Texas’ 1st Congressional District is one of the reddest areas in the country — to say nothing of the state. All you need to know is that Louie Gohmert, the fire-breathing tea party radical who’s hellbent on creating something of an evangelical ethnostate, won re-election in 2016 with nearly 75 percent of the vote. His home base of Tyler, 100 miles east of Dallas, has long been the beating heart of the state’s right-wing base.
Oddly enough, the district also says a lot about the larger dynamics at play in the statewide battle royale between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke. Their race has been defined by two competing realities: One portrays a silent majority under siege by an unhinged, violent left; the other is defined by an optimistic post-partisan appeal and a promise to show up.
Those worldviews collided yet again last week as both campaigns swung beyond the pine curtain. Motivated by O’Rourke, East Texas Democrats feel like the tide may finally be turning in their favor. Republicans, meanwhile, scoff at the possibility of a liberal “radical” making inroads on their home turf.
The parking lot and the road leading up to the Shriners banquet hall on Highway 31 in Tyler were both overflowing early Thursday evening, when hundreds came out to see Cruz. Trump had announced earlier that day that he would send troops to the border to keep a caravan of Central American migrants from trying to enter the United States. Warming up the crowd, Congressman Gohmert said Americans should be thankful they finally have a president willing to protect the country from an invasion of violent, machete-wielding MS-13 gang members who will head straight to the polls. “Between Abbott and Trump, I think they’ll head for California,” he said.
One bearded man wearing a “Deplorable Me” shirt goes only by Heff and prays every day for Cruz to win. O’Rourke, he said, is a phony socialist propped up with money from George Soros. “This is not his country,” he told me. “The only place [Democrats] are bringing you is down the shitter.”
JoAnn Fleming, the head of Grassroots America – We the People, an influential tea party PAC in Tyler, is perhaps the person most responsible for turning Tyler into a hotbed of radical conservatism. “In September, we had the Kavanaugh surprise. … Now in October we’ve got the caravan surprise,” she intoned with a deep twang. “I can tell you we’re counting on all of you to hand the Democrats a great big Republican surprise. Smith County will never, never, ever be blue!”
She introduced Cruz to whoops, hollers and spontaneous “build the wall” chants. “God bless East Texas,” the junior senator began. He prodded his opponent, saying that O’Rourke has looked a little rattled recently as he’s tried to go on the offensive. And after riffing on the Second Amendment, Cruz thanked the crowd for their “collective restraint” in not whipping out their guns and firing a few rounds into the ceiling.
Cruz also played up the feverish concern about a caravan invasion. “Where’s Beto on the wall?” he asked. “On the other side of it!” someone yelled. “Now that’s a good idea,” Cruz responded. He blasted O’Rourke’s opposition to a border wall, saying that crime rates in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso are so low thanks to the wall. “As we say in Texas, that boy don’ think right.”
Democrat Shirley McKellar is running against Gohmert for the fourth time. She’s never pulled in more than 27 percent of the vote. For years, she has harangued Democrats in both the state and national party to stop ignoring East Texas. And for years, they’ve ignored her. There are legions of idle Democratic voters, many of whom are African American and haven’t turned out since Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. They could be mobilized, McKellar insisted, if only the party invested some time and resources in the area.
But Beto O’Rourke, she says, listened. McKellar remembers telling him after he first announced his candidacy that if he wants to stand a chance statewide, he needs to spend a lot of time in East Texas. O’Rourke’s first event in the region was at a Mexican restaurant in Lufkin last August — there were about 20 people there, a lot of them just to eat. He’s come back through several times since.
Last Thursday morning at 8:30, hundreds of people packed into the Pines Theater to hear O’Rourke speak.
“He gets it,” McKellar told me. “He understands that there are a lot of people to turn out here.” O’Rourke has made several trips through towns like Lufkin, Longview, Nacogdoches and Tyler.
He’s bullish on his chances in these places. “You must contest everywhere. You must show up for everyone,” O’Rourke told the Observer after the Lufkin rally. “You couldn’t blame somebody for not voting for you if you never paid them the respect or showed them the courtesy of being there for them in the first place.”
In turn, Democrats who have previously hid out in East Texas, demoralized by a sense of isolation and defeat, feel newly emboldened to show their true colors. They’re more willing to post signs in their yards and slap bumper stickers on their cars.
“You’d do it like this,” explained Staci Smith, cupping her mouth and whispering “I’m a Democrat.” It’s been that way for years, said Smith, a Beto volunteer in Tyler. “Not anymore. I don’t even care. We’re gettin’ bold and brazen and braver.”
Earlier that day, Beto had filled the Longview community center to capacity for a noon rally. Rosenda Gladney, 48, hung out on the sidewalk with a friend who had convinced her to come along. She plans to vote for the first time this year. “I always said, ‘My vote don’t count so it don’t matter.’ But now I see, it really does.” Gladney told me. “[Trump] traumatized me bad. I ain’t gonna lie.”
Marc Smith ducked out of the rally a little early, with a Beto sign in one hand and a Chick-fil-A cup in the other. The 38-year-old Longview small-business owner is a cable TV pundit’s dream. He can’t stand Trump and is turned off by reactionary conservatives like Cruz and Gohmert. Still, he mostly votes for Republicans down-ballot.
“This is Trumpland,” he told me. “You’re almost shunned if you don’t vote Republican.” And yet, he said, if he were forced to vote at that moment he’d cast his ballot for O’Rourke. He likes what he’s heard from him (though he “can’t wrap his head around” O’Rourke’s support for abortion) and appreciates that the crowds he draws are diverse. This is the first time in his 18 years of voting that Smith can recall a Democrat even bothering to campaign here.
For O’Rourke to make inroads in East Texas, he needs emboldened partisans who saw no point in voting in the past; first-time voters like Gladney; and tepid Republican voters like Marc Smith to come out for him in exponential numbers.
Just down the street from Beto’s Longview rally, the view from the Gregg County GOP headquarters is a little different. Rush Limbaugh, who has spent the entire day ranting about how the pipe bombs sent to prominent Democratic leaders might just be a liberal hoax meant to drum up support for the midterms, plays in the background.
According to Marty Rhymes, the local party vice chair,the Republican base is on fire. With an advancing caravan of migrants, the Kavanaugh hearings, an ascendant socialism movement and “the bombing stuff” (which she calls a “bunch of made-up snickety”), she said, people are fleeing the Democratic Party and voting Republican.
“It’s amazing how many people don’t want to be called Democrats anymore,” she said.