Beto signs in Galveston, Texas. (Photo: B. Reichert)

The Lasting Lessons of Beto

Despite his background as a punk rocker, it wasn’t a song by Fugazi, Black Flag, the Sex Pistols, or even Beto O’Rourke’s old band, Foss, that perfectly laid out the template for his 2018 Texas Senate campaign.

Instead, it was an early ’90s hit from alt-rock band World Party that articulated what would become Beto’s election strategy:

Put the message in the box
Put the box into the car
Drive the car around the world
Until you get heard

— “Put the Message in the Box” (1990)

Although, in Beto’s case, he only had to drive to every one of Texas’ 254 counties with his message of hope and positivity. And he mostly carried that message, along with a small team, inside a Dodge Caravan.

His campaign, which ended on Nov. 6 with an improbable 2.6 percentage point loss in a state considered among the reddest in the nation, ignited a level of enthusiasm among Texans that has been unseen for decades.

By ripping up the traditional campaign playbook, Beto O’Rourke turned what should have been a cruise to victory for a powerful Republican incumbent into a cultural moment that galvanized a huge, dormant segment of the vast Texas populace. In 22 months, he went from being a little-known congressman from El Paso to BETO — the ubiquitous black-and-white yard sign, the sticker, the shirt…The Brand.

People have acknowledged for decades that Republicans have had a “structural” advantage over Democrats in the state, primarily the result of gerrymandering, but also the consequence of broad civic lethargy that set in as year after year, your vote just didn’t matter.

But Beto’s campaign has changed all that and now presents the real possibility that Republicans could find themselves at a disadvantage as they stare down the reality of a newly awakened electorate no longer willing to be shackled to either the Orange Mamba in Chief or the party’s creaky vision of what defines Texas.

The emergence of Beto may well signal the arrival of a new kind of politics and a new kind of politician. The EMOA candidate is here, and no, that’s not emo as in the “emotional” style of music popularized in the ’80s and ’90s — though there may well be a dash of that in the mix. We’re talking about the essential characteristics of a campaign that can slay Republican dragons: Energy, Message, Organization and Authenticity.

Endless Energy

The energy is undisputed. “He poured his heart into this campaign,” Ted Cruz acknowledged in his victory speech after beating O’Rourke. During Beto’s many live-streamed events on Facebook, fans marveled at how much effort he was putting into the campaign and christened him the “Energizer Bunny” of politics.

Setting aside the months of campaigning from stop to stop across a state the size of France, in the final days of the campaign alone Beto and his team were doing eight to nine mini-rallies a day. During the campaign’s last weeks, as he a fought a cold and his voice became hoarse and ragged, the smile remained luminescent and his spirit unflagging.

That grinding pace was probably not foreign to someone who once made a living as a touring musician. And surely other candidates have worked hard and long hours to win a campaign, but they didn’t think to stream it all on Facebook. The result was a rapidly growing fan base that could see — could feel — how much the candidate wanted this. They fed off his energy and their buy-in was palpable.

The Message

Sing along if you know the words: “If you are a Republican, you are in the right place. If you are a Democrat, you are in the right place. If you are an independent, you are in the right place.”

“Could care less about who you pray to or whether you pray at all, who you love or how many generations you count yourself a Texan or whether you just got here yesterday. All that matters now is that we are together.”

“Not running against anyone or any party.”

Political pundits generally seize on Beto’s unapologetically progressive stances, but his foundational message has been more broadly humanist and post-partisan. He stresses hope, positivity, ambition and courage to tackle our greatest problems. He warns against pettiness, divisiveness and the small-minded fears of so much of today’s politics.

To actively hate and be hated by others, to live in constant fear, the endless nastiness of an “I win if you lose” culture — it’s all draining and demoralizing to the average citizen. To those in politics, perhaps it’s all just part of “the game,” but for the rest of us it’s numbing and only adds to considerable stresses that we already face in life.

Beto understands that many, if not most, Americans are simply exhausted by the incessant bitchiness. We were ready for someone who didn’t want to take us down another dark alley of ugliness.

Beto signs stretched down many streets, such as in Hyde Park in Austin. (Photo: T. Kessler)

Organization Matters

For decades, the Democratic Party in Texas has been essentially hidden from sight. Little energy, no awareness, no real organization, nada. As the Obama years were ending, part of his team began to eye the prize that Texas could become and established Battleground Texas to begin the process of putting in place a stronger organization and eventual ground game to drive turnout.

When Wendy Davis caught fire in the national imagination after her 2013 filibuster of a Texas bill that created highly restrictive abortion regulations, she was hurriedly drafted to run for governor in 2014. It was Battleground Texas that became her de facto organization. But a 59–38 percentage drubbing by now-Gov. Greg Abbott revealed the limits of that solution.

Beto was greatly aided by signing up Zack Malitz as his field director. Malitz had been Bernie Sanders Digital Director in Texas, and he was able to bring the energy and experience of that race to Beto’s run for Senate. They ran such an aggressive email and texting operation that at one point, even Ted Cruz joked that he and his father had received text messages inviting them to support Beto.

DFW for Beto Page on Facebook

Perhaps more important was the organic explosion of support across the state. DFW for Beto, the largest and most effective group on the ground in North Texas, was not established by Beto’s team. It just came together as a fan page on Facebook and, as it became a force, began to coordinate more closely with the Beto campaign.

This happened over and over, creating a true multiplier effect for the campaign. Having real energy and a great message allowed that to happen.

Authenticity Is A Magic Potion

Perhaps the most formidable challenge facing Republicans, and really all politicians moving forward, is the dawning of the Age of Authenticity that Beto’s campaign heralds. Here was a candidate capable and eager to leverage the unbridled power of social media.

By most accounts, it was Beto himself who embraced the experiment of live-streaming much of the campaign directly to his supporters on Facebook. That decision was massively game changing and is probably the reason he was able to transform himself from a relatively unknown U.S. Congressman to a singular dude whom everyone wanted to meet, maybe have a beer with and certainly get their picture with to share across social media.

You seriously could not sign on to Facebook at any time without seeing “BETO is live now at….” wherever. By the end of the campaign, he was doing multiple streamed events in a day. The campaign became larger than life as fans tuned in to watch Beto and, in the process, they became emotionally invested in the campaign as it was happening. All the walls between a candidate and his supporters were torn down as millions of video views were piled up.

And when these supporters tuned into these video streams, what they saw was a uniquely gifted politician who could hold the long minutes with wit, inspiration, passion and a friendliness that will not be easily replicated by the many politicians who inevitably attempt to copy his approach. (British magazine The New Statesman reported that even the Labour Party is studying Beto to see what it can learn from his success).

From that, the campaign produced the many indelible moments where one person simply looked into the camera and spoke and acted purely — and authentically — from the heart: skateboarding through a parking lot, answering a question about NFL player protests, chatting with and inspiring two young fast-food workers as he ordered in a drive-through window at Whataburger, air drumming to The Who, and on and on.

Some will argue that Donald Trump has become the first meaningful social-media-aware politician with his endless Tweets, but his use of Twitter is one-dimensional — merely a headline service that allows him to circumvent traditional media as a way to speak to his followers. There’s no real, deeper intimacy created between Trump and his followers.

Beto did not hide behind a veil of 240-character comments; he bravely went live and raw on Facebook — the world’s largest media platform. And he soared. It’s no coincidence that Beto was often portrayed as a superhero on the many murals of him that were painted on buildings in virtually every major city in Texas.

Inevitably many of us question what will happen next with Beto. Where will he take his message? Will he move on to Beto 2020 and seek the presidency? Will he shoot for Texas Senator John Cornyn’s seat in the next election, or will he wait and take on Gov. Abbott in 2022?

In an email to supporters on Nov. 11, Beto said: “Just know that I want to be part of the best way forward for this country — whatever way I can help in whatever form that takes. Know that I am honored to have run this campaign with you and that I want to continue to honor and be honest to what was powerful about it.”

I’ll see you down the road, he promises.

And who knows, the answer to Beto’s future may lie in that same song by World Party:

“And if you listen now

You might hear

A new sound coming in

As an old one disappears

See the world in just one grain of sand

You better take a closer look

Don’t let it slip right through your hand

Won’t you please hear the call

The world says

Put the message in the box

Put the box into the car

Drive the car around the world

Until you get heard.”

Austin-based writer and editor. Former newspaper guy + Internet survivor. Sees the sun going down/And the eyes in his head/See the world spinning round.