Story by Didi Martinez | Digital Managing Editor, Video by Rylee Seavers | Broadcast Reporter
Just in time for this year’s primary elections, Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke stepped into Heritage Creamery on Saturday night ready to make his case for the Senate seat — namely, that of incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
O’Rourke took his place atop a wooden chair in the middle of the ice cream shop and began to speak to the crowd, freshly-adorned with the “Beto for Texas” buttons, most of them nearly half his age. Hosting his fourth town hall event of the day, the 45-year-old made no show of waiting to share what was already on his mind.
“How f—ed up is it that PTA [Parent-Teacher Association] meetings are now being conducted to help parents tell their kids what they’re supposed to do when some guy with an AR-15 walks into their classroom?” said the El Paso congressman.
Adding to the resurgence of gun control conversations that have taken place since the Parkland, Fla., mass shooting, O’Rourke said he wants to see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studying gun violence, an absence he pinned on the National Rifle Association (NRA), and universal background checks. But the lawmaker also proposed a measure he said may not fare well with some of his would-be voters.
“What if we decided that no one should be able to buy an AR-15?” O’Rourke said. “It may not poll well, it may not be popular, it may lose us some votes from some people in this state, but I don’t care. ‘Cause I’ve got to look myself and my kids in the eye and account for what I did when I had the opportunity.”
Hands moving rapidly and his muddied shoes pivoting with each point, O’Rourke’s answers to questions about net neutrality and immigration laws were met with the occasional “mmms,” “yeas” and “whoos.” But the crowd, like many in other town hall events, broke into applause at O’Rourke’s pledge to deny Political Action Committee (PAC) money to fund his campaign — all in favor of individual donations.
“We need a change in our representation in Washington and in Texas, not wealthy corporations,” said crowd member and Democrat Bruce Allen.
Indeed, O’Rourke positioned his decision to refuse PAC money as a freedom of choice.
“The best thing is, I don’t know who they are,” O’Rourke said. “No one can call me and say, ‘I gave you a bunch of money, I want you to listen to me or vote this way or do that thing.’ ‘Cause what I can say is, ‘There are 67,000 other people who also contributed 5 or 10 or 15 or 25 bucks and there are 28 million Texans, and every single one of them is just as important as you are.'”
And so far, the move is working for the Democratic lawmaker — at least when it comes to pre-primary donations. From the beginning of this year to Feb. 14, Federal Election Commission filings have O’Rourke raking in $2,307,212 in campaign contributions beating out Cruz’s $803,076. Ultimately, however, Cruz has the financial advantage on O’Rourke this season with $6,025,231 cash on hand compared to his opponent’s $4,938,475.
Outside the event, one can see why O’Rourke’s grassroots movement has become a convincing appeal for some voters in Texas. Stationed outside the ice cream shop, the congressman took pictures with attendees reintroducing himself as “Beto” and engaging in long conversations with people until his logistics director reminded him of the time.
But there is also a push for candidate visibility that hangs over the campaign as O’Rourke repeatedly asks each individual to share their pictures online.
“Promise me you’ll share the photo online,” O’Rourke told various event-goers. “Tell people why you came out.”
Past the primaries, the race to the November midterm elections continues and those watching the senate race know that defeating an incumbent in a Republican state is no easy feat. Still, by traveling county to county (more than 221 and counting), the congressman believes he has a winning strategy.
“It’s both the right thing to do, the only way to serve and the best way to win,” O’Rourke said.