Was Beto the Texas Democrats’ Lone Star?

Was Beto the Texas Democrats’ Lone Star?

O’Rourke’s near-victory has them seeing purple—but can they keep turning out more voters and moving Texas leftward when he’s not on the ballot?

January 4, 2019

This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

The mood was bittersweet at the El Paso Chihuahuas’ Minor League stadium—just blocks away from the U.S.-Mexico border—where thousands of Beto O’Rourke supporters had gathered for their election night party. For an hour or two, it appeared possible that O’Rourke was going to pull off the near-impossible: a Democratic victory in a Texas statewide election.

Turnout had spiked all around the state, coming close to 2016 levels. It looked like maybe, just maybe, big urban margins and suburban gains could propel O’Rourke to victory. There was just one problem: Republicans were turning out in a big way, too. And when rural county returns started trickling in, it became clear that Ted Cruz was going back to the Senate.

Just two years previous, O’Rourke was a backbench congressman from a dusty border town with no discernible profile in Washington, D.C., much less in the nation at large. Then, he transformed into a political phenom. He barnstormed through all of the state’s 254 counties in a rented Dodge Grand Caravan, live-streaming every stop along the way. He raised an astonishing $80 million, largely from small donors throughout the country, and built a volunteer base of tens of thousands.

Joel Martinez/The Monitor via AP

You can't talk about Texas’s political future without talking about the state’s exploding population of Latino voters. Here, supporters of U.S. Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke cheer as he speaks at a campaign rally in Edinburg, Texas. 

O’Rourke’s message was at times amorphous and post-partisan. But he refused to triangulate on the issues of criminal justice reform, gun control, and immigration, unlike previous Democrats who had waffled on them in past campaigns and lost nonetheless. The moment that propelled him to national celebrity was his answer to a question about whether he supported NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. He did, comparing the protesters to the civil rights activists of the 1960s.

Many thought Beto a fool for throwing out the Republican-lite playbook. But O’Rourke lost to Cruz by just 2.6 percentage points, doing better than any statewide Democratic candidate in the past quarter-century. The question is whether he accelerates a trend that is pushing Texas out of the solid red–state column and closer to the purple one. Mitt Romney carried Texas in 2012 by roughly 16 percentage points, while four years later, Donald Trump won it by just under 9 percentage points—a slimmer margin than his Ohio win. For that matter, O’Rourke came a lot closer to victory than ousted red-state Democratic Senate incumbents Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, and Joe Donnelly in Indiana.

Political coverage of the Lone Star State tends to frame any liberal wrinkle in the red-state narrative as reason to speculate, “Will Texas Go Blue?”—to the point that it’s difficult to determine what is real and what is hype. But something did change in 2018. Democrats flipped two congressional seats, picked up a dozen state House seats and another two state Senate seats. In the last year of straight-ticket voting, Harris County—home to Houston, the state’s largest city—not only remained firmly blue, but also saw a slate of black women judicial candidates sweep out Republican judges, and a 27-year-old Colombian immigrant who quit her grad school program to run for office oust a popular moderate Republican from his position as the executive of the third-most populous county in the country.

Far less clear, however, is whether the Democratic gains of 2018 are sustainable and signal an actual political realignment—or are just an enigmatic flash in the pan, the residuals of a Democrat hitting his head on a blue ceiling.

 

O’ROURKE WAS A UNIQUELY dynamic candidate, capturing crossover voters and helping down-ballot Democrats make inroads in the suburban Republican strongholds surrounding Dallas, Houston, and Austin. O’Rourke even flipped Fort Worth’s Tarrant County, the biggest red county in the country. But it wasn’t all Beto; it was also Trump. The Democratic base, long since lulled to sleep by what looked to be unending Republican rule, was rudely awakened by the new president. As he did across the nation, Trump prompted an unprecedented surge of grassroots Democratic organizing and political mobilization. For the first time in 25 years, Democrats ran in each of the 36 Texas congressional races and mounted candidacies in almost every legislative seat—the odds be damned.

The GOP’s brazen gerrymandering had packed and cracked the state’s Democratic base. Ultra-liberal Austin, a city of nearly one million, has no core congressional representative and instead has been carved into six districts—five controlled by Republicans. In certain parts of town, you can walk just a few blocks and cross through three different congressional districts.

Potentially competitive races, accordingly, were few and far between. While they won 43 percent of the vote in 2016, Democrats controlled just 11 of the 36 congressional seats. But those boundaries were drawn in 2011, and by 2018 the Republicans’ hold on some of those districts had severely weakened. The state is now home to five of the country’s 15 largest cities, and the suburban sprawl of new subdivisions is growing like vines on a trellis. Texas Governor Greg Abbott often jokes about building a wall not along the Mexico border, but on the state’s western border to stop inbound California liberals.

Suddenly, legions of old white conservative congressmen who had grown complacent in their gerrymandered perches of power were facing strong Democratic challengers backed by grassroots energy and unprecedented sums of money. Texas is usually used by national Democrats as an ATM to withdraw liberal cash for more productive purposes elsewhere. But in this cycle, money stayed put. Democratic candidates were falling over each other trying to convince prospective donors and precinct walkers that they had a shot at winning.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s national strategy to take back the House centered on flipping highly educated affluent suburbs that had voted for Clinton in 2016—and two of those seats were in Texas. One was held by Pete Sessions, a powerful incumbent who’d long represented North Dallas’s 32nd Congressional District, which is a bastion of country club conservatism (George W. Bush lives in this district). In suburban West Houston’s Seventh Congressional District, also filled with affluent enclaves, voters have elected Republicans since before George H.W. Bush held the seat in the late 1960s. Incumbent John Culberson had comfortably held the seat since 2001.

Though Clinton would carry Sessions’s district in 2016, Democrats didn’t even field a candidate to challenge him that year. From 2012 to 2016, Culberson’s district saw the largest shift toward the Democrat in presidential voting outside of Utah, but Culberson still beat his underfunded opponent by more than 12 percentage points. Affluent moderates were already allergic to Trump, but their discomfort didn’t yet extend down the ballot.

Republicans weren’t just losing their moderates. The districts had also changed dramatically—younger and more diverse families were flocking to new subdivisions in these areas. The Seventh has become 7.5 percent less white since it was drawn, according to Michael Li, a redistricting expert with the Brennan Center. “Those districts just weren’t designed to elect Republicans with that in mind,” Li told me—especially when facing serious challengers and a highly unpopular president’s headwind.

Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

"Texas is no longer, I believe, a reliably red state," Republican Senator John Cornyn recently warned. "We are on the precipice of turning purple."

Previously apolitical suburbanites became mobilized and grew into hardcore activists, forming neighborhood Indivisible and Swing Left groups. They protested their congressmen, learned how to canvass neighborhoods and register voters, and filled long-vacant Democratic Party precinct chairs. An army of mostly white suburban women built local party infrastructures in what had been grassroots deserts. They not only made a point of persuading their neighbors in affluent enclaves to vote Democratic, but also worked to expand the electorate outside their own bubbles—and it made all the difference in hotly contested races like the Seventh and the 32nd.

Culberson’s challenger, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a partner at a corporate law firm, and Sessions’s opponent, Colin Allred, a former NFL linebacker and Obama administration lawyer, both ran relatively moderate campaigns—focusing on issues like infrastructure in Dallas and flood control in Houston and the GOP’s attacks on pre-existing conditions. Both handily ousted their previously entrenched opponents by more than 5 percentage points.

While those were the only two Texas seats Democrats were able to flip in the House, the blue wave washed into all of the state’s suburban districts. Democrats came within five points of victory in five more traditionally safe Republican seats—including three in the Austin metro area, one deep in the Dallas suburbs, and another around the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, one of the most diverse parts of the country. There, Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni built a sophisticated campaign with volunteers who spoke more than a dozen languages, mobilizing a highly diverse and fragmented Asian American population. He lost by 5 percentage points but shaved nearly 10 percentage points off Tea Party incumbent Pete Olson’s 2016 margin. All those seats will likely become top Democratic targets in 2020.

The red suburban wall in Texas is eroding and, if it can’t be rebuilt, that presents an existential threat for the GOP. Try as they may, they can’t gerrymander all the suburbs.

Republican John Cornyn, Mitch McConnell’s top lieutenant in the Senate, is up for re-election in 2020 and recently offered a rather candid assessment of the political landscape in his home state: “Texas is no longer, I believe, a reliably red state. We are on the precipice of turning purple, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to keep it red, because we lost, we got blown out in the urban areas. We got beat in the suburbs, which used to be our traditional strongholds. And if it wasn’t for the rural areas of the state where Senator Cruz won handily, [the Senate race] might not have turned out the way it did.”

 

YOU CAN’T TALK ABOUT Texas’s political future without talking about the state’s exploding population of Latino voters. Herein lies the key to the Democratic Party’s path to power in Texas. Or so party operatives have confidently said, while otherwise sitting on their hands waiting for demographics to become destiny—and privately griping about why Latinos just won’t vote.

Such politicians often treat Latinos as one-dimensional voters, believing that they would turn out in droves solely because Trump has slandered Mexicans and gone after undocumented immigrants. Cristina Tzintzún, who heads Jolt, an organization focusing on young Latinos, says such reductionism doesn’t work. “It’s not enough to point to the other side and hope we’ll be sufficiently disgusted. That is not enough. That’s not a long-term strategy,” Tzintzún says. The state’s Latino population is far from monolithic. The 19-year-old daughter of a Central American immigrant who lives in Fort Worth is going to have a different political viewpoint than the 55-year-old San Antonian whose family lived in Texas when it was still Mexico.

O’Rourke understood that, Tzintzún says. He didn’t just talk to Latino voters (in Spanish as well as English) about immigration, but also about health care, education, and veterans’ services. He also ran, of course, as an unabashed champion of immigration and as a defender of the borderlands long portrayed by Republicans as violent wastelands. He made several trips through the Rio Grande Valley, the heavily Latino and deep-blue pocket in the southern tip of Texas, and drew bigger crowds with each stop.

For myriad reasons, Texas Latinos are generally understood to be more conservative than in other parts of the country. But O’Rourke carried Latino voters by a 64 percent to 35 percent margin—a 9 percentage-point improvement on the level of 2014 Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis’s Latino support.

Turnout rates have been generally abysmal along the border. But O’Rourke at least doubled turnout in the largest border counties over that of the 2014 midterms—and with little to no help from the dilapidated Texas Democratic Party. (Indeed, throughout his campaign, he was essentially scrambling to build a statewide political infrastructure which had long since ceased to exist.) His campaign focused on likely Democratic voters in Hidalgo County, home to the largest pocket of Valley voters, where the local party has long put most of what money it has into politiqueras, long established “leaders” in Valley politics who charge campaigns money to deliver a certain number of votes. In 2018, however, a fledgling upstart called Cambio Texas tried to fill in the gaps, targeting some of the most unlikely voters in the area—people who had voted just once or twice in any election in the past ten years. They hired on dozens of young Latino organizers to canvass the colonias, some of the most impoverished and lowest-turnout areas in the Rio Grande Valley.

Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP

Beto O'Rourke, a backbench congressman from a dusty border town in Texas, ran a dynamic campaign for the U.S. Senate that transformed him into a national political phenomenon. 

Their efforts appear to have worked. While midterm turnout rates generally hover just above 20 percent in Hidalgo, they jumped to more than 40 percent in 2018. Cambio estimates that about 20 percent of the county’s early voters were people on whose doors they knocked.

“I believe our impact was pretty substantial,” Ricco Garcia, a young lawyer and co-founder of Cambio, told me. The cobwebs have been cleared from the old voter data and more voters are on the rolls, primed for a big 2020 push. “Without Beto, none of this would have been inspired,” he said.

The bigger challenge for organizers like Garcia and Tzintzún is how to build an infrastructure to mobilize Latino voters that’s not tethered to one single candidate or election cycle. Tzintzún is focused exclusively on the two million Texas Latinos who will turn 18 within the next decade. Half of the teenagers turning 18 every day in Texas are Latino, and by 2020, there will be 400,000 more young Latino voters than there were in 2018. Jolt joined a coalition of progressive organizations called the Texas Youth Power Alliance, which said it registered 20 percent of all of the state’s new voters in 2018. They intend to register 300,000 by 2020.

“It’s going to be young and diverse voters that change the politics of hate,” Tzintzún says. To create an infrastructure that can mobilize those voters, she emphasizes that the Democratic Party needs to invest in local organizations led by people of color—but she’s not waiting for the DNCor the state party to become this knight in shining armor. “If I wait for them I might be waiting a long time,” she said.

 

FOR TEXAS DEMOCRATS, the path to purple has finally come into focus. Invest in the base—young progressives and communities of color—while getting suburban voters to stick around without selling out the latter. That’s a difficult balancing act for a weak Democratic state party with a penchant for squandering political opportunities—and it’s an open question whether the 2018 election results can be replicated without Beto at the top of the ticket.

But the Texas GOP makes that job somewhat easier. Without any general election competition, the party has raced to the right and prioritized culture-war legislation on abortion, transgender bathroom access, K-12 curriculum minutiae, and immigration. In the meantime, the Republicans have neglected basic governing duties. The GOP-controlled legislature has cut state funding of public schools and left local school districts to pick up the tab, which has fueled a crisis of rising property taxes. They’ve refused to expand Medicaid and the attorney general is leading a lawsuit to get rid of Obamacare’s pre-existing condition protections. Nationally, and in those two Texas congressional districts, voters punished the GOP’s extremism.

For most of the 20th century, an uneasy coalition of liberal and conservative Democrats ruled the roost in Texas. That coalition began cracking apart during the realignment of the South in the wake of the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s. When John Tower won an upset U.S. Senate race in 1960, he became the first Republican elected to statewide office since Reconstruction. George W. Bush ousted the last Democratic governor, Ann Richards, in 1994 and Democrats lost their last bastion of political power, the Texas House, in 2000. It took decades for Republicans to be able to consolidate a winning coalition that hinged almost exclusively on conservative Anglo voters.

The pendulum will not swing to the other side in one or even two cycles—electoral shifts happen in fits and starts. But Trump’s presidency, combined with O’Rourke’s shock to the heart of Texas, could pave the way for a new and equally powerful Democratic coalition.  

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