• Politics
  • 2018 election

The Beto Effect: How O’Rourke’s Campaign For Senate Could Help Other Texas Democrats

5 minute read

Beto O’Rourke may well lose his bid for Senate, but win his effort to reshape politics in Texas.

The three-term Congressman from El Paso is drawing huge crowds, raising a ton of cash and impressing even the most jaded campaign observers. But he’s still behind in the polls, Republicans are voting early at a faster clip than O’Rourke’s fellow Democrats, and even his biggest fans harbor doubts that he can break the nation’s longest losing streak for Democrats.

Still, look down-ballot and there are reasons for Democrats to hope. O’Rourke has inspired legions of political newcomers with his optimistic message. Many of them could well vote for other Democrats on the ballot. Even if his campaign comes up short, O’Rourke’s coattails could help carry Democrats in the eight Texas House districts the non-partisan Cook Political Report lists as in play.

“I think he has pretty good coattails. All of our ticket is not as strong as he is,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Dallas-area Democrat.

From across the aisle, Republicans offer begrudging respect. “The amount of money he has, it’s obviously going to elect a lot of races, from House seats down to judgeships,” one senior Republican said. “By turning out voters for himself, he’s turning out voters for other Democrats.”

Take the Dallas-area district that has been represented by Republican Pete Sessions for the last 22 years. Sessions won his first term in 1996 with 53% of the vote, his weakest showing. In 2016, he won with 71% of the vote. The seat belonging to Sessions, the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee and two-time chairman of House Republicans’ campaign committee, has long been a dream flip for Democrats. But it looked out of reach until this year, when the party recruited Colin Allred, an attorney who worked in the Obama Administration and played linebacker for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.

Polls in the district have been hard to come by in recent weeks, although Republicans say their private surveys indicate Sessions is on safer terrain than he was mid-summer. But the district is among the fastest changing in the country, with political allegiances shifting among these wealthy, highly educated voters. Mitt Romney carried the district with 57% support in 2012, then Hillary Clinton carried it with 48% four years later. Allred, a first-time candidate, has raised almost $5 million, which is more than Sessions.

That’s why, on a recent Sunday afternoon, Allred filled a theater’s lobby with supporters before they went to knock doors on his behalf. Actress and producer Connie Britton and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro were on hand to back him up. A day earlier, Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis was at his side.

“It’s not just Democrats and Republicans on the ballot. It’s not just left and right and ideology on the ballot. It’s right versus wrong. What’s going on right now is wrong, we are being led in the wrong direction,” Allred said.

Allred’s supporters nodded along. “This is going to be close, but we’re working hard,” volunteer Tom Ervin said, sporting a “Beto” hat and an Allred campaign t-shirt. “I didn’t know Murphy, Texas, existed until I knocked on doors there.”

Standing nearby, Heather French was chatting with her friends she brought to meet Allred. “People think Texas is solid red,” she said. “It’s really not, but we have to show up.”

And that’s why senior officials in both parties are watching districts like Sessions’ for a potential shift. “When you look at the changing residency in his district, it is no surprise that this was going to be a district in which there was a challenge,” Republican Party of Texas Chairman James Dickey said. “One of the blessings of living in Texas is the opportunity and growth that we have. One of the challenges we have in Texas is we have people who move in from states where the policies are completely different and yet decide, ‘Boy, it’d be nice if Texas implemented them.’”

The O’Rourke enthusiasm, perhaps partnered with a blue wave of broader Democratic enthusiasm, could elect the first Democrat to the Senate from Texas since 1988. No one can credibly argue that O’Rourke isn’t a factor in why the state is in play.

“We’re not taking any vote or voter for granted,” said state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, who is leading the state Republicans’ campaign efforts. “We’re trying to pound our message home and get everyone over the finish line.”

It’s entirely possible her team succeeds. The Republican Party of Texas is among the strongest in the country. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has positive favorable ratings and appears to be coasting to an easy re-election this fall. In September, Republicans flipped a state Senate seat in a district that is two-thirds Hispanic and had been in Democratic hands for 130 years. And, with roughly a quarter of all registered voters having cast early or absentee ballots already, Republicans are largely seen as leading among voters aged 40 and over — including a 250% increase among voters in their 40s and a 150% jump in voters aged 50 to 64.

But even Sessions’ critics recognize their challenges. “I think Sessions is going to win,” said Hunt Caraway, a 50-year-old high school government teacher who cast his vote early for Allred. “But if we get it close, it will send a message to Sessions that he needs to represents his district — all of his district.”

Or, if the O’Rourke phenomenon proves it can translate buzz into votes, it may send some new faces to Washington.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Philip Elliott / Dallas at philip.elliott@time.com