Through the fog of (political) war: What (some) Republicans saw in Beto O’Rourke

I published a piece over the weekend in The Guardian about the potential of an anti-corruption argument to draw Republicans to vote for Democrats. The piece contrasted the extraordinary Beto O’Rourke’s success in attracting Republican support with the extraordinary success of Billie Sutton of South Dakota. Trump had won Texas by 9 points; Beto shrunk that gap to 2.5 points; Trump had won South Dakota by 30 points; Billie shrunk that gap to 3.5 points.

One difference I suggested was the focus on corruption. Beto had begun with a campaign highlighting the corrupting influence of money in politics — e.g., he took no PAC money. But quickly the campaign evolved to a beautiful (to us progressives at least) and strong articulation of clearly progressive values. Billie began with corruption and ended with corruption — throughout focused on the need to restore trust in South Dakota’s government. Those, of course, are not the only differences—Billie was running for governor, Beto for Senate; there is more a governor could do than a Senator; Billie was not strongly progressive (though neither was his opponent), etc. But my point was to flag this critical difference and to suggest that Democrats focus more on the common ground that might actually link Left and Right. (Of course, I’m not the only one to suggest Beto played up differences more than he should have. See, e.g., Tim Alberta’s piece in Politico.)

But I was moved by an email I received today from a Texas Republican. With her permission, I post it here:

Greetings Professor Lessig,

Your article for The Guardian sparked many questions for me. As a staunch Republican Texas who typically only cast my vote based on abortion, I found myself surprised to even consider Beto. However, by election night I was ecstatic for him. It was all my friends and I could talk about we even had a watch party. He had swayed my otherwise Republican buddies despite his policies. But I knew he wouldn’t sway my Trump Republican family and friends, those that favored him in the primaries and continue to make excuses for his mistakes.

I wrote all of that to say I was surprised he came so close. Texas is so red. I really didn’t think he could win. I wanted him to win SO badly. It just Texas is so red and once Trump threw out support for Cruz I thought uh-oh that’s it. Texas Ted, Beautiful Ted is going to get because people love dumb catchphrases. I just don’t see how him being a moderate would have altered the outcome.

I feel like the reason he got so close was because he seemed more authentic, he didn’t apologize for his politics and try to make everyone happy, the no pac money was big, and frankly, he seemed more honest than Cruz with border situation and just in every way really. Cruz seems to lack a human personality and I listened when other Republicans said they could kill him and no one would care. He seems so fake. Beto made me consider what I would feel in 40 years when my grandkids asked me where I was and what I did when the country was separating nursing infants from their mothers seeking asylum? Was I really ok with what happened to those babies because of something they had no say in AND politics? It felt like my abortion stance but with babies, you could see and hold.

I believe every single person on this planet is imbued with an inherent dignity from their creator that deserves respect from natural life to natural death. Currently, there is no one in politics that honors that dignity by helping to create meaningful work, shelter, and food, the right to life, access to decent healthcare, the prison situation is a mess, and the death penalty is abhorrent.

My family who I knew voted Cruz said they were afraid of the caravan, and that Beto wasn't actually Mexican. I’m not sure why that matters but there you go. Is politics just an emotional game?

I’m just a nobody housewife who didn’t even finish her degree and certainly not an authority like you and I’m not trying to pretend like I know better than you. I guess I’m hoping you can show me why I’m wrong or what I’m missing. I’d apologize for the length of the email but, it is your fault for stirring all this up with your article. I hope are able to make sense of all this nonsense. Thank for the thought-provoking article and whatever response you care to give.

Thank you for time,


P.S. I have never emailed someone over an article they wrote so sorry if I did it wrong.

Of course, I wouldn’t change any of the things that made Beto so incredibly attractive to so many; I certainly don’t think (as so many less charitable readers on the Left thought I believe) that he should have compromised his progressive politics at all. My point was only that a more disciplined and aggressive focus on the common ground of anti-corruption would have given more Texas Republicans a reason to think twice. Or put differently: if you’re going to be a bold progressive, you should bundle that progressivism with an honest and true commitment to reforming our corrupted government.

But forget the debate about Beto: this letter is so fantastic and hopeful. I’m grateful [omitted] has allowed me to share it.

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law professor, activist.

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