The Beto Effect: What Texas Democrats Gained from Beto O’Rourke’s Senate Campaign

By Nick Draper

Few contests — if any — in this year’s midterm elections captured more national attention than the Texas Senate race between incumbent Republican stalwart Ted Cruz and insurgent Democrat Beto O’Rourke. Interest in the race was largely a product of enthusiasm for O’Rourke, who proved himself to be a talented politician and prolific fundraiser in a showing that resulted in a surprisingly close race given the state’s established conservative lean. Ultimately, O’Rourke fell short in his goal of unseating Cruz, but his strong performance in a state that has long been solidly Republican hinted that Democrats can be competitive in Texas races to come.

Texas has long been considered the proverbial white whale for long-term Democratic political success. Democrats have been shut out of statewide office in Texas for the last 20 years and the state has not voted Democratic in a Presidential election since Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976. Many other Southern and Midwestern states have also shifted hard to the right since the 1990’s, a trend that continued in 2018 with Democratic incumbents losing Senate races in Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota, and, after a hand recount of the election, Florida. Texas’s large Latinx population and overall population growth among communities of color have given Democrats hope that — at some point — they can turn Texas blue. O’Rourke may not have done well enough to win, but he outperformed all other statewide Democrats running in Texas in recent memory, receiving 48.3 percent of the vote. He came the closest any Texas Democrat has come to beating an incumbent Republican since Senator John Tower held onto his seat in 1978 by a slim 12,000 votes.

O’Rourke’s success in this year’s election was driven by extraordinarily high turnout among Latinx voters. According to data from polling firm Latino Decisions, Latinx turnout in the border counties of Hidalgo and Cameron more than doubled from the 2014 midterm election. In Dallas County, it increased by 86 percent, and in O’Rourke’s home county of El Paso, Latinx turnout increased a whopping 168 percent. While it did not result in an O’Rourke victory, this increase in turnout did produce significant down-ballot results, especially in Texas’s growing suburbs. In the 7th Congressional District, located outside Houston, Democrat Lizzie Fletcher bested nine-term incumbent John Culberson. In the 32nd Congressional District, home to the Dallas suburbs where former President George W. Bush now lives, Democrat Colin Allred defeated 11-term Republican incumbent and Chairman of the House Rules Committee Pete Sessions. Democrats picked up 12 seats in the Texas House of Representatives and now have the most seats they have had in Texas’s Congressional delegation since 2008. Election analysts have also suggested that Democratic pickups would have been higher had it not been for Texas’ highly gerrymandered districts protecting Republican incumbents.

O’Rourke’s popularity and the general performance of Democrats throughout Texas suggests the party can be competitive in the state moving forward by effectively mobilizing minority communities and winning over suburban voters. However, it is critical to recognize the difficulty of this long-term project. Texas is an incredibly expensive state to campaign in, and O’Rourke had a talent for raising money from small donors reminiscent of Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders. The El Paso native brought in over $70 million dollars without any corporate PAC money. He also built a national brand as a different kind of politician — one that skateboards in Whataburger parking lots and used to be in a punk band. Unless he runs for Senate again in 2020 against the other Texas incumbent John Cornyn, Democrats will likely not have quite the same top-of-the-ticket momentum that accompanied O’Rourke’s run. But if they can conduct the kind of intensive outreach and turnout operation among minority communities that powered their showing this year, Texas Democrats could find their way back to political relevance in the Lone Star State.

Nick Draper is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and an Editor of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.