Last Tuesday, Beto O’Rourke lost his third political race in a row. In 2018, Beto lost to Ted Cruz for Cruz’ senate seat. In 2020 he dropped out of the presidential race. And, last week, Beto lost to incumbent Greg Abbott about 13 points behind him. About 1% of the votes have not been counted. However, the final count is unlikely to change the outcome. In the latest election the Democrats fared poorly in Texas. However, that has not stopped local Democrats from hoping for a Beto miracle in politics.
Starting late last year and through the early part of this year there was an El Paso County Democratic Party narrative that Beto would lead a “turn Texas blue” onslaught across Texas where the Democrats hoped to take control of the state’s politics. Local Democratic Party officials argued that the Democratic voters were poised to come out because of Beto, abortion and gun control. The local political operatives believed that El Paso’s infrequent voter would be driven to the polls by Beto.
This did not happen.
Voters across Texas were not motivated to vote last week. About 46% of Texas voters cast a vote compared to the 73% who voted in 2018. Abortion, gun control and Beto were not the ballot motivators the Democrats had hoped for. In El Paso the results were worse. Almost 33% of El Paso’s registered voters voted last week. This compares to El Paso’s voter turnout of 45% in 2018. Beto did not motivate El Paso Democrats to vote this election cycle as many had hoped for.
Nonetheless the narrative from the El Paso Democrats and those across the state was that Beto would help turn Texas blue. Beto, as the savior of the Texas Democratic Party, began in earnest in 2018 when he came close to unseating Ted Cruz. Cruz’ race and Stacy Abrams’ win in Georgia gave rise to the narrative that Beto would be the Abrams of Texas. Although Beto sought to mobilize women with the abortion issue, he failed. But Beto, himself, already knew that the Democratic Party strategy was a failure to begin with.
Beto understood that he needed to “drive up massive Democratic turnout” to take the governorship away from Abbott. O’Rourke told Vox in October that he has “always known … that if the same people vote in this election as are voting in every other election,” he would “likely lose.”
The problem often glossed over is that Beto is not the Democrat that the El Paso Democratic Party operatives believe in. Beto is running for Beto and not for the party platform. Before committing to running against Greg Abbott, Beto was “dragging his feet” on whether he was going to challenge Abbott. By not committing to running but leaving open the suggestion, Beto would “box out other Democratic contenders,” according to Kara Swisher, the host of the September 27, 2021 New York Times Sway Podcast where she interviewed Beto before he announced he was running for governor.
In 2021, before formally announcing that he was going to challenge Abbott for the governorship, Beto used the Abrams narrative as the springboard for his eventual run. Beto did not frame his race against Abbott as a “vote for Democrats versus Republicans,” but, rather a movement to vote. In the podcast, Beto argued that his run for the governorship was “more than fighting for Democrats,” it was more of a fight “for democracy.”
Although the El Paso County Democratic Party contingent believed that Beto was fighting for the Democrats, Beto, was instead positioning himself as motivating voters to turn out to the polls. Not only did Beto fail to turnout voters in El Paso, and in Texas, but the El Paso Democrats failed in the narrative that Beto would influence the El Paso elections.
For the local Democratic Party, the most recent Beto narrative started with the fight to curtail the Republicans’ efforts to enact voting rights legislation.
Beto raised $700,000 to help the Texas Democrats keep the Texas House from enacting strict voting laws in 2021. Texas House Democrats fled Austin to Washington D.C. to “deny the Republicans the quorum needed to pass new voting restrictions.” They held out for 38 days until some House Democrats abandoned their party and returned to Austin to end the stalemate. Among the Democrats who returned to Austin to end the Democratic Party boycott of voting legislation included members of the El Paso delegation. They were Art Fierro, Mary González and Joe Moody. Fierro is facing a runoff election against Claudia Rodriguez next month for the city council seat currently held by Rodriguez.
Beto, in the 2021 podcast, said that the high voter turnout in 2018 “wasn’t because of the Democratic Party.” Beto added that in 2018, voter turnout “had a lot to do with the number of people who were engaged, picking up a clipboard” and “knocked on doors.” Beto was arguing that it wasn’t the Democratic Party establishment that mobilized the voters in 2018, but rather the activists who engaged voters where the voters lived and worked – person-to-person. This realization led to Beto forming a PAC centered on reaching the reluctant voter directly.
Powered by People
After his run against Ted Cruz, in which Beto raised $80.1 million and “mobilized a stunning 20,000 volunteers,” the “largest political organizing operation” in Texas history, Beto created the Powered by People political action committee (PAC).
The PAC focuses on organizing grassroots volunteers.
The PAC was organized on July 7, 2020 using an El Paso PO Box address. It’s initial and current treasurer is Gwendolyn Pulido. Pulido is the general counsel at Cribl, a data analytics tool and sits on the board that governs El Paso Matters. Pulido was formerly the treasurer for the Beto for Texas PAC. In January 2022, the Powered by People PAC changed its address to Washington DC. According to its latest financial disclosure form the PAC has about $395 million on hand. It collected $155 million during the first quarter of 2022.
During the height of the pandemic, Beto’s PAC went door to door in Segundo Barrio collecting information about voters in the neighborhood under the guise of scheduling vaccine appointments for the residents at the University Medical Center of El Paso (UMC). As we exclusively reported, although the Beto PAC argued that it had “partnered” with UMC to conduct the outreach, the fact is that UMC never authorized the PAC to collect patient information.
The collection of sensitive information by the Beto PAC led the Texas Attorney General to issue a warning to the PAC to ensure that the sensitive information they collected was handled in accordance with state and federal laws.
Nonetheless, Beto’s PAC continues to collect voter information across the country. And, although the Democratic Party uses the narrative that it works closely and supports Beto, the evidence suggests otherwise.
Beto Says Democrats Take Voters For Granted
Just a week ago, Michael Apodaca, the El Paso County Democratic Party chairman, told the Texas Tribune that “one of the best things” Beto can do for the Democratic Party is to “keep building party infrastructure” in Texas through his PAC. Apodaca added that the party “really desperately need” Beto’s help. But is Beto building for the party?
In 2019, Beto told The Hill that he could not “take a pledge to support every Democrat in the country.” Beto refused to endorse Gina Ortiz, a Democrat running against Beto’s friend, Republican Will Hurd in 2018. Beto and the Democratic Party are far from working on the same goals as the party platform. Although mostly in unison, the party and Beto are not aligned together behind the scenes. Beto and the Party are convenient allies.
Because of El Paso’s predominantly Democratic Party voting pattern, Democrats, especially the El Paso County Democratic Party, believe that as the demographics in Texas shift towards minorities, the Democratic Party will benefit from the minority voters as they become the majority in Texas. In the podcast, Beto called that idea “pure bullshit.”
This demonstrates a clear split between the Party and the Beto political machinery. And it is not just about party politics, as there exists a disconnect between Beto and the party in how to use strategy in elections.
The Social Media Beto
One of the often-misunderstood things about Beto is that he is a politician who embraces the true-and-tested political strategies that most political strategists use for campaigning. Social media and data analytics in politics have been on the rise in recent elections. During the 2016 presidential campaigns, Cambridge Analytica became controversial in how it used social media data to target voters based on psychological profiles. Although Donald Trump has been credited, it was Ted Cruz who first employed Cambridge Analytica.
Although Cambridge Analytica imploded over the controversy about how it used Facebook member data, the age of social media in elections is now fully cemented. It is here that Beto’s political machinery begins to make sense.
Beto, instead of being the Democratic Party politician adherent of the party platform and supporter of the party body politic – he is the manifestation of the social media-driven political machinery that Beto has been cultivating since he first ran for city council in 2005.
Before running for city council in 2005, Beto started an online magazine focused on local politics. It wad his father, Pat O’Rourke that led the effort to create El Paso’s second online magazine, Stanton Street. El Paso News, then known as El Paso Politics, was El Paso’s first online publication.
Beto’s online publication, in addition to helping control the political narratives in El Paso, also collected a mailing list of email addresses that Beto successfully leveraged to target El Paso voters for his city council seat. Beto’s mailing list used targeted messaging for political campaigning before social media existed. Beto is a creature of the evolving digital political campaigning paradigm as it evolves away from the analog world into the digital realm. It is this mailing list that is the basis for Beto’s political machinery that uses online targeting to both create and manage narratives and build a data-driven voter targeting infrastructure that Beto uses each time he runs for office. His PAC, Powered by People, funds the ongoing data infrastructure and data gathering efforts and his political runs for office allows Beto to streamline his data operation and increase its reach each time he runs for office. From 2005 through last Tuesday, Beto used his data apparatus to run for political office, each time strengthening his data operations for voter targeting.
Additionally, Beto’s campaigns are characterized as having a “rock concert feel” to them and his “supporters are passionate and enthusiastic.” However, the passion and enthusiasm aren’t enough to mobilize the voters where it counts – in rural America. Therein is where the disconnect between Beto and the Democrats lies. The rural voters are not the young enthusiastic voters often characterized as the progressive voting bloc in America. The progressives are in urban America and as the Republican success with Donald Trump and who now narrowly control of the House shows, is that political power in America continues to be in rural America.
The latest election shows that Beto has failed to attract the rural voters. The Democrats have also failed to attract the rural voters.
It wasn’t that Beto did not understand he needed the rural voters to vote for him. Beto tried to attract the rural voter by making “frequent trips to deeply red rural” parts of Texas. His trips led to a rift within his campaign as the trips to the rural parts of the state were not effective and “sometimes was negative.” Beto could not entice Texas rural voters to buy into his campaign. Beto’s campaign strategists, like the Democrats, “had pinned their hopes on mobilizing large numbers of dormant Democrats.”
Even in El Paso’s race for the city council district 6 seat, which pitted incumbent Claudia Rodriguez who frequently appeared on Fox News and NewsMax on immigration issues connected to Oscar Leeser, the mayor, and challenger Art Fierro, the El Paso Democrats were insufficient for Fierro to close the gap with Rodriguez. Fierro is 13 points behind Rodriguez going into the runoff.
But the disconnect between Beto and the Democrats goes further than the rural voter, it is an inability to build off Beto’s campaign infrastructure. The Democratic Party establishment frames this as a “successor” issue with the campaigns, like Beto’s, not providing Democrats “with a model for organizing and professional skills.”
However, privately Democratic Party operatives have told El Paso News that the issue is that Beto is “stingy” with sharing his political infrastructure with the Democratic Party, as one individual told us on the condition that we not name them.
Publicly, Nick Rathod, Beto’s campaign manager has said that Beto’s “reliable base database of Democratic voters that hardly existed before” will be “a critical building block for Democrats in the state for the future.”
The problem is even if Rathod’s promise to work with the Democrats comes to fruition, it will do nothing for the problem that the Democratic Party continues to have, which is taking Black and brown voters for granted and being unable to attract the rural voters needed to empower Democratic Party candidates. And Rathod may not be the last word on whether Beto shares his political machine with the Democrats.
Even within his campaign, Beto faced a campaign battle to focus on the rural voters, the same strategy that the Democrats continue to use today, to the detriment of an eroding voter base that isn’t as enthusiastic as the party operatives argue that it is.
Garry Mauro, one of the last Democrats to hold state office told The New York Times last week that the Democrats have done “the Beto thing twice,” already and that “having rallies for the true believers doesn’t win elections.” Mauro added that “the one positive” thing to come out of last week’s elections is that the Democrats now “know what model doesn’t work,” referring to Beto and the current Democratic Party strategy of taking minority voters for granted.
The author, Martín Paredes owned and operated several online publications that competed against O’Rourke’s Stanton Street, the magazine and the technology company.