Democratic Texas Senate candidate Beto O'Rouke rallied thousands with Willie Nelson on Saturday night, offering an openly liberal vision for the country's largest conservative state and vowing that his campaign that has shunned outside political support can topple Republican Ted Cruz in November.
Taking an open-air stage in Texas' progressive-minded capital city, O'Rourke said he wanted to appeal to voters from both parties and independents but called for universal health care and gay rights, warned of the ills of climate change and switched to his fluent Spanish to denounce President Donald Trump's calls to wall off the U.S.-Mexico border. He also decried the federal government's war on drugs, saying it disproportionately targets minorities and the poor.
"People of the future are counting on us while we can still get this right," O'Rourke said of changing the direction of Texas, where a Democrat hasn't won statewide office since 1994. Despite refusing donations from political action committees, O'Rourke has enjoyed monster fundraising that has outpaced Cruz. He said that's allowed him to focus on "people and that's how we win this election."
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After Nelson took the stage, O'Rourke sang backup to the iconic hit "On the Road Again" while the crowd cheered, many wearing T-shirts or waving signs bearing the candidate's name.
A three-term congressman from El Paso, O'Rourke's openly moving to the left contrasts to some other Democrats competing in tight, red-state Senate races around the country.
Those include Phil Bredesen, a former Democratic governor of Tennessee who has openly embraced the mantra of a moderate and distanced himself from his own party as he tries to win an open seat in a state Trump won two years ago by 26 points, which was nearly three times his 9-point margin of victory in Texas. Arizona Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is also running for Senate as a centrist, despite her early career as a Green Party activist.
O'Rourke has kept support of his national party at arm's length, too, but done so in keeping with his more liberal views, not to tamp them down. He's also previously suggested that he's open to abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and impeaching Trump.
Cruz and O'Rourke's second debate had been set for Sunday night at the University of Houston but was postponed. During their first one last week in Dallas, both candidates largely stuck to red meat issues that excite their bases while doing little to attract moderates. O'Rourke said the Nelson event wasn't about wooing swing voters, either.
"It's a Texas event and it doesn't get much more Texas than Willie Nelson," O'Rourke spokesman Chris Evans said.
O'Rourke also took the stage during Nelson's July Fourth Picnic event in Austin to play guitar for the late-night finales of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "I'll Fly Away." But with the Nov. 6 election now looming, the stakes are higher this time.
His strategy breaks from those of Texas Democrats who have tried to run as moderates only to fail miserably. When Wendy Davis used a Texas Senate filibuster defending abortion rights to briefly rocket to national notoriety and launch a gubernatorial bid in 2014, she endorsed the open carry of handguns statewide and didn't hide her past support for the death penalty. It didn't help, as Republican Greg Abbott beat her by 20-plus points.
Paul Sadler, an underfunded former state representative whom Cruz defeated by nearly 16 points in 2012, said the idea that only conservative Democrats have any hope of flipping a state like Texas is changing when it comes to social issues including medical marijuana, which is now legal in 31 states. He said Beto "reflects the more modern, young thinking within the Democratic Party."
"I'm not sure if we really call those issues liberal as opposed to merely reflecting the people we're supposed to represent," Sadler said.
At 85, Nelson isn't young, of course. But he's a longtime advocate for marijuana legalization who founded his own cannabis company for places where it is legal, not including Texas, which only allows low-THC cannabis oil that can't get a user high to be prescribed to patients with intractable epilepsy.
Some detractors have posted online comments chiding Nelson for backing a "socialist" and calling for boycotts, but Nelson has shrugged those off.
"I love flack," he said on ABC's "The View." ''We're not happy 'til they're not happy."
His cannabis company, Willie's Reserve, responded to conservatives' calls to burn Nelson records by deadpanning on Twitter: "If you're going to burn something, burn Willie's Reserve."