Drug Policy

Aided by Super PAC, Pot Legalizer Defeats Drug Warrior in Texas Congressional Primary

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Last night Beto O'Rourke, a former El Paso city councilman, won the Democratic nomination to represent Texas' 16th Congressional District, knocking off eight-term incumbent Silvestre Reyes. This is good news for at least two reasons:

1. Reyes, backed by President Obama and former President Bill Clinton, is a hack who was targeted for defeat by the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a super PAC funded by wealthy Texans that promotes challenges to complacent, long-serving incumbents of both parties. Mother Jones described the race as "a classic case of an up-and-coming insurgent taking on the machine." Although O'Rourke told Mother Jones that Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that made super PACs possible, was "a terrible decision," his victory is yet another piece of evidence that lifting restraints on "outside groups" has shaken things up and made elections more competitive. 

2. O'Rourke is a critic of the war on drugs who co-wrote a book decrying prohibition-related violence and advocating marijuana legalization, while Reyes, who served in the U.S. Border Patrol for 26 years, is an unreconstructed drug warrior. During the campaign O'Rourke called the war on drugs "a failure," while Reyes accused him of encouraging drug use by children. O'Rourke won 50.5 percent of the vote in the five-way race, compared to 44.4 percent for Reyes. "O'Rourke's victory demonstrates that support for drug policy reform, and even for legalizing marijuana, is no detriment to electoral success—in fact, it was a key asset in his triumph," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of Drug Policy Action. "Reyes' surprising defeat, meanwhile, shows that knee-jerk support for persisting with failed drug war tactics can hurt politicians at the ballot box."

Three years ago, when O'Rourke was serving on the El Paso City Council, it unanimously approved a resolution calling for a debate about alternatives to the war on drugs, which Mayor John Cook vetoed. Reyes lobbied the council members to refrain from overriding Cook's veto, warning that the resolution was making El Paso look bad in Washington, jeopardizing his district's cut of federal stimulus money. Looking back, Cook explains, "I thought that was an extremely dangerous debate for people to have."

Matt Welch noted O'Rourke's challenge to Reyes last week.