Texas has been a one-party state for more than two decades. The last time a Democrat won a state-wide election was in 1994. In the 2016 general elections, Donald Trump won the state with a 9 percent lead over Hilary Clinton. Four years before that, Ted Cruz won his senate seat with a 16 percent point edge over his Democratic opponent. So, when Congressman Beto O’Rourke announced he would be leaving his safe congressional seat and attempt to unset Cruz by representing his hometown of El Paso in the U.S. House of Representatives, political analysts, consultants, and even his own colleagues scoffed.
But, over the course of 20 months, O’Rourke led one of the most impressive campaigns of this year’s midterm elections. He drove across the state visiting all of Texas’ 254 counties, livestreaming his every move. His message was simple, he was done with the “smallness and meanness of Washington” and wanted to overcome it with a “big, bold, beautiful heart” that he claimed could only come from Texas. His message resonated with many across the state and the nation, garnering him endorsements from key news outlets and A-list Hollywood celebrities.
Beto became a household name. His campaign raised a staggering 70 million dollars, smashing all previous Senate campaign fundraising records. His campaign rally, a concert with Texas legend Willie Nelson, drew 55,000 people. In comparison, Hilary Clinton drew about 44,000 individuals to her biggest rally and Donald Trump had a turnout of 28,000 at his largest rally in Mobile, Alabama.
Despite his popularity, Beto O’Rourke lagged behind Ted Cruz by an average of 10 points in every poll leading up to the election. On Tuesday night, Texas Democrats did not get the results they wanted. Beto was unable to defeat Cruz, but he came closer than anyone anticipated closing the gap to a mere 2 percentage points. In his failure, Beto still accomplished something quite remarkable. Texas is Texas, but it is also Tejas. It is Whataburger and Taco Palenque. It is white, Latino, black, Asian, queer, rural and urban. It is a state with changing demographics and a minority population that is expected to be the majority by 2022. O’Rourke is significant because he recognized this, tapped into it, and was able to energize a sleeping giant.
Texas is known to be a nonvoting state. In fact, the state ranks last in voter turnout with less than 50 percent of its eligible population casting ballots during midterm elections. Beto O’Rourke helped mobilize a record number of people and for the first time in a generation, midterm voter turnout was nearly as high as turnout for presidential elections.
O’Rourke’s charisma drew thousands of voters to the polls, and although they were unable to get him elected, they were able to help change the political landscape of Texas. For the first time in its history, the state will be sending two Latinas, Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia, to Congress. In Harris county, 19 African American women ran for judge and they all won. In total, Democrats won all 59 judicial races in that county. Notably, Harris county’s longtime incumbent Republican judge, Ed Emmett, lost his reelection to Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old immigrant from Colombia. Democrats gained seats in the state’s legislature as well as in its congressional delegation, helping to balance the previously Republican-skewed distribution of power. In all, Texas has inched toward a more bipartisanship and representative government. And that, although small, is a victory nonetheless.
Mariana Adame is a first-year Master of Public Administration candidate at The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Prior to attending LSE, she served as a policy aide for U.S. Congressman Filemon Vela.