Beto Was Ours

By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

My first and only time meeting Beto was in a bar — the Gorgeous Gael, in Houston’s Rice Village neighborhood. It was June 2017, only a couple months after his candidacy announcement. I was fresh off a semester in Paris, where Barack Obama was president when I left, and Cheeto-in-Chief greeted me in return. I was not what you might call excited about this fact. But I was excited about this new Democratic challenger to Ted Cruz, even if I had hardly any idea who he was.

The line to meet him was long and sweaty. If you know anything about Texas summers (or springs, or most of fall, and sometimes winter too) you know it’s often unbearably, stiflingly hot. But we all stuck around anyway, wanting to get a glimpse of the man hoping to take down the much maligned and loathsome Ted Cruz. I wanted to ask Beto about his Whataburger order, and if he’d been listening to any cool new punk music. In the end, we didn’t have much time to talk. Though we were near the end of the line, Beto was friendlier and more charming than he needed to be. He thanked us for coming out, and complimented me on my Planned Parenthood t-shirt.

I was smitten from that moment on. And I was not the only one.

It’s been called Beto-mania because, quite simply, Beto became a rock star in Texas. In my short life, I don’t think I’ve ever seen people more inspired by a candidate. Not Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Maybe not even Barack Obama, for whose campaign you could palpably feel the enthusiasm that permeated the air in the fall of 2008. There’s a kind of fierce devotion that can only come from a near complete loss of hope, as with how the economic downturn and needless, endless wars of the Bush administration affected the reception Obama recieved. But there’s something to be said when the subject of such adoration comes from an unlikely source. All politics is localized, and Beto became a veritable Texas folk hero because he was one of us, our very own paragon of progressivism. He skateboarded through a Whataburger parking lot and straight into our hearts. He listened to us. He showed us that you could run a pure and honest campaign, free of corporate interests and dark money. And livestreamed nearly every moment of it.

Beto and his campaign took a page out of the now iconic Michelle Obama mantra: “When they go low, we go high,” though the Beto strategy might be better summed up as: “Let’s show them what we’re fighting for, not fighting against” He rarely invoked Cruz’s or Trump’s name. Beto wasn’t afraid to call it as he saw it, but he ran his campaign based on the idea that disparate groups of people could come together to fight for one another, not fear each other.

This is undoubtedly one of the many thinkpieces you’ll encounter dealing with some form of analytical praise or discussion. As with any major political loss, the questions of “why” and “how” he lost will likely be on everyone’s minds. But to immediately engage in such a thorough dissection and cataloguing of where the campaign went wrong is, as Joan Didion might say, to miss the point. It’s not how Beto lost, but how he got so damn close, closer than any Democrat in forty years, and closer than anyone ever expected him to be. Usually, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, only a platitude that offers up a cheerful, if naive silver lining. Close didn’t mean shit in 2016 because of the overwhelming onslaught of Republican control. In fact, Hillary Clinton wasn’t even close. She won the damn thing. Yes, Beto lost. But he also gave Cruz a damn good run for his money, and in the process, built a base of support ready to build on the progress we’ve made. We might be inching toward that progress or making great leaps, depending on where in Texas you live, but it’s progress all the same. We flipped two House seats, twelve Texas House seats, and four major courts of appeals. And nationally, we took the House back. All of this is unlikely to have happened without the new energy that Beto brought to the Texas Democratic Party.

There will be a time where we’ll need a solid examination of what Beto should and shouldn’t have done during the campaign. And frankly, that kind of analysis will benefit those of us fighting to advance progressive causes in red and purple states. But for now, the fact of the matter is that Beto energized a base that had long forgotten what it means to have a chance — people longing for the Texas of Ann Richards, even if they weren’t even alive to remember it. Those of us who wholeheartedly embraced Wendy Davis and her ill-fated, 20 point loss of a gubernatorial campaign. Only four years later, Beto lost his race by about 3 points, and he didn’t get this far by being a moderate. At the end of the day, Beto couldn’t be the savior we needed him to be because he couldn’t save us from ourselves. The people of Texas (and more specifically, the WHITE people of Texas) ultimately decided to stick to the status quo. Texas is full of blue pockets, and as a whole, it’s increasingly becoming purple, but it’s still a Republican dominated state. The deck was always stacked against him. And in some ways, Beto’s defeat felt a little inevitable. Yet Beto showed the country what the best part of Texas looks like. He would have been a good candidate in California or Massachussets, and easily could have won election in those states. But Beto was from Texas. Beto was ours.