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Weighing the pros and cons of Beto O'Rourke dropping an f-bomb on a heckler

Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke called one campaign rally attendee a "motherf--" Thursday after the individual laughed during a discussion about mass shootings. Experts think this will both hurt and help the democrat, who likely took his language a little too far.
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Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke called one campaign rally attendee a "motherf--" Thursday after the individual laughed during a discussion about mass shootings. Experts think this will both hurt and help the democrat, who likely took his language a little too far.

Beto O'Rourke turned some heads at a campaign rally Wednesday when he called one audience member a motherf*****." And while the former U.S. Representative received cheers from the crowd, political experts say he went too far.

The Democratic gubernatorial candidate was speaking to a crowd in North Texas about the mass shooting in Uvalde, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers, when a member in the audience began to laugh, NPR member station Houston Public Media reported.

O'Rourke quickly spun around and pointed at the heckler and said, "It may be funny to you, motherf*****, but it's not funny to me, OK."

The crowd immediately began cheering in support of O'Rourke's snappy interjection.

According Cal Jillson, professor of Political Science at Southern Methodist University, O'Rourke's kneejerk reaction shows he's passionate, which is good, but dropping an f-bomb in a room with elderly attendees and kids, not so much.

"Light cursing can make you seem more authentic to your supporters, but there are shades of language that are dangerous," Jillson said. "[O'Rourke] may have skated right up to it and past it."

Rice University Political Science professor Mark Jones echoed similar sentiments: "It helps them, it hurts them."

Jones said the shock-and-awe effect of strong obscenities isn't as damaging as what it does to his reputation.

"These are voters who are Democratic voters, Republican voters, who don't have an issue with profanity in their private life but hold public officials and those making public pronouncements to a higher standard," Jones said.

Texans have a long and strong history of supporting individualism, Jillson explained, which may be why O'Rourke's snappy reaction was showered with applause in the moment. But if language like that won elections, we would see more of it, he said.

Jillson said jaw-dropping language in public can be counterproductive because it leaves the audience and members of the media flabbergasted. Instead of talking about a candidate's message, they're focused on their audacious choice of words.

"It's not usually of much importance as the moment passes, but the fewer moments you have like this the better because you want to plan out those moments in a campaign like you would in life or business," Jillson said.

O'Rourke's opponents will likely seize the moment to attack his credibility. Gov. Gregg Abbott, who intends to keep his job, will likely use the soundbite to target voters who frown upon that kind of language.

Toilet talk and opponent bashing seem more commonplace now than ever before in politics, Jillson said, which is unfortunate because it makes it harder for these people to do their jobs.

"You hear people being called fascists, communists, groomers and pedophiles in ways you didn't hear decades ago, and now you hear people more emboldened to capture the audiences the attention," he said. "It's harmful to our politics because it becomes more difficult to conduct politics and find that middle ground on issues."

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Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.