It had rained much of the day in Denton, but the balmy sunshine broke through sometime before Beto O’Rourke took the floor on Monday evening. Dozens of Texans packed the North Lakes Park pavilion, seated in lawn chairs and cross-legged on the cool concrete. They hung on the former U.S. congressman’s every word.
The El Paso Democrat had just embarked on his For the People tour, sounding the alarm across the state that democracy is in limbo. O’Rourke warned his rapt audience that voting rights are under siege, threatened by a sharp spike in right-wing political aggressions.
Then, as if on cue, the Trump train rolled in to crash the party.
A line of vehicles crept past the pavilion, snaking their way through the adjacent parking lots. They honked their horns and blared what sounded like a police siren, drowning out what they could of O’Rourke’s tenor timbre.
Some flew large flags bearing the “Don't Tread on Me” logo and former President Donald Trump’s name.
After parking their cavalcade, the Trump crew stood in formation on a nearby grassy knoll, daring O’Rourke via megaphone to “come and take” their guns.
Moments after O’Rourke took the mic, a mustachioed man in sunglasses and a baseball cap interrupted him.
“Hey! Hey!” he yelled, jabbing his finger in O’Rourke’s direction. “You are a fucking traitor to this Constitution.”
Later, once the rally wrapped and the Trump train left the station, I asked O’Rourke what exactly it is about him that so terrifies those self-described patriots.
“I don’t know that it’s about me. I think they’re terrified of this,” O’Rourke said, gesturing to his supporters still milling in the Denton park.
But the Trump parade had followed them before, O’Rourke said, including to an appearance in Wichita Falls on Sunday. Rather than being an aberration, this type of tactic was on its way to becoming somewhat of a norm.
Regardless, O’Rourke encouraged rally attendees to volunteer to register Texans to vote. He also urged them to call on Congress to pass the For the People Act, which would expand voting rights and limit partisan gerrymandering.
The way O’Rourke sees it, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“I think this is as pivotal a moment as we’ve had in this country,” he told me. “As hard-won as this democracy is, it could be just as easily lost in the next year, in the next two years.”
Tens of millions of Americans believe the election was rigged against Trump and that President Joe Biden is illegitimate, O’Rourke said. In January, a “Trump-inspired and Ted Cruz-abetted insurrection” at the U.S. Capitol saw Trump supporters hunt for members of Congress and call for the vice president's hanging.
On top of that, there are some 360 voter suppression bills that are pending or have already passed in 47 state legislatures, O’Rourke said. Texas is the toughest state in which to cast a ballot and register to vote, and some Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation that would make it harder to do both, he said.
Even though the state’s 87th Legislature has adjourned, some Texas lawmakers are calling for a special session. They hope to revive a bill that would limit voting hours, ban drive-thru voting and boost poll watching.
The stark contrast between those who want to expand voting rights and those who want to limit them was apparent at Monday’s rally, O’Rourke said.
“You have folks gathering to talk about defending democracy, to talk and listen to one another peacefully, even when we have different points of view. And then you have folks who are trying to shout us down, or with sirens and horns drown out the conversation we’re trying to have,” he said. “That speaks volumes about who would like us to have a real democracy and who would like us to have some other form of government altogether.”
Some have speculated that O’Rourke may be considering a bid for Texas governor, drawing parallels to his 2018 run for U.S. Senate. The politician famously visited each of Texas’ 254 counties ahead of that election, which he lost by fewer than 3 percentage points to Sen. Ted Cruz.
Although he came close for a Democrat in a reliably red state, many doubt whether the Texas tide is ready to turn blue. And even if O’Rourke takes over the governor’s mansion, he’d likely face a Republican-majority state Legislature, which just wrapped what some have called the “most conservative session in Texas history.”
When asked whether he’ll soon announce his candidacy, O’Rourke unsurprisingly offered a measured reply. He hasn’t ruled out a run, but today, protecting voting rights takes precedence.
“This is for all the marbles, what’s happening right now,” O’Rourke said. “We’re going to save or we’re going to lose democracy. It’s that simple.”
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