle, and mid-term contests regularly feature depressed minority turnout and public apathy. They usually aren't the time for wild-card upset campaigns.

Yet somehow, against all odds, Beto is doing well. And while his performance might be alarming to many Republicans, O’Rourke and his success should be viewed as a learning opportunity.

Lesson one: Republicans should hold town halls. For many Texans, products of an earlier political era, town halls are welcome chances to meet candidates, hear their thoughts and sometimes even learn a thing or two. But today, across the state, Republican representatives refuse to meet their constituents in large settings, preferring conference calls, office visits or small, barely publicized events.

In contrast, O’Rourke has hosted hundreds of town halls. As nearly all of his campaign ads note, he’s visited all 254 counties and has held large town halls across the state. Constituents turned up, asking him tough questions and generally getting honest answers.

Republicans, including U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, have responded that holding town halls are simply too dangerous. While we can empathize with those who fear mass violence, ignoring constituents’ repeated calls for town hall events will only lead to general anger.

Republicans should hold town halls to explain their policies to their voters, and doing so would increase their support. On a more pragmatic level, holding town halls would help Republicans rebuild the party brand. In recent years, Democrats have argued that they are the party of the people, and their regular town halls strengthen that message. Though pigeonholing Republicans into the country club is a years-old electoral strategy, Republicans don’t have to make it an easy one.

Lesson Two: Use yard signs, even if they are old-fashioned. A drive through any neighborhood in Texas yields sightings of Beto yard signs. From Highland Park to Lajitas, front yards signal their support of the congressman from El Paso.

There are no signs for Ted Cruz anywhere. And while yard signs might be a silly metric for winning elections, they’re a powerful symbol of public support. Support builds movements, spreads excitement and allows for sensible public discourse. Supporters and moderates should know that there are proponents on both sides in Texas. Like it or not, yard signs are a visible signal of that effort.

All in all, O’Rourke has run an impressive campaign. Though his hard work ultimately may be for nothing, Texas Republicans can learn a lot from his campaign. Grassroots politics combined with skillful advertising can yield powerful results, help voters make decisions and win support for years to come.