Something is happening here in south Texas. On a hot May afternoon, dozens of people have assembled in a border-town beer garden to meet Beto O’Rourke, a 45-year-old Democratic congressman from El Paso who until recently was virtually unknown outside of his district.
O’Rourke is the Democrat challenging Ted Cruz for his Senate seat in this November’s midterm elections. According to received wisdom, this should be an exercise in foolishness. Texas hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate in three decades, and the state went for Donald Trump by nearly 10 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election. But O’Rourke’s candidacy has gained enough grassroots momentum to resuscitate an old question: could Texas, a red state with a growing Hispanic population, finally turn blue in 2018?
This is a question that Democrats seem to pose each election cycle, and demographic change has yet to overtake the Lone Star State’s conservative tilt. In 2014, Texas Democrats pinned their hopes to gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who went on to lose badly.
But there is no question that O’Rourke is a promising fresh face. “Where’s all this energy coming from? It’s coming from the people,” the congressman says in an interview with TIME in his El Paso living room. “We’ve met an amazing number of Texans who happen to be Democrats, who are Democratic precinct chairs, county chairs, who have been organizing, keeping the flame alive in some really dark decades.”
At this point, most election forecasters expect Cruz to hang onto his seat. But according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in mid-April, the race is within the margin of error, with O’Rourke trailing Cruz by just three percentage points at this early stage. O’Rourke is out-raising Cruz, pulling in $6.7 million in the first quarter of this year. And party strategists are cautiously optimistic.
“I don’t think it’s an empty myth—it’s a demographic reality that will come to pass,” Ace Smith, a Democratic consultant who ran Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign in Texas in 2008, says of the party’s prospects of winning in Texas. “The only question is: when will it come to pass?”
It is difficult to overstate the extent to which Texas’ demographics have evolved in recent decades. For years it has seen the largest annual growth in population of any U.S. state, ticking upwards by roughly a quarter of a million new residents each year. Hispanic Texans are responsible for about half of that boom: Texas’ Hispanic population grew by nearly 1.5 million between 2010 and 2016. Today, two in five Texans are Hispanic; by 2020, the state expects Hispanics to outnumber whites. While Republican strategists have long argued that Hispanics are key to the party’s future, on a national level they overwhelmingly vote Democrat.
The rise in Hispanic residents alone won’t change the state’s politics. Less than half of all Hispanic Texans are eligible to vote, compared to nearly four in five white Texans, according to the Pew Research Center. And Republican analysts in Texas remain confident that their party commands an adequate amount of Hispanic support in the state.
“Yes, there is a large Hispanic vote in Texas,” Chris Wilson, a veteran pollster who is overseeing polling and data for the Cruz campaign, tells TIME in an email. “But those voters are much more Republican than are Hispanics in, say, California. In 2012 Ted Cruz got 40% of the Hispanic vote. In 2014 Governor Abbott got 44%. Our recent polling shows Republicans continuing to perform in line with those numbers with Hispanics.”
Many Texas politicos still believe Democratic victory remains a long way off. Like many states in the greater south, Texas is a former Democratic stronghold that shifted to embrace the G.O.P. in the last decades of the twentieth century. Republicans run the legislature, have sat in the governor’s mansion since George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards in 1994, and occupy all nine seats of the state Supreme Court. Until lately, Democrats had all but written off the state as a lost cause.
“We don’t have any real leadership on the Democratic side of things, so we’ve lost a generation of people who knew how to win statewide races,” says Garry Mauro, a Democrat who served four terms as Texas land commissioner. “Most of our candidates have been counseled by people who’ve never won statewide races — who think if you spend all your time raising money and spending it in urban areas you’ll build the margins to win. But historically you can’t point to someone who’s won just because they won the cities.”
Texas is not exactly Trump Country either. Republicans in the state are generally small-government conservatives. George W. Bush “always talked about being a compassionate conservative,” Mauro says. “That’s how they built the Republican majority in this state. They didn’t do it by running way to the right.”
Which is one reason O’Rourke may have an opening. Cruz, a 2016 presidential candidate who is one of the Senate’s most conservative members, has a powerful base in Texas but is not exactly beloved either. In a University of Texas poll in February, 40% of respondents said they approved of his job performance, compared to 41% who disapproved.
“I’d say I’m more a conservative than I am a Republican. I mostly vote Republican in national elections, but I’m so disgusted with what’s taking place,” explained Bill Martin, a 72-year-old cattle rancher from Carrizo Springs, a town near the border, at an O’Rourke town hall. He said he is leaning toward voting for O’Rourke in November. “Ted’s a little too far to the right. I always felt like the body politic is kind of like the human body. The liberal faction represents the heart, the conservative faction represents the mind, and the body needs both to stay alive.”
Still, Martin adds: “Texas is a red state, and it has been for 30 years. If [O’Rourke] has a chance to win — and he does—the majority of voters are still going to be conservative. He can’t be Texas’ Bernie Sanders.”
O’Rourke’s campaign seems keenly aware of this. Over the last year and a half, the candidate has used his time away from Washington to frequent rural Texas counties, eschewing big-city fundraisers for forums in towns like Carrizo Springs and Uvalde, meeting voters a Democrat needs to win statewide for the first time in a generation.
“This is amazing,” says Alondra Iglesias, a 19-year-old college student at the beer garden in Laredo. “A candidate for senator coming to Laredo to talk to the people. Laredo isn’t that big, and people don’t really think about it. But it’s a border town right next to Mexico, so it’s an important place, and he’s actually trying to appeal to the people here.”
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