Beto O’Rourke is awakening a grassroots movement in Texas — one that’s led by gray-haired, once-loyal Democrats who are aggressively working to end decades of their own political dormancy in Texas.
It’s not the sleeping Latino base that Democrats have long believed would help them flip Texas blue — and whose engagement remains a critical question for the party’s prospects of a full-blown comeback in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976 — or elected a Democrat statewide since 1994.
Yet O’Rourke’s energetic trek through rural parts of the state has electrified a different piece of the base that’s also been missing for his party in recent years: Older supporters with the time to organize the nuts and bolts of a grassroots campaign.
O’Rourke’s army of retirees has spent the last year and a half knocking on doors, filling much-hyped campaign rallies and wallpapering the state with his campaign swag.
While Democrats concede their party is still struggling to reach other critical elements of their base — in particular voters of color — public polling now shows the El Paso congressman tailing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz by single digits.
“For a Democrat to win in Texas you have to build a coalition that’s a racial coalition, an ideological coalition, and also a generational coalition,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic strategist whose political action committee, Lone Star Project, works to elect Democrats in Texas.
“[But] you also need people to make the phone calls, knock on the doors, talk to their friends and their neighbors and to express enthusiasm,” added Angle. “People who actually put time in to go to events... have to have the time to do it.”
Packed into Hill Country Veterans Center in Kerrville, Texas, earlier that month, a crowd of roughly 400 people — mostly retirees — endured grueling heat to hear O’Rourke speak on a Sunday morning.
When the event ended, gray-haired O’Rourke supporters piled into their cars to hear him speak at the next rally in Johnson City, 50 miles away. Their caravan stopped to add cars waiting along the route at a parking lot in Gillespie County, which gave Trump roughly 80 percent of its vote in 2016.
A supporter at that pitstop distributed “Fredericksburg Democrat” bumper stickers to a crowd already decked out in O’Rourke swag, down to the dog dressed in homemade “Beto” sign.