The first televised presidential debate in the U.S. took place 58 years ago. We learn about the historic event in school: it was Richard Nixon vs. John F. Kennedy. Nixon wasn’t a villain yet; analysts and those listening on the radio judged him the winner of all four debates. But on TV, it was a different story. The surly, grim-faced Nixon appeared to blend into the background as the handsome, charismatic Kennedy beamed his million-watt smile into living rooms across America. Kennedy won that election.
Beto O’Rourke, running for Senate from Texas, has a similar advantage. He’s got the looks, he’s got the watts, and the Internet has overwhelmingly declared him cool.
O’Rourke has lately made a habit of turning any publicity into good publicity. A smear video showing clips of him cursing and skateboarding made him look relatable. When the Texas GOP tweeted a photo of him in a punk band from the ‘90s, Twitter declared him “hot” and “dateable.” Then they tweeted a mugshot of him from a DUI arrest. O’Rourke has acknowledged the incident, and the charges were later dismissed - but most unfortunate for Texas Republicans, O’Rourke looked good in that photo too.
Though O’Rourke has been making rounds on talk shows since early this year, he really burst onto the national platform with his eloquent stance on whether NFL players bending the knee is unpatriotic. “I can think of nothing more American,” he declares in the viral video. O’Rourke’s response is nuanced, supporting the idea of non-violent dissent and the role it has played in American history. Some conservative factions were not happy, but that has only served as another talking point on O’Rourke’s commitment to bipartisanship.
It helps, of course, that his opponent is among the most reviled politicians in the country. Everything from Sen. Ted Cruz’s appearance to his attempts to be relatable are almost too easy to mock. As the incumbent known to back conservative, fundamentalist Christian values, Cruz has a reliable support base in Texas. However, he has not spent much face time with voters. A good part of his last term as senator was spent campaigning for the presidential primary.
Ted Cruz Thinks He’s Going To Beat Beto O’Rourke (HBO)
O’Rourke has taken advantage of the absence by visiting every single county in Texas. All 254 of them, as he never fails to mention. It’s hard work, and he has reason to be proud of it. Combined with his commitment to keeping PAC money out of his campaign, O’Rourke comes off as squeaky clean, with a progressive agenda addressing healthcare, immigration reform, and even gun safety, despite Texas’ trigger-happy reputation. It’s perhaps a sign of his success that we are no longer talking about whether he is too liberal for Texas, but about how close the polls are.
In his TV appearances so far, O’Rourke has stuck to his talking points. Now that he is on bigger shows more often, like The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and Ellen, it’s easy to spot the repetition. You don’t really want him to stop talking, though. His charisma is natural and infectious; his talking points sound as sensible as they do idealistic.
Beto O’Rourke Addresses the President’s Tweets
One challenge that O’Rourke has not yet faced is a debate against Cruz. Both campaigns have agreed to three debates, starting Sept. 21 in Dallas, Sept. 30 in Houston, and wrapping up in San Antonio on Oct. 16. O’Rourke has not yet been tested on so large a stage, and his inexperience could show. Cruz has a knack for rhetoric, and has been hardened by the most vitriolic presidential campaign in recent memory. But if the Nixon vs Kennedy debates have taught us anything, it's that optics matter. And the optics are on #TeamBeto.
About the Author
Smruti Aravind is the founder & editor of SAAFBA. She is a communications professional working in the nonprofit space for 10 years, passionate about social justice, storytelling, and the South Asian experience.