When Beto O’Rourke was running for the U.S. Senate in 2018, he made a point of visiting every county in Texas – which meant the Democratic candidate spent an inordinate amount of time in sparsely-populated counties that had voted 80% — a few even 90% — or more for Donald Trump. O’Rourke jokes that those counties glow so red you can see them from outer space; nevertheless, his campaigning there became part of his political identity: Here was a different kind of Democrat, one who would not write off rural voters.
As a result, O’Rourke made what the Texas Observer called “small but measureable gains” in rural counties — not enough to win the race, but enough to turn a losing Senate candidate into a presidential candidate. Back in the spring, O’Rourke made a campaign swing through Virginia, venturing no further west than Charlottesville. At the time, we called that “O’Rourke’s off-brand trip” and said that if ever came back to Virginia, he ought to made a point of visiting the most pro-Trump county in the state — Bland County, where 82% of voters cast a ballot for Trump.
To our amazement, that’s exactly what O’Rourke did last week. As much as we’d like to think presidential candidates are consulting The Roanoke Times for advice, the reality is something more plausible: One of O’Rourke’s communications directors is Ofirah Yheskel, who previously worked for Gov. Ralph Northam. So that’s why last Friday O’Rourke strolled into the Sunoco station in Bland — past the Donald Trump hats and shirts for sale — to meet about two dozen local Democrats crammed into the Bland Square diner in the back. It’s fair to ask, of course, why O’Rourke is even in Virginia at all. At the moment, he’s polling 3% in Iowa, 2% in New Hampshire, 0% in Nevada and 1% in South Carolina, the first four states to vote. At that rate, he may not even be around by the time Virginia and a whole bunch of other states vote on March 3. Perhaps he ought to be camped out in Sioux County, Iowa, the most pro-Trump county in that state (also 82%). Nonetheless, there he was in Bland. Here are three observations from his swing through Southwest Virginia:
1. O’Rourke has a hard time articulating why he should be the nominee. He’s a personable fellow, perhaps even charismatic in some ways. He gives a good speech about standard Democratic talking points, but it’s a speech that any of the other Democratic candidates could also give. He doesn’t tie any of it back to his personal story – three rather undistinguished terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and before that, seven years on El Paso City Council. A student at Virginia Tech asked one of the toughest questions on the tour: Why should O’Rourke be the nominee and not someone else? O’Rourke gave a long and complicated answer that seemed to come down to this (except we’re condensing it in a more useful way than he did): As a native of a border city, he brings a unique understanding of the immigration issue that roils American society today.
Perversely, the recent slaughter in an El Paso Walmart also gives O’Rourke a stronger platform from which to talk about guns. He’s in favor of outlawing assault weapons and requiring owners to sell them to the government. It’s certainly an issue he talks about with some passion — and some four-letter words. In Blacksburg, he talked about how the U.S. had become immune to mass shootings: “This s- --just happens.” The next day in Charlottesville he employed a word starting with “f” to describe the situation and even started marketing T-shirts with that phrase. The pungent language may reflect his honest emotions — or a calculated attempt to get attention. Either way, it’s an unfortunate further coarsening of our civil discourse that seems unlikely to help get us closer to resolving the problem. In any case, many of the other candidates have clear rationales for their candidacies: Joe Biden is running on the Barack Obama legacy; Elizabeth Warren has all her plans. O’Rourke would be better served if he could develop a crisper explanation of why he’s the logical nominee. He’s not there yet.
2. O’Rourke might make a better general election candidate than a primary candidate. He’d make a stark contrast with Trump: A member of a new generation, with a personal understanding of immigration and guns. He might alarm fewer voters than, say, Warren, whose economic plans might prove problematic to some. It’s easy to see O’Rourke being a younger, hipper, less gaffe-prone version of Biden — acceptable to a broad swath of voters. It’s also easy to see him coming across as a lightweight. Biden, Warren and others clearly bring some policy depth, whether you agree with their positions or not. O’Rourke does not present himself as a thinker. Much of his pitch is based on his own persona. He talked a lot about how he got more votes than any other Democrat in Texas history— without mentioning that still wasn’t enough.
3. O’Rourke is absolutely right that Democrats need to spend more time talking to rural voters. Democrats have done just fine winning in Virginia without worrying about, say, Bland County, or rural voters more generally. Other states, though, have a different urban/suburban/rural mix and there, rural voters matter more. If Hillary Clinton had run just a few percentage points better among rural voters in North Carolina and Florida, she’d be president. If O’Rourke were the party’s nominee, he’d certainly not make the Clinton mistake of never visiting Wisconsin. Trump delights in dividing Americans, appealing only to his base. O’Rourke very symbolically makes a point of reaching out — another reason why he might make a reassuring and potentially popular general election candidate.
It’s unclear, though, whether O’Rourke has anything to say to rural voters other than he knows they’re there. In Bland, O’Rourke spoke only to local Democrats — and the staff at the restaurant. Nor did he really have a message specifically crafted to them. On the one hand, he didn’t pander to them. On the other hand, O’Rourke doesn’t seem to have a policy for how to deal with what economists call “the great divergence” between the rural economy and the rest of the country in the post-industrial age. The candidate with the best plan is actually Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is even younger than O’Rourke but brings far more policy heft. Still, O’Rourke has set a standard that we’d like to see other candidates emulate: Who will be the next candidate to come to Bland and what will he or she have to say?