Beto O’Rourke Talks Ted Cruz, Trump’s Border Wall And More On Colbert

The next day, both Senate candidates were in San Antonio. O’Rourke had nine campaign stops in the city, which tends to vote Democratic. Cruz had one, a midmorning rally at the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum, an Old West-themed tourist attraction, with walls that bristled with the antlers of mounted hunting trophies. Cruz spoke in a room on the second floor, just past a display of bovine oddities that included a stuffed and mounted one-eyed lamb and a two sets of conjoined calves.

Cruz was joined by John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, who is ruddy and white-haired and, for his afternoon visit to San Antonio, was dressed in a studiously casual outfit: a plaid shirt tucked neatly into belted jeans, with cowboy boots. Cruz wore a sport coat, a shirt without a tie, and jeans. The two hundred or so people sitting in rows of chairs in the audience greeted him enthusiastically. The standard cheer for Cruz is to repeat his name quickly in a low voice, in the manner, for those who remember, of the “woof, woof” sound that the crowd would make at the beginning of the “The Arsenio Hall Show.”

John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, at a Cruz event.

Cruz was the valedictorian of his high school, went to Princeton and Harvard, and still carries about him an aura of a Young Republicans debate nerd. But today’s Republican Party prefers its candidates more macho, and Cruz has risen to the occasion. His rhetorical flourishes are televangelistic: lots of growls and whispers at the scary parts, tenderness for sorrowful moments, and illustrated standoffs between the forces of good and evil. He raised the question of O’Rourke’s “F” rating from the National Rifle Association. “I understand,” he said, “that Beto thinks that if somebody comes into your home and tries to attack your family that the answer is to take out your skateboard and hit them.” The crowd laughed. “Well, that’s not true, maybe you throw your triple mocha latte.” More laughs. “Joe Biden says if anybody attacks your house just go outside with a double barrelled shotgun and fire both barrels in the air, which is very good advice, if it so happens that you’re being attacked by a flock of geese,” Cruz said. “But here in Texas, we happen to think a little bit differently.” (Earlier this year, after an off-duty police officer named Amber Guyger shot and killed her neighbor, Botham Jean, O’Rourke called for her to be fired from the Dallas Police Department before standing trial; Cruz said that he wished “Democrats weren’t so quick to always blame the police officer.”)

At a Cruz gathering, as at a Trump rally, letting the audience shout out insults is part of the dynamic, and Cruz shares the President’s habit of letting his audience lead with the nastiness and responding with a smile and shrug, as if to say, “You said it, I didn’t, but we all know it’s true.” Audience members shouted that O’Rourke looks like a squirrel, that he wears a dress, that he’s had a D.W.I., and that he’s a socialist. “Faulty thinking!” a woman standing next to me kept yelling out, as Cruz criticized O’Rourke for supporting N.F.L. players who have protested police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem.

Cruz concluded his remarks by laying out two possible paths for the country. An “alpha world,” where Republicans hold their majority in the Senate and the House and keep cutting taxes, repealing regulations, and appointing more “constitutionalist judges” to the court, with the result that “wages go up, prosperity goes up”; or the “Beto world,” which would be “a world of paralysis and mob rule” and “an absolute partisan circus, and when we say partisan circus we’re talking Mad Max at Thunderdome, with Beto in the role of Tina Turner.”

Meanwhile, O’Rourke had given his mini-stump speech at four separate polling places before lunchtime. The day started off rainy, but the supporters who met him at 8 A.M. outside an early-voting polling place near downtown San Antonio did not seem to mind. O’Rourke was losing his voice. “The good news,” he began, “is that in fourteen days I don’t have to speak anymore.”

The rain started to fall harder. “Someone get Beto an umbrella, we can’t have him getting sick!” a woman next to me shouted. Her name was Stephanie Boyd, and she was running for judge in Bexar County for the second time. “I will tell you,” she said, “Bexar County is a blue county, it’s just that people don’t get out and vote.”

That old chestnut. The truth was that exhortations to vote were being made everywhere in Texas: on the L.E.D. sign of a Dairy Queen, on billboards that reminded Republicans once again that Texas was not California, taped to the cash register of the kind of Austin coffee shop where all the cups were too small to fit a triple mocha latte. I suspected that the intense desire to get everyone to vote, expressed equally by the left and the right, was not only anxiety over what was at stake but also nervousness about what the will of the people really looked like. After two years of Trump, the country wanted to ask itself the question: But are you really sure?

O’Rourke finished his day at the Cowboys Dancehall, in north San Antonio, a music venue with a side arena with a mechanical bull that hosts small rodeos and mixed-martial-arts competitions. O’Rourke met a Univision reporter outside by the cattle pens. He does his Spanish-language television interviews in Spanish. “Esto es una oportunidad para decidir el futuro de este país,” he began. The main act of the evening was Intocable, a Tejano band that regularly sells out stadiums. A Tex-Mex punk band called Piñata Protest warmed up the crowd on a two-story stage decorated with Old West storefronts. A big crowd, some in cowboy hats and boots, the women in cold-shoulder shirts, danced and drank Michelob Ultra and Dos Equis.

O’Rourke waited in the green room, sipping tea and trying to rest his voice. I asked if he’d seen any of the Trump rally.

“This is our ninth stop today, I’m just driving, and so I don’t read text messages or e-mails, and I actually just prefer it that way, just to be focussed on what I’m doing getting to the destination,” he said. “I don’t know what I would get out of watching that or reading that.”

He had heard, he said, that someone had shouted out “Lock him up” at a Cruz rally. (Cruz had laughed and said, “Well, you know, there’s a double-occupancy cell with Hillary Clinton.”)

“I just don’t know what to do with that,” O’Rourke said, shrugging. “I really feel us all kind of focussed forward into the future. It’s just too much smallness in this, with the lock him up stuff, and the lies he’s put out about our record.”

Lori Rodriguez and her son, Andrés, with O’Rourke at a campaign event.

In Austin, the next day, crowds met O’Rourke outside an elementary school, in a public park, and at a community college. I heard Willie Nelson’s “Vote ’Em Out” on the radio twice. At one of O’Rourke’s events, I met a married couple, Amber and Robin Alexander, who had brought their fourteen-month-old baby for a photograph with the candidate.

“This is actually both our first years voting,” Amber said.

“We’ve never been passionate about it,” Robin said.

“It’s the first time ever I’ve felt hope that we could turn Texas blue,” Amber said. “This is the first time I’ve felt like we have a strong, well-articulated candidate who truly has the people at heart and is going to be for us so I think we have a good shot. We don’t think we’re getting our picture with our next senator, we think we’re getting our picture with our next President.”

From Austin, O’Rourke drove to Waco, then on toward a small city in the far east of Texas called Lufkin, where he would be holding a rally the next morning. He stopped for dinner at a Whataburger outside of Crockett, where he said he would have knocked on the doors of the houses with Beto signs out front if it hadn’t been after 10 P.M. on a school night. He listed all the gifts that his supporters had been bringing him: cough drops, Whataburger gift cards, chicken tamales, fresh fruit. He turned the camera toward the windshield to show the audience watching his live stream the driving rain outside.

“Twelve days to go,” he said at the drive-through. “That’s what, like, twenty-four more Whataburgers?” Evans said from the back seat. On a stream with more than a hundred thousand views, O’Rourke apologized to his wife, Amy, for drinking a chocolate shake.

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