The real lesson of Beto O'Rourke's run

The most frequently contemplated question in Texas politics this campaign season is whether Democratic US Re...

Posted: Oct 22, 2018 4:06 PM
Updated: Oct 22, 2018 4:06 PM

The most frequently contemplated question in Texas politics this campaign season is whether Democratic US Rep. Robert "Beto" O'Rourke can defeat Republican US Sen. Rafael "Ted" Cruz.

The expedient answer would be to dismiss O'Rourke's telegenic political rise as an anomaly in the firmament of this state's unyielding conservatism. The Irish descendant from the Hispanic borderlands of Texas has, however, given the state's Democrats a gift they have found too surprising to completely unwrap. Or maybe it has just caught them off balance.

Beto O'Rourke

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What, they must be wondering, do you do with hope?

Beto has delivered Democrats the first notion in a quarter of a century that their party may yet become ascendant. The crowds O'Rourke has drawn are historic and presidential in size; the candidate, who plays a bit of guitar, joined Willie Nelson lakeside in downtown Austin and attracted 55,000 people.

President Trump, who had vowed to find the biggest stadium available in Texas to stump for O'Rourke's incumbent opponent, is scheduled to appear at the 8,000-seat NRG arena. (The capacity at NRG, Mr. President, is 94,000 less than Kyle Field at Texas A&M University, the state's largest venue).

O'Rourke's endless tour of Texas has provided almost magical optics of enthused crowds, and during his travels to all 254 of the state's counties, he has claimed to not be running against anyone but running for everyone. He thinks a positive message can win in the state where Karl Rove sharpened political long knives and attack tactics to elect the entire government. Regardless, national journalists keep posting hagiographies of Beto with Texas datelines and suggest the congressman is made of presidential fiber and is transforming the Texas Democratic Party.

And some of that is accurate.

O'Rourke set a fundraising record for a single quarter in a US Senate campaign by bringing in just over $38 million from 800,000-plus donors. His ability to generate those types of numbers without accepting PAC money has Texas Democrats wondering if Beto has awakened the sleeping progressive masses. But there are other, contradictory figures.

A new poll from CNN, conducted by SSRS, interviewed 1,004 Texas residents by phone between October 9-13, and discovered that Cruz led O'Rourke 52% to 45%. There were 862 registered and 716 likely voters in the sample, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points (for likely voters). As Election Day approaches, Texas appears to remain unshakably Texas.

What is Beto supposed to do?

National Democrats are calling on him to share his millions with candidates elsewhere who have a better chance of winning, which is not why his donors flooded him with money. They want him to spend it on excising Cruz from the Texas political profile.

A better idea for Beto than giving away his war chest might be to put away his sunny disposition and counterpunch. Attack ads work, and Cruz has bloodied Beto's Kennedyesque nose with a misleading slam about the El Pasoan's interest in raising taxes on the state's prolific energy industry.

O'Rourke had a chance to explain that deception in his second debate with Cruz in San Antonio on Tuesday night but probably decided it was too complex for a 90-second response. Instead, he pointed out that the President, who is coming to Texas to support Cruz, has referred to him as "Lyin' Ted," and that Cruz has missed more votes in the US Senate than any member in the past 25 years. The senator did spend a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire, campaigning for president and enduring insults from Trump.

O'Rourke did get more aggressive the day after their last debate and began spending on ads that went directly at Cruz's record and the accusations in his broadcast attacks.

There remain, also, unmeasured dynamics that could change Beto's fate. If he can persuade Hispanics to vote by explaining that DACA will die if they don't, that more families will be separated at the border, and paths to citizenship will be closed, then they might vote in historically disproportionate numbers.

Middle-class, conservative, suburban women in Texas may also be hiding their contempt for President Trump and may be ready to send a message to Cruz and the GOP, and young millennial voters could realize their future is slipping away and they are not using their collective voices.

Could. Might. May.

Texas does have new voters for candidates to persuade, though. There are 1.6 million more registered since the last midterm election, which means a record 15.6 million can cast ballots. Encouraging indicators for Beto's supporters include the fact that in Houston (Harris County), Hispanic voter turnout in the midterm primary was up 164% over the last midterm election in 2014. There are, nonetheless, fewer than 5 million of the state's 11 million Latinos registered to vote.

If Beto's magical narrative can prompt those new young voters, Latinos and suburban women to turn out in unprecedented numbers, he might become the new US senator from Texas. Even if he loses, however, O'Rourke will not disappear from the American political landscape. Texans are not his only audience. Beto knows the power of hope.

And against the odds, win or lose, he's already changing Texas.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the second debate between Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke. It was San Antonio.

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