PALMVIEW — Gripping a Trump 2020 flag and sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Defend the Police,” a man took a photo with former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke outside a polling location here.
“I love you Beto after talking with you,” said the man who identified himself as Gary. “We care about our country and that’s why I don’t want you supporting (Joe) Biden because he’s not a good man.”
O’Rourke, the former congressman from El Paso, obviously disagreed, having just spent nearly all of Friday morning canvassing for the Democratic presidential nominee in Mission neighborhoods.
Though the approximately 10-minute exchange with Gary ended pleasantly, the encounter with him and other supporters of President Donald J. Trump started out pretty tense.
Chatting with Democratic supporters, the group waving Trump flags filtered into the driveway of La Mansion, as one of the Palmview polling places is called.
“Beto’s a coward,” they shouted. “Why don’t you run back to Mexico?”
O’Rourke, an Irish-American, was born in El Paso.
After discussion and photos with supporters as well as local political candidates camped out at the polling site, O’Rourke began walking back to his car, Trump supporters in tow.
As he continued chatting with a 17-year-old man, the shouting continued with questions flung at him, such as why he didn’t move to China if he supported China.
But O’Rourke seemed to have had enough, suddenly stopping and turning to the protestors, asking why they were being rude.
“I respect what you’re doing, man, and I think you’re doing the right thing by coming out here and meeting voters and God bless you for that,” O’Rourke said. “But you don’t have to yell at people … you don’t have to harass people.”
Gary said they weren’t allowed an opportunity to talk to him beforehand so O’Rourke invited him to say what he wanted to say.
They didn’t agree on much but the ice seemed to break when they found common ground in their support of term limits.
“We’re both Americans, we both love this country, we both want America to do well and we’re both exercising our rights in this democracy,” O’Rourke said, “and so even if we don’t agree on everything, the fact that we can still do this peacefully, to me, is very important.”
This was at least the second time that day that he had expressed that sentiment to someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
Just as he was wrapping up canvassing in one neighborhood in Mission, a man in a green pick-up truck pulled up to O’Rourke, with one hand holding up his phone to record the politician.
The man, who identified himself as Ralph Guerrero, asked O’Rourke about the neighborhood canvassing to which O’Rourke explained he was trying to help voters make a decision about the election.
“Someone like me, who hasn’t voted yet, what are your thoughts? What do you think?” Guerrero said. “Why should I vote Biden-Harris?”
O’Rourke replied by noting the thousands of Americans who had died due to COVID-19 related complications.
“We need change, we need somebody who’s going to follow the science, the best public health guidance and get people back to work,” he said.
It’s doubtful O’Rourke was able to sway Guerrero, who also wanted to know what the former congressman thought about allegations surrounding a laptop that allegedly belonged to Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.
Still, Guerrero wished him well and the two departed on friendly terms.
“To me that says something about the Valley and it reminds me very much of El Paso,” O’Rourke said afterwards. “In maybe other parts of America, I think it would be more confrontational or more angry.
“At this very divided, polarized moment in America, I think we need more of that. Even if he doesn’t vote for Biden-Harris, I’m glad that he took the time to talk with me today.”
“That was a very Valley moment,” he said.
But the goal Friday was to get more people to vote and he had a few successes there too.
At another neighborhood in Mission, a man working for FedEx stopped his truck to take a photo with O’Rourke. He said he hadn’t voted yet but Cynthia Cano, who O’Rourke dubbed his senior advisor, texted the man locations of nearby polling sites. He said he’d go vote that day.
The block-walking that morning was organized by Cambio Texas, a progressive group aiming to increase voter turnout.
Kassandra Elejarza, the organization’s political director who joined O’Rourke on Friday morning, said they chose the area by identifying people who were least likely to vote.
Statewide, turnout this year already surpassed the total turnout of 2016, the Associated Press reported Friday.
However, Hidalgo County had fallen short of that as of Thursday. While the county had surpassed the early voting turnout of 2016, it should be noted that the early voting period was longer this time around. Through Thursday, turnout had reached 9,185.
In addition to statewide record turnout, polls show Biden within one to five percentage points behind Trump in the historically Republican state.
When O’Rourke ran for the United States senate against Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, there was record-breaking voter turnout throughout the state for a midterm election and in the end, he lost by only 2.56 percentage points.
“I think what we saw in 2018 really was a preview of what we’re seeing in 2020 where we set the record for voter turnout in a midterm that went all the way back to 1970, so best turnout in 48 years in 2018,” O’Rourke said Friday. “This year has so far shattered records that we set in 2018, shattered the records set in 2016, and there’s still two full days for people to vote.”
To him, he said, Texas held the key for who would be the next president.
“If Joe Biden wins our 38 electoral college votes, it is over for Donald Trump, but within Texas, it’s the Valley,” he said. “It’s the Valley more than any other part of this state, given the number of people and voters who live here and given what has historically been a, relatively speaking, lower voter turnout level.”
“If more people in the Valley make a commitment to vote today or on Tuesday, not only will the Valley help decide who wins Texas but by extension, the Valley will decide who the next president of the United States is,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke wasn’t the only high-profile Democrat in town Friday as vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s running mate, spoke at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg for a get-out-the-vote event. According to O’Rourke, her campaign stop in the Valley was no charity visit.
“The power that voters have here is perhaps greater than in any other part of the country,” he added. “That’s why of the 254 counties I could be in right now, on the last day of early voting, I am here.”
It’s unclear how many votes he was able to add to the Biden column that day but he seemed to charm anyone who engaged with him, even to the point where they tried to lure him to their side.
After posing for a picture with Gary outside the Palmview polling site, a woman yelled that he should take another one while holding the Trump flag.
O’Rourke laughed but declined.
After about an hour at the site, O’Rourke appeared to finally be taking off.
“Jump on the Trump Train Beto! Jump on the Trump Train!” the woman yelled after him.