Greg Alliger tried to wrangle one of his children with his left arm, while swinging a baby carrier in the other. To give himself a free hand, he draped his newly purchased Beto O’Rourke T-shirt over his arm.
Alliger, 30, of the Clear Lake area, had never tried to take children to a political rally before, so it was a learning experience for everybody.
A chance to see O’Rourke, the Democratic U.S. Representative from El Paso who is running against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the November midterm elections, was worth the effort, he said.
“We’re not super involved in politics,” he said, standing next to his wife. “I just like a lot of O’Rourke’s message. I like that he doesn’t take big campaign contributions. That’s really appealing, especially to millennials like us.”
There was that part, his wife, Alyssa Alliger, agreed. And another thing.
“We really don’t like Ted Cruz,” she said.
The Alligers weren’t alone. More than 800 people from across the area went to the Charles T. Doyle Convention Center in Texas City on Wednesday to see O’Rourke speak at a town hall meeting.
It was, by most accounts, one of the largest local politically themed events in recent history. Attendees, most of them Democrats, said they were drawn to the event because of the building energy around O’Rourke’s campaign.
That energy is fueled by both a dislike of Cruz and Republicans and an earnestness people sense in the challenger, supporters said.
“I’m so excited about him” said Patty Talle, a League City resident who arrived at the event an hour early to snag seats in the front row. “He’s a people person and not a corporate person but still knows what needs to be done.”
It was at least the third visit O’Rourke has made to Galveston County since announcing his campaign in 2017. The turnout Thursday, just about two months before the start of early voting for the mid-term elections, dwarfed the earlier events that were held in Galveston restaurants.
Prominent local Democrats were in the crowd, including Galveston County Commissioner Stephen Holmes, former district court Judge Susan Criss and former state Rep. Lloyd Criss. Adrienne Bell, the Pearland Democrat running against U.S. Rep. Randy Weber in Texas’ 14th Congressional District, pumped up the crowd before O’Rourke took the stage.
Some longtime observers said the crowd reminded them of local events headlined by Michelle Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign or by former Texas Gov. Ann Richards in the early ‘90s.
To see so many Democrats out and enthusiastic in Galveston County brought a smile to Susan Criss’ face. She said it reminded her of the times when Democrats controlled local offices. Republicans have held a majority of county offices since the 2010 midterm elections.
“It makes me feel good,” Criss said. “It makes me feel real good.”
O’Rourke delivered a 30-minute stump speech before taking questions from the audience on NFL protests, gun control and health care. Among other things, he called for the end of the electoral college, a sales ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons, a living wage for teachers and jail reform, especially for prisoners with mental health needs.
He, and the crowd, avoided talking about the news of the day — the recent convictions of Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign manager and Michael Cohen, his former attorney.
One of the only mentions of Trump came in a segment about bipartisanship and a veterans mental health care bill O’Rourke sponsored and Trump signed in April. It was a sign the different parties could — and should — still work together, O’Rourke said.
“There’s not a lot, perhaps, that I agree with him on, maybe especially right now,” O’Rourke said. “But I think our M.O. has to be that we will work with anyone, anywhere to move the business of this country forward.”
Even that line, about working with a president that is deeply unpopular with Democrats, earned O’Rourke a standing ovation.
It remains to be seen whether the enthusiasm apparent Thursday night shows up at the polls. Despite outraising Cruz by large margins over the past year, most polls predict the race to be a toss-up at best.
Texas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since Lloyd Bentsen in 1988.