By Todd J. Gillman
The Dallas Morning News
MULESHOE — Does the road to the U.S. Senate really run through Muleshoe?
For Rep. Beto O’Rourke, stumping Tuesday in the remote Panhandle town underscored a new campaign theme — that unlike Sen. Ted Cruz, he’s “showing up.”
It’s not as though Muleshoe and surrounding Bailey County offer enough votes to tip a statewide election. Only 42 local Democrats cast ballots in the March primary. And O’Rourke only collected 16 of those.
“Either he’s real desperate or he’s real interested,” said Cindy Cox, 68, a retired nurse who turned out to show her support for the El Paso congressman. “Probably a little bit of both.”
The hourlong town hall meeting at the Bailey County Coliseum — a grandiose name for the modest facility — drew about a dozen more voters than turned up for the March primary.
Miguel Levario, the Democratic nominee for the area’s congressional seat, long held by Republicans, lauded O’Rourke for making the effort to make his case in Muleshoe, population 5,800.
“It’s a testament to his message. He wants to represent all people in Texas. He’s willing to make the trip,” Levario said. “This is a guy who pulled in $10 million in the last quarter. I don’t think he’s desperate.”
Fifty votes here, 50 there. It could add up. They weren’t all on Team Beto, though.
Donna Ratke, a Cruz supporter and pharmacist who lives in Farwell, 20 miles from downtown Muleshoe, sat front and center in the coliseum meeting room and challenged him to defend his stance on gun control.
“All I hear is that progressives are against Second Amendment rights,” she told the congressman, adding that in rural Texas she has animals to protect. “I have to shoot rattlesnakes.”
“I’m all for shooting rattlesnakes. If that’s ever been a question, let me clarify that,” O’Rourke responded. His wife grew up on a ranch in New Mexico, he added, and her family has “many rattlesnakes on the walls.”
Cruz is one of the Senate’s most ardent defenders of gun rights, a hero to the NRA who regularly reminds crowds that his challenger not only has D-minus from the group, he’s proud of it. In Muleshoe, O’Rourke presented what he called a “very reasonable common sense” approach to balance gun rights with public safety.
Responsible Texans own firearms “to hunt, for self-protection, for safety, for sport, for collection,” he said, and that’s great. “We don’t want to take anyone’s guns away from anyone. If you have an AR-15 today, keep it. Continue to use it responsibly. Shoot rattlesnakes with it — whatever you want to do, as long as you’re not harming another person.”
So, no gun confiscation, whatever she’s heard on talk radio. But he does want a background check for everyone trying to buy a gun. He cited studies showing that in states that block sales to people with a history of violence, shootings of police dropped by half, and shootings of a family member or partner dropped by nearly as much.
“This is not anecdote, this is data,” he said.
That didn’t sway Ratke. Most shootings are committed with “illegal guns” by “illegal people,” she insisted. O’Rourke conceded that his approach wouldn’t stop all 30,000 gun-related deaths the United States records each year, but it would be a start.
Afterward, as he posed for photos, Ratke said she’d already decided to back Cruz, and she clarified that she’d meant that criminals commit crimes, not undocumented immigrants. Still she said, “He has a broad feelie-good plan, but not a specific plan, and that’s what worries me.”
Guns, health care, economic disparities — these were all issues O’Rourke addressed on day 3 of his 34-day driving tour across the state, starting in Seminole and ending in Amarillo.
O’Rourke cultivates an image of bipartisanship and even post-partisanship. But he’s not above taking pokes at Cruz, contrasting the senator’s approach to his own forays into deep red and overlooked corners of Texas.
O’Rourke touts his feat of stumping in all 254 Texas counties, including many where cattle outnumber registered voters. It takes little prodding for a voter or journalist to draw out the punchline: that Cruz visited all 99 counties in Iowa when he ran for president in 2016 but hasn’t come close to showing such commitment to Texas.
But the strategic value of returning to Bailey County, where Republican ballots outnumbered those of Democrats in the March primary 921 to 42, is a mystery.
“None of the politicians ever come to a little town like this, especially Democrats,” said Juan Chavez, the county’s only Democratic commissioner. “I wish everybody would come. They don’t care about a little county like this.”
Cruz has been to Muleshoe, too — in October 2016, not as a campaign stop but part of an official Senate tour of rural Texas. It happened to be just after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced, where Trump crudely boasted about using his celebrity to get away with making uninvited sexual advances. Cruz made national headlines from Muleshoe by telling a local reporter that he still supported the GOP nominee.
In Lubbock, a few hours before Muleshoe, roughly 500 supporters filled the Cactus Theater, some standing on steps to the balcony or straining to hear from the foyer. Gun violence was also on some minds there, and in a poignant moment, Natalie Manz, 17, a rising senior at Lubbock High School, asked how he would deal with school shootings in Texas and around the country.
“It’s kind of terrifying to go to school every day,” she said.
“I don’t want you to have be afraid when you go to school,” he responded. He recounted that his seven-year-old recently went through an active shooter drill. The teacher coached the first graders on how to hide in a closet, and resist the temptation to open the door.
“I don’t want any kid or any teacher to be focused on that,” O’Rourke said. Nor, he added, does he want teachers in the position of standing between a shooter and students, or carrying a gun in class.
And, he said, drawing applause, “I believe that weapons of war that were designed for the sole purpose of killing people as effectively and efficiently and in as great a number as possible should remain on the battlefield.”
Afterward, Natalie lined up for a photo. He thanked her for her smart question. She walked away pleased.
“It was an amazing answer,” she said. “I have a lot of friends who go hunting. If you need an AR-15 to hunt, you probably shouldn’t be hunting.”
Rosa Melendez, 38, who works for Head Start, couldn’t remember seeing a major candidate in Muleshoe in the two decades she’s lived here.
“He’s showing interest instead of just advertising on Facebook,” she said. “That’s very humble of him.”
Tawnya Wales, 54, who described herself as a farmer’s wife — they grow corn in Lazbuddie, about 20 miles from Muleshoe — was also thrilled.
“We love Beto. It’s cool that he’s trying to get out there and meet people. I feel like he cares,” she said.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency