BOSTON—Beto O’Rourke last week stopped here for beers. He wasn’t hunting big-dollar donors or votes in a state with a meaningful primary. He instead wanted to stand on a box in the middle of a pub and just let it rip. So that’s what he did. The crowd was young, diverse and notably not reaching to write checks, but it was plenty ready to hear his profane riff on his proposed gun buybacks. He downed a Ricochet IPA while answering questions and then took his place in the picture line and ordered another beer. Two women joined him in raising their pints. “Salud,” he said.
For a onetime Democratic darling who hasn’t sniffed double digits in the polls of his party’s presidential candidates for months, this brewery called Backlash didn’t seem like a materially strategic, smart spot to be in the run-up to a debate night that might for him be do-or-die. But O’Rourke’s not doing the obvious anymore.
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In the wake of August 3, when a bigot with an AK-47-style assault rifle murdered 22 people in a Walmart in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso, Texas, the former congressman changed the way he’s waging his presidential campaign. He’s running with arguably reckless abandon, breaking norms to try to rekindle some lost spark. Beyond his much–discussed uptick in swearing, he has traveled to places that make limited political sense, taken a provocative proposal on assault weapons that could permanently jeopardize his electoral viability in his native state, and trashed President Trump with increasingly explicit rhetoric. What’s interesting about O’Rourke at this moment is not just that he’s saying fuck a whole bunch—he’s always dropped curse words on the stump—but that he’s entered more broadly a new phase of his 2020 bid, which supporters find inspiring and critics consider desperate to the point of pathetic. Up close, though, it feels actually pretty compelling.
Let’s go ahead and call it Beto’s “fuck-it phase.”
“That’s where I think he’s at now,” Moses Mercado, a Democratic lobbyist from Texas, told me. “He’s like, ‘OK, well, screw it.’”
“Eff it,” Austin-based Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser said.
“He has no fucks to give,” added Jay Surdukowski, an attorney and activist who is one of O’Rourke’s most devoted backers in New Hampshire.
“This feels right to me,” O’Rourke said when I asked him about how he’s currently campaigning when he met with reporters by the stainless-steel beer tanks at Backlash. He said this was “the way politics should be.”
The question lurking behind this caution-free style is whether O’Rourke is doing this because he cares less about his stagnant candidacy or because he in fact cares so much more.
Six months ago, O’Rourke was drawn into this race, it seemed, because of some combination of a sense of entitlement (“… born to be in it …”) along with an irresistible inertia (he did, after all, bring in a record-breaking $80 million in his bid to unseat the unlovable Ted Cruz). After the lengthy will-he-or-won’t-he, the middle-of-America meandering and his overwrought postings on Medium, his entrance prompted a frenzy of live-coverage attention on cable news. Reality bit, alas, and right out of the gate was as good as it got. His fundraising dipped precipitously in the wake of his considerable initial intake. The mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana swiped his new-guy, next-gen fizz. He turned in oddly leaden showings in the first couple debates and languished in a polling position unbudgingly far behind the clear top three and trailing even out-of-nowhere entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Then, though, came the shooting.
O’Rourke hurried home. He stayed in El Paso for almost two weeks. He listened and gave hugs and attended vigils and silently marched. He called Trump a white supremacist. He called him “the greatest threat to this country.” He couldn’t fathom, he would say, leaving to go to the comparative inconsequence of the “corn dogs and Ferris wheels” of the Iowa State Fair. Anxious, angry and rattled, he was asked by a reporter if there was anything Trump could do to “make this any better.” He answered with a kind of righteous despair that sounded new. But it boiled down to this: “What the fuck?”
By the time he was ready to return to the trail, he did so by saying he could “see more clearly,” and that there was “a way to do this better,” and that one of those ways was to not simply retrace well-trodden, politically prudent early-state paths.
He went to Mississippi to try to shine a spotlight on the recent ICE raids. He went to a gun show in Arkansas. He went to Oklahoma to go to the 1995 bombing memorial and the site of a 1921 race riot and talked about “white nationalism” and “domestic terrorism.” Even at pitstops in more expected locales, O’Rourke acted in ways that were suddenly, strikingly, even dangerously un-standard. At historically black Benedict College in South Carolina, for instance, his campaign booted a reporter from conservative Breitbart News.
It was on the whole in some ways reminiscent of his run against Cruz, in which he hit every one of the 254 counties in Texas, even the reddest of the red, all part of an effort that was not just DIY but (to a fatal fault, some said) DITWHW (do it the way he wanted). And in a rural, Trump-loving portion of Virginia, after yet another mass shooting in west Texas, he said it was “fucked up,” and said it again live on CNN, and made his stance on these kinds of guns even more blunt.
How, he was asked by a reporter, would he reassure owners of assault rifles that the government wasn’t coming to take their guns?
“I want to be really clear,” O’Rourke answered. “That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
Just in case that wasn’t enough, his campaign manager added in a tweet, “GET EVERY ONE OF THOSE GODDAMN GUNS OFF OUR STREETS.” Shortly thereafter, the campaign leaned in harder, hawking shirts that said, “THIS IS F*CKED UP,” not once, not twice, but six times stacked.
With this, O’Rourke “broke some glass,” as BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith wrote in his newsletter. In the minds, though, of some Texas political strategists, Republicans and Democrats alike, he did more than that. He might have killed his career, they told me.
“Those words will come back to destroy him should he run for statewide office again,” said longtime Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who’s worked on campaigns all over the country.
“To say, ‘We will take away your guns,’ you know, in this state, in this culture, that’s a no-no,” Steinhauser said.
“His presidential bid,” said Matt Mackowiak, another GOP strategist in Austin, “has been very bad for his future in politics in Texas.”
Last week, though, he was in New York, for CNN’s climate change town hall, and from there he took the budget Bolt Bus to Boston. In the raw aftermath of the shooting in El Paso, the “performance, the ritual … all the editing that goes into speaking when you’re running for office,” he said during the drive, “just really evaporated, or didn’t seem important, or I didn’t even really know that I cared at that point.” He described the question that elicited his most memorable response “the stupidest fucking question I’ve ever been asked.” He described himself as “pissed at the world.”
O’Rourke’s long been a slinger of four-letter salt when making his political pitch. But this new level has been hard to the point of impossible to ignore. And now at Backlash, which endeavors to “brew in defiance,” he harangued Trump and “the crazy shit he says.” He decried the suggestion that four black and brown women who are members of Congress should “go back” to anywhere that isn’t the United States of America. “Tell me what the fuck that means!” he said. And he lamented the prevalence of weapons that were built for war and meant “to shred your insides to shit.”
“This is fucked up!” called out Chris Wright, 39, a square-jawed, flat-topped food distributor from nearby Scituate wearing a blue “Beto Por Texas” T-shirt.
O’Rourke heard him and looked at him. “This is fucked up,” he confirmed.
Some see this as “glorified performance art,” “a caricature of authenticity,” but it’s working for Wright. “Beto’s not afraid to say things,” he said. “He’s not afraid to say it like it is. For those people that say, ‘Oh, Trump says it like it is,’ well, guess what, let’s go head to head.”
Will it work for not only Wright but many more persuadable voters? The swearing? The going anywhere and everywhere? The talk of making people give up their prized but deadly guns? That, of course, is TBD. No sign so far in the polls. Politicos from both parties are not optimistic.
“He’s seeking ways to bring the fire back,” Sheinkopf said. “Too late.”
“He’s almost become a target for mockery,” Steinhauser added. “I don’t know what he does after this. I don’t think he’s going to run for Congress again. I think if he were to run for Senate”—the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle recently pleaded for him to drop out of the presidential race and come home and challenge John Cornyn—“I don’t think he would just walk into the Democratic nomination. I think he’s been that damaged.”
After his stop in Massachusetts, he continued on up to New Hampshire, where he rejoined the rest of the still massive field of 2020 Dems and did a town hall in Keene. He took off his shoes to go into a mosque to tell the people gathered that Trump is “the most dangerous president the United States has ever had.” He ate and complimented vendors on their Indonesian rice pudding at a festival in Somersworth. And at the state party convention at the downtown arena in Manchester, wearing a white shirt with no tie and a navy suit with no belt, he delivered a speech in which he said Trump had “no honor, no morals and no ethics.” Talking to reporters in a cramped, stuffy room off the floor, he discussed climate change more. “If we can’t make progress on climate change,” he said, “then people are going to give up on their government. They’re going to say, ‘You know what? This shit does not work.’” He was asked on his way out if he was going to swear Thursday night on the debate stage in Houston.
He responded with a verbal shrug of the shoulders.
“Lot of talk of late of your use of the word fuck,” I said to O’Rourke a few hours hence when I caught up to him in the early evening at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, where he spoke to perhaps a hundred students. “I’m not interested so much in that, but I am interested in the idea that you’ve sort of entered this, like, ‘fuck it phase’ of your campaign.” I wondered if that was an accurate read.
“Yeah,” he said.
“I am trying my best to be as honest and direct as possible, and when asked a question, or thinking through a given issue, to make sure that it is as candid a response as I can possibly produce, in part because I think I realize that our rhetoric, our politics, the scripts we as politicians, the talking points we as politicians, have been using have been completely insufficient to the challenges that we face,” he explained. “The demands that we have in this country, I think, necessitate, you know, a different kind of politics, and a much more honest, transparent way of discussing these issues.”