LONGVIEW, Texas – Beto O’Rourke was racing left again, insisting he knew what he was doing.
“Hydroplaning there a little bit,” he said softly, doing 75 in the passing lane through an East Texas downpour, double-fisting beef jerky in his silver pickup.
This self-assurance was understandable. In his campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz, O’Rourke has been attempting the Texas equivalent of walking on water — winning statewide as a liberal Democrat — without yet losing his balance. There is bipartisan consensus, including from Cruz, that O’Rourke could actually prevail in November — maybe — if the blue wave crests just so. And now, 15 days into a 34-day road trip, O’Rourke was 50 miles from another disarmingly large crowd in a typically red county, primed to cheer his calls for brash progressivism deep in the heart of Trump country.
New gun restrictions. Fifteen-dollar minimum wage. Marijuana offenses expunged from arrest records.
“This moment, this year, this time is not easy,” O’Rourke thundered once he reached the stage, by turns swearing playfully in two languages to make his case. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
But why not try? This is Texas, he reminded them. Or it can be.
For a quarter-century now, a blue Texas has seemed both inevitable and impossible, the central political contradiction in a state defined by them — where conservatives joke that the best thing about Austin, the left-leaning capital, is its proximity to Texas; where the largest American flags are often flown by those agitating for outright secession.
Any breakthrough, Democrats have long believed, would be borne of demographics and triangulation: Focus on the cities, with their surging Hispanic populations and creeping cosmopolitanism. Edge to the middle a bit to bring in wary moderates. And impress upon voters just how extreme the incumbents had become.
O’Rourke, a 45-year-old congressman from El Paso, has resolved to ignore basically all of this. He says relatively little about Cruz on the logic that everyone already knows about him. He has visited each of the state’s 254 counties, he says, because he would not vote for a party that never showed up in his town, either.
More than anything, O’Rourke has made clear that he will not modulate his politics, betting that he can energize and activate nonvoters from past years, particularly younger ones, with left-wing authenticity and genial hustle. It is a model being pursued by progressives across the country, often with considerable success. Most recently, Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, Fla., won an upset victory in that state’s Democratic primary for governor with a similar message of unflinching liberalism and generational change.
If proved true, O’Rourke’s theory, as much as any strategic gamble in these midterms, would have the effect of reshaping his state’s very political identity. In the short run, voter enthusiasm for O’Rourke is expected to boost Democratic congressional candidates this fall in districts in and around the state’s largest cities, where O’Rourke’s popularity can help down-ballot even if he loses his own race. Recent public polling shows Cruz leading by mid- to low-single digits, though the senator has argued that these estimates undersell his edge.
In the long run, Democrats still believe that Texas will eventually move their way for good. President Donald Trump won here by 9 percentage points, barely better than his showing in Ohio — and 7 points worse than Mitt Romney’s margin in 2012.
“The winds have quit blowing from the right,” said Bill Miller, a veteran lobbyist who has worked with members of both parties. “They haven’t begun blowing the other way. But the winds are shifting.”
Many Democrats in Washington remain skeptical of O’Rourke’s chances, even as they marvel at his fundraising totals — more than $10 million last quarter, more than double Cruz’s haul. The party sees riper pickup opportunities for Senate seats in Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee and is expected to spend its money accordingly — to say nothing of its efforts to defend incumbents in several states that Trump carried in 2016.
Still, in public and in private, Cruz, 47, has expressed something approaching genuine alarm, enough to ask Trump, once his bitter rival for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, to come campaign with him. (In a tweet Friday, the president said he would, in October, pledging to fill “the biggest stadium in Texas we can find.”) Cruz has also impressed upon his colleagues that the threat from O’Rourke is real, requesting the party’s financial help during a recent Senate lunch.
“The extreme left, they’re energized,” Cruz told supporters in Brenham. “They’re filled with rage and fury.”
And yet. “This is Texas,” he said, three times in an hour, as if to reassure. Or it has been.
A liberal Texas?
Democrats speak hopefully about how far the state has come, how the old and new can coexist — rural, urban, cowboys, hipsters, capitalists, livestock.
Oil fortunes have spiked and receded — from $30 a barrel, to $140, to points in between — as technology jobs have flooded in. Hurricane stormwaters have pooled high, swamping areas represented by people dubious of climate science, and taxes have stayed low.
Four of the nation’s 11 largest cities are now in Texas. Houston, the biggest, is considered the most diverse major city in the United States. Its last two mayors are a black man and a lesbian. Its most famous politician in office is Cruz.
Democrats acknowledge that any electoral road map for O’Rourke will require voters in blue splotches of South Texas to turn out in record numbers. O’Rourke must also dominate in the large counties where Hillary Clinton beat Trump — Harris, Bexar, Travis, Dallas — outrunning her even in areas where she won by more than 100,000 votes and persuading Democrats, particularly black and Hispanic voters, to show up at presidential-year levels. The most difficult heave may be mobilizing new registrants, including new arrivals to the state who have settled in suburban areas and residents in rural counties where Democrats have often lost by more than 50 points.
O’Rourke likes to say he is visiting areas so red “you can see them glowing from outer space.” He sees his crowds — several hundred people, consistently, in places where a Democrat might generally expect to draw tens — as evidence that the approach is working.
Cruz sees it differently. “It’s a ‘Field of Dreams’ strategy: ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” the senator said. “Perhaps in Massachusetts.”
He pointed out that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott remains a heavy favorite for re-election against Lupe Valdez, a former Dallas County sheriff.
But at the very least, O’Rourke’s efforts have helped build, or rebuild, Democratic infrastructure across the state, attracting volunteers and attention not only for his own campaign but for his peers. Some Republican-held House districts had already been targets, particularly after Clinton carried a handful of them. These include one around Dallas, where Colin Allred, a former Obama administration official and former linebacker for the Tennessee Titans, is challenging Rep. Pete Sessions, and another in Houston, where Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a lawyer, is facing Rep. John Culberson.
Local Democrats agreed that expectations had never been higher, for better or worse. O’Rourke was introduced recently as “senator-elect.”
“He’s already won,” said activist Art Pronin, 38. “It won’t ever be the same again.”