- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 30, 2018

MSNBC sent a love letter Tuesday night to Democratic Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke in a 1-hour “Hardball College Tour” special hosted by Chris Matthews.

On stage at the University of Houston, Mr. O’Rourke showcased his folksy liberalism that has kept him surprisingly close to incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, fielding questions from the host and the clearly favorable audience of students and professors.

The individual showcase one week before the Nov. 6 election gave Mr. O’Rourke a relaxed opportunity to pitch some of his favorite themes on a more energetic, active liberal government.

Perhaps the only hard moment for Mr. O’Rourke came late in the show, when Mr. Matthews described a flip in partisan perceptions during his life, with the Democratic Party moving from its everyday, blue-collar roots to the preferred choice of the rich and famous.

“What went wrong?” Mr. Matthews asked. “What needs to be corrected?”

Mr. O’Rourke deftly parried the question, referencing an appearance he had made in Silverton, Texas, at which an elderly voter described rural electrification projects in rural swaths of the Lone Star State that made people lifelong backers of legendary Democrats like FDR and LBJ.

Money changed all that, Mr. O’Rourke argued, pointing to the tens of millions spent by PACs in campaigns.

“It’s too much money,” he said. “Too beholden to the special interests, we’ve got to return to the people.”

Mr. O’Rourke has had no problem with raising money despite his professed abhorrence of super PACs, outraising Mr. Cruz for most the campaign and, in the last quarter, taking in an all-time record $38.1 million.

Mr. Cruz has criticized the way in which Mr. O’Rourke took in millions from coastal left-wingers who adore his liberalism, leaving Mr. Cruz to accuse his opponent of being more in tune with Hollywood and New York City than Texas. And while Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign has steered clear of PAC money, in debates Mr. Cruz pointedly noted that hasn’t stopped PACs from supporting Mr. O’Rourke.

Nevertheless, Mr. O’Rourke has remained competitive in a state that last elected a Democratic senator in 1971, and in early October even had a narrow lead in one poll.

Yet while it’s clear Mr. Cruz has been unable to distance himself from Mr. O’Rourke in the way other statewide GOP figures like Gov. Greg Abbott have done in their re-election bids, Mr. Cruz has managed to recapture and hold the momentum in the race, currently enjoying a +7 advantage in the RealClearPolitics polling average.

Consequently, Mr. O’Rourke embraced the chance MSNBC gave him to provide an unfiltered picture of his unapologetic liberalism. Relaxed throughout in a suit but no tie, Mr. O’Rourke would sit to talk with Mr. Matthews and then stand up and face the audience when they posed questions.

One of them, from University of Houston assistant professor of journalism Summer Harlow touched on President Trump and his penchant for fighting back against a press he considers openly hostile to him.

Mr. O’Rourke described it as an unhealthy situation and pointed to Tweets in which Mr. Trump would superimpose a journalist’s face on a pro wrestler being body slammed.

“It’s an incitement to violence, I don’t know any other way to call it,” Mr. O’Rourke said.

That exchange was similar to the one Mr. O’Rourke had with Mr. Matthews when the host mentioned recent events in which bomb-like devices were sent to outspoken opponents of Mr. Trump and a mass murdered shot up a Pittsburgh synagogue.

“How much is the president responsible for those atmospherics?” Mr. Matthews asked.

Mr. O’Rourke did not fully take the bait. He said some of Mr. Trump’s campaign comments and presidential tweets were an “invitation to hate openly, unapologetically,” but quickly pivoted to a more soaring call for better, less inflamed passions and speeches that would pull the country through this, “petty, small, divisive moment.”

At times, visibly smitten students would ask Mr. O’Rourke questions completely unrelated to policy, such as when one asked just how much sleep he was getting.

Not much, Mr. O’Rourke acknowledged, before adding that his hectic schedule is “fueled by the fine food of Whataburger!” The response drew loud applause as it not only touched many undergraduate sensibilities but also referenced an online ad the O’Rourke campaign put out that showed him skateboarding in a Whataburger parking lot.

Invariably, Mr. O’Rourke would turn his answer back to the crowd, thanking them for the enthusiasm he said propels him across Texas, ending by beaming and pointing at the questioner as the crowd provided prolonged and stormy applause.

Mr. Matthews would usually add, “well said,” or, “nicely put,” and often shake Mr. O’Rourke’s hand as he returned to his seat opposite the host on the stage.

It was not clear Tuesday if MSNBC also extended an invitation to Mr. Cruz for a show. Earlier in the campaign, Mr. O’Rourke also had a solo appearance on CNN, and while the Cruz campaign said it proposed a debate the O’Rourke camp ducked, it allowed it declined an invitation from the network for a “town hall” with Mr. Cruz.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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