On the campaign trail, Rep. Beto O’Rourke has cast his mother, Melissa O’Rourke, as a lifelong Republican. The Texas Democrat’s comments serve a purpose: his Republican mother is the exact sort of voter he’ll need to win over in order to defeat GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in the red state and become the first Democrat to win a Senate seat there for the first time since 1988.
Tucked in a lengthy BuzzFeed News profile of O’Rourke in August, however, he himself acknowledged that his mother’s politics were not as clear-cut as he lets on in his stump speech.
“I introduce my mom sometimes, and I kid her a little bit, like ‘my mom’s a lifelong Republican, but we got her to vote for us in this race.’ One day, she came up to me, and she said, ‘You know, that’s just not right: I would describe myself as an independent now, not a Republican. Definitely not a Democrat.’ I don’t know what the size of that universe is, but anecdotally we’re meeting a lot of people who have described themselves that way,” Beto O’Rourke said.
A CNN KFile review found Melissa O’Rourke’s voting history and political contributions support the more nuanced picture of her political identity.
Melissa O’Rourke has largely voted in Democratic primaries in Texas since 2000, and she has donated money to candidates from both parties. She donated to Cruz and Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, but she also previously donated to the presidential campaign of then-Democratic Sen. Barack Obama in 2007.
Even after his comments in the BuzzFeed News story, O’Rourke continued to tout his mom as recently as on Saturday as a Republican, when he said, “I am the son of a Republican mother who we have convinced to vote for me in this election.” O’Rourke has repeatedly made similar comments in speeches, citing his “Republican mother,” so much so that the remark has a frequent line of the candidate on the stump and in a press release, according to news reports.
There could be a simple reason why Beto O’Rourke keeps citing his mother’s political leanings: his election will have to transcend party politics. His large campaign events within the state, combined with his ability to raise unprecedented amounts, of money have drawn national attention to the race, even as polls continue to show him trailing Cruz.
Melissa O’Rourke said in an interview with CNN’s KFile that she has generally been more of a Republican until recent election cycles but has voted for more Democrats regionally.
“But for the most part I have voted Republican probably nationally and then more regionally, more Democrats,” she said. She added that she voted in Democratic primaries because “that’s the party that’s going to win” in El Paso. She said she did not remember why she voted in the Republican primaries in 2006 and 2010.
She attributed her current move away from the Republican Party to its rightward shift under President Donald Trump.
“The immigration, the wall, the rhetoric that’s coming out. It’s just so far right. It’s just –there’s no humanity,” she said of the present-day GOP.
A copy of Melissa O’Rourke’s voting record, which CNN’s KFile requested from the El Paso County Elections Department, shows she’s voted in Democratic primaries in 15 of the last 17 primary elections she has participated, including Democratic party primaries in 2000, 2008, 2012, and 2016 that included presidential primaries. She voted in the Republican Party primary just twice, in 2006 and 2010 midterms. She has donated money to candidates from both parties.
Texas has open primaries, meaning voters don’t have to declare an affiliation with a party to vote in their primary.
Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign said that voter profiles such as that of Melissa O’Rourke are common.
“The primary voting record you are pointing to is common in places that are overwhelmingly controlled by one party,” Chris Evans, O’Rourke’s communications director said. “In the case of El Paso, many people vote in the Democratic party primary because the result determines the outcome for that office in November. For example, the winner of the Democratic party primary for Congress will be the next representative and the winner of the Democratic party primary for county judge will be the next county judge.”
“Melissa has —- with the exception of 2016 —- always voted Republican for president,” Evans added. “She has always introduced herself as a Republican, though now identifies as an independent or belonging to no party at all. She receives fundraising emails, electronic newsletters, and direct mail fundraising pieces from Republicans because of her past voting history and past participation in their campaigns.”
Evans said that Melissa O’Rourke “confirmed that she has never voted for a Democrat for president.”
Melissa O’Rourke, however, told CNN’s KFile that she did not remember if she voted for Obama for president in 2008, when she gave his campaign $250.
“You know, I remember Beto was so high on him and telling me all about him. I remember being excited by it and you know, to be very honest with you, I can’t tell you if I did or not,” she said.
She went on to say, “I didn’t vote for him the second time but I can’t swear to you I didn’t the first. I don’t know.”
Melissa O’Rourke said of her 2016 vote that she thinks she “just maybe left that one blank.”
Politically, Melissa O’Rourke’s donations have been mixed, outside of the more than $16,000 she’s donated to her son’s campaign dating back to 2011.
This year she’s given $1500 to Democratic congressional candidate Veronica Escobar, who is running to replace her son. In 2007, she contributed $250 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. In 2012, she donated $1000 to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and $250 to Ted Cruz’s campaign for Senate. She also donated $125 to Republican Sen. John Cornyn in 2011, in addition to $250 to his joint fundraising committee, Cornyn Majority Committee.
In 1983, she donated $1000 to Ronald Coleman, a Democratic congressman from Texas. She donated another $200 to Coleman in 1990.
O’Rourke’s husband and Beto’s father, the late Patrick O’Rourke, served as judge in El Paso County as a Democrat and helped lead Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign in the state. Patrick O’Rourke later switched to the Republican Party in a failed run for Congress in 1992 against Coleman.