If you believe the polls, Beto O’Rourke will lose to Ted Cruz on Tuesday by single digits. Judging from his recent behavior and comments, Cruz also thinks he will win. How else to explain why, a week out from the election, he would lick the boots of Iowa Congressman Steve King, the toxic white nationalist who is a set of white sheets away from going full Klansman? That’s the cynical calculation of a politician with his eyes already set on the next campaign — in this case, running to the White House through the Iowa caucuses in 2020.
I make no warranties about the veracity of polls or Cruz’s calculations, but let’s take a step back.
In October 2017, a little more than a year ago (so, about 10,000 years in Trump-era terms), the Observer published a profile of Beto O’Rourke. This was before his name was on the lips of everyone in Texas and beyond. The subheadline on the piece was: “Can Beto O’Rourke’s seat-of-the-pants, DIY, break-the-rules campaign succeed against Ted Cruz?”
As is usually standard with these articles, the piece didn’t provide a definitive answer. And today, a day before the election, the answer is still: Maybe. But the fact that we can even talk about the possibility of Cruz losing is a testament to O’Rourke’s impressive feats.
From the beginning, Beto — he’s now a single-name politician, like Hillary, Trump or Obama — has faced long odds. Any Democrat running for statewide office in Texas has and would. As this publication and others have noted ad nauseum, no Democrat has won statewide office in Texas in almost a quarter-century. By the measure of electoral success, Texas is a profoundly Republican state — more so than even Deep South states such as Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia, all of which have elected Democrats to statewide office in the last decade. The Texas Democratic Party is dysfunctional, if it can even be described as existing in a meaningful form.
The rest of the statewide ballot is a range of bad to serviceable candidates, none of whom has raised sufficient money or a high enough profile to help O’Rourke, much less themselves. (For example, Governor Greg Abbott has outraised his opponent Lupe Valdez almost 10:1 in the last month alone.)
Without much help from a state party or his fellow ticketmates, O’Rourke has been on his own. He not only has to run against Cruz (who is, despite his personal unlikability and rancid politics, a savvy campaigner), he also has to take on the entirety of the GOP machine, which desperately doesn’t want to show weakness in the holiest of red states. When he started campaigning last year, O’Rourke was an obscure congressman from El Paso — a place which to most Texans might as well be Peoria, for all its political and geographic distance from the rest of the state. His name recognition was nil.
For O’Rourke to even keep this race close, almost everything had to break his way. He had to run a near-perfect campaign, make no major blunders, capitalize on his personal charisma, raise record amounts of cash, rack up tons of “earned media,” force Cruz to make mistakes and fire up voters in a way no other Democrat had been able to do. With the exception of forcing a major Cruz screw-up, O’Rourke has done all that and more. Keep in mind that he’s completely ignored the conventional wisdom of campaign mandarins — the strategists and pollsters and insiders. And why not? The usual suspects have been leading the party deeper and deeper into a forest of irrelevancy.
Without a doubt, he’s run the best campaign of any Texas Democrat in a generation — and presumably, barring a landslide loss, which I must note some do believe could happen, he’s left future candidates a blueprint to win. Few will have O’Rourke’s innate charisma or stamina, but he has demonstrated that a bona fide progressive can compete in Texas, that you can run a successful campaign by doing more than chasing white Reagan Democrats, that the young and disaffected can be reached while also firing up black, Hispanic and other traditional Democratic voters.
In the end, Cruz and O’Rourke are going to fight it out block by block, city by city. What we know now is that turnout is extraordinarily high and that the electorate is going to be very different than midterms of the past. It would be shocking if the “Beto effect” didn’t bring lots of new and nontraditional voters to the polls. From the beginning, O’Rourke has promised to remake the Texas electorate — to prove the political maxim that “Texas isn’t a red state; it’s a nonvoting state.”
I don’t think a moral victory will, or should, satisfy Beto supporters. A second-term Ted Cruz in full Donald Trump fanboy mode is shudder-inducing. But as of right now, a day before a historic election, O’Rourke has more than a fighting chance to be the next senator from Texas. That’s really something.