AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File

Concert with Willie Nelson shows O'Rourke's leftist streak

September 29, 2018 - 10:18 am
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By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — There aren't likely to be many undecided voters in the crowd Saturday night when Willie Nelson holds a concert for Democratic Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke.

If fact, it's hard to imagine a better personification of liberal Austin differing from much of the rest of conservative Texas than a show featuring a rising Democratic star and a long-haired country icon who has been chummy with the party since Jimmy Carter's administration.

A three-term congressman from El Paso and onetime punk rocker trying to upset Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in November, O'Rourke is openly moving to the left in contrast to some other Democrats competing in tight, red-state Senate races around the country.

Those include Phil Bredesen, a former Democratic governor of Tennessee who has openly embraced the mantra of a moderate and distanced himself from his own party as he tries to win an open seat in a state Trump won two years ago by 26 points, which was nearly three times his 9-point margin of victory in Texas. Arizona Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is also running for Senate as a centrist, despite her early career as a Green Party activist.

O'Rourke has kept support of his national party at arm's length, too, but done so in keeping with his more liberal views, not to tamp them down. He supports legalizing recreational marijuana and a single-payer health care system, and he has suggested he's open to abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and impeaching President Donald Trump.

Cruz and O'Rourke's second debate had been set for Sunday night at the University of Houston but was postponed. During their first one last week in Dallas, both candidates largely stuck to red meat issues that excite their bases while doing little to attract moderates. O'Rourke said the Nelson event won't try to appeal to swing voters, either.

The "concert isn't a Democratic event, or a Republican event or an independent event," O'Rourke spokesman Chris Evans said. "It's a Texas event and it doesn't get much more Texas than Willie Nelson."

O'Rourke has been down this road before, even taking the stage during Nelson's July Fourth Picnic event in Austin to play guitar for the late-night finales of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "I'll Fly Away." But with the Nov. 6 election now looming, the stakes are higher for any joint jam sessions this time.

His strategy also breaks from those of Texas Democrats who have tried to run as moderates only to fail miserably. When Wendy Davis used a Texas Senate filibuster defending abortion rights to briefly rocket to national notoriety and launch a gubernatorial bid in 2014, she endorsed the open carry of handguns statewide and didn't hide her past support for the death penalty. It didn't help, as Republican Greg Abbott beat her by 20-plus points. Democrats haven't won any of Texas' nearly 30 statewide offices in almost 25 years.

Paul Sadler, an underfunded former state representative whom Cruz defeated by nearly 16 points in 2012, said the idea that only conservative Democrats have any hope of flipping a state like Texas is changing when it comes to social issues including medical marijuana, which is now legal in 31 states. He said Beto "reflects the more modern, young thinking within the Democratic Party."

"I'm not sure if we really call those issues liberal as opposed to merely reflecting the people we're supposed to represent," Sadler said.

At 85, Nelson isn't young, of course. But he's a longtime advocate for marijuana legalization who founded his own cannabis company for places where it is legal, not including Texas, which only allows low-THC cannabis oil that can't get a user high to be prescribed to patients with intractable epilepsy.

Some detractors have posted online comments chiding Nelson for backing a "socialist" and calling for boycotts, but Nelson has shrugged those off.

"I love flack," he said on ABC's "The View." ''We're not happy 'til they're not happy."

His cannabis company, Willie's Reserve, responded to conservatives' calls to burn Nelson records by deadpanning on Twitter: "If you're going to burn something, burn Willie's Reserve."

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Follow Will Weissert on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apwillweissert

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