AUSTIN, Texas — A Democratic awakening in Texas stopped shy of putting Beto O'Rourke in the U.S. Senate, but in Houston one major upset prevailed: a 27-year-old Colombian immigrant, who has no political experience, was elected as the top official of the nation's third-largest county.
Democrat Lina Hidalgo came to the U.S. as a teenager in 2005, just two years before popular Republican Harris County Judge Ed Emmett took office and later steered Houston through some of the nation's biggest natural disasters.
Now Hidalgo has his job after ousting him in a historic and narrow victory Tuesday night that was largely unexpected, but also a clear signal of Democrats having new life in Texas after decades of lopsided defeats and little political power outside big urban cities.
"Easily the most under appreciated upset in Texas," tweeted Julian Castro, former President Barack Obama's housing secretary, who is leaning toward making his own presidential run in 2020.
Many Democrats on the ballot in Texas this year had their chances propelled by O'Rourke, who energized his party like no other candidate in a generation. He lost by fewer than three percentage points to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in what was closest Senate race in Texas in 40 years.
Hidalgo, who graduated from Stanford University and has worked as a translator at a Houston hospital, becomes the top elected official in a county of 4.7 million people — smaller only than Los Angeles County in California and Cook County in Illinois, which surrounds Chicago. She is also the first Latina elevated to the job in Harris County, which is among the most diverse in the country.
In Texas, the title of "county judge" is a misnomer. They are not judges in courtrooms but rather presiding officials in their counties who have a big say in spending and are in charge of local emergency responses. That makes the job especially high-profile and powerful in Houston, where disasters like Hurricane Harvey and flooding have wreaked havoc in recent years.
Hidalgo joins 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cotez, the New York congresswoman-elect, as Democrats under 30 with no political experience who defied the odds in big races in the 2018 midterms.
Hidalgo has never attended a meeting of Harris County's governing commissioners court, the Houston Chronicle reported .
"It's an amazing victory and it's about everyone coming together for a better community," Hidalgo told reporters after her victory Tuesday night. "A county government people can see, a county government people can feel. A county government that makes sure Harris County is at the forefront."
Hidalgo ran on better flood control and criminal justice reform. Emmett blamed his lost on straight-ticket Democratic voters who also knocked out other Republicans around Houston.
"Keeping the straight ticket option for 1 more election cycle turned out to be a disaster for all Republicans," he tweeted .