O'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot

DALLAS — The energy and enthusiasm behind Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) Senate campaign is having a ripple effect down the ballot in deep-red Texas, giving Democrats a much-needed jolt in the battle to pick up seats in the House.

While O’Rourke may end up losing to GOP Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSunday shows preview: Lawmakers gear up for Senate impeachment trial Senate GOP mulls speeding up Trump impeachment trial The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial MORE, he could help Democrats in the House if his Senate bid significantly drives up turnout—particularly in three districts held by GOP Reps. Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsTenth Congressional Black Caucus member backs Biden Giuliani held phone call with Maduro amid Venezuela crisis Texas GOP rep predicts heavy Democratic presence in state ahead of 2020 MORE, John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonEx-Tea Party lawmakers turn heads on K Street George H.W. Bush grandson to enter Texas congressional race Texas GOP rep predicts heavy Democratic presence in state ahead of 2020 MORE and Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdHouse Democrats launch effort to register minority voters in key districts Hurd says Democrats, media are being manipulated by Iran Bottom Line MORE, who are all fighting for their political lives.

Democrats haven’t won a statewide race in Texas since 1994, but O’Rourke, 46, has fueled liberal hopes of unseating Cruz, 47, through massive rallies, record-breaking fundraising and engagement with young voters - a phenomenon that some are calling "Betomania."

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In doing so, O'Rourke is sparking a level of enthusiasm down the ballot that no other Democratic candidate including gubernatorial nominee Lupe Valdez has been able to generate in Texas.

“He creates activity and interest that’s very hard to generate from down-ballot activity alone,” said Matt Angle, a veteran Democratic strategist in Texas and director of the Lone Star Project.

The enthusiasm comes even as O'Rourke himself may end up unable to defeat the conservative firebrand. Though O'Rourke raised a record $38 million in the third fundraising quarter, recent polls have shown Cruz consistently building a lead in the statewide race.

But an increased turnout could be enough to tip the races in smaller House districts, according to strategists.

Mary Beth Rogers, who was campaign manager to the late Ann Richards, the last Democratic Texas governor, said O’Rourke will need to do about 5 to 6 points better than 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton Democrats plot new approach to win over rural voters The Memo: Sanders-Warren battle could reshape Democratic primary Rosenstein says he authorized release of Strzok-Page texts MORE did in some parts of the state in order to give a boost to some of the competitive House races.

Other Democrats argue that some voters who traditionally vote straight-ticket Republican might be tempted to vote for O'Rourke – and in doing so could give a second look to other Democrats down the ballot.  Meanwhile, Democrats could choose straight-ticket voting, an option being pushed by the party that will be eliminated after the November election.

The party is feeling especially good about their prospects in three districts that voted for Clinton in 2016 but also backed their Republican Congressmen.

These House races also have another common thread: the Democrats running are all first-time candidates who have outraised their respective GOP challengers by at least $1 million in the past fundraising quarter.

Democrats can still achieve the magic number of 23 seats for the House majority without flipping seats in Texas. But many view those districts as bellwethers that could serve as a barometer for the national political environment and prospects for a blue wave.

Two of these seats, currently held by Culberson and Sessions, represent largely suburban districts including parts of big cities where demographics have greatly shifted over the years.

Culberson’s Houston-area district has a growing Hispanic population, while Sessions’s north Dallas district has both a sizable Hispanic and African-American population.

Culberson is running against Democratic attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, while Colin Allred, a civil rights lawyer and former NFL player who worked in the Obama administration, is challenging Sessions, the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee who didn’t even face a Democratic opponent in 2016.

Recent New York Times/Siena polls show both races are in a dead heat, with the GOP incumbents holding slim leads that fall within the margin of error. 

Hurd also represents an expansive swing district, but unlike the other two races, he appears better positioned to hang on for a third term in a district that Democrats had occupied until 2014.

The majority Hispanic district spans 800 miles along the U.S.-Mexico border from El Paso to San Antonio, a vast area that includes pockets of cities but also rural areas, making it more challenging for Democrats.

Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer, is still getting plenty of help from the national party, and she’d make history as the first Filipina-American elected to Congress should she win.

But Jones is 15 points behind Hurd, according to a NYT/Siena poll earlier this month.

Some Democrats even believe O’Rourke’s energy could help longer-shot races that President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's newest Russia adviser, Andrew Peek, leaves post: report Hawley expects McConnell's final impeachment resolution to give White House defense ability to motion to dismiss Trump rips New York City sea wall: 'Costly, foolish' and 'environmentally unfriendly idea' MORE easily carried outside of Austin where Democrats have fielded strong challengers.

GOP Rep. John CarterJohn Rice CarterDemocrats launch bilingual ad campaign off drug pricing bill Overnight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families America's workers and small business owners need the SECURE Act MORE’s race against Democrat MJ Hegar garnered some national attention when Hegar’s ad about her military service went viral.

Another one is the open-seat race for retiring GOP Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithEx-Tea Party lawmakers turn heads on K Street Ex-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR Former GOP Rep. Walters joins energy company MORE’s seat. Democrat Joseph Kopser, another military veteran, faces Republican Chip Roy, a former Cruz aide.

But Republicans warned against expecting an O'Rourke-inspired blue wave. They expressed confidence about holding onto all three House seats because of the strong economy and conservative energy over the Supreme Court confirmation of Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughDemocratic group plans mobile billboard targeting Collins on impeachment January reminds us why courts matter — and the dangers of 'Trump judges' Planned Parenthood launches M campaign to back Democrats in 2020 MORE – the same factors helping Cruz statewide.

They also predict minority voters will not be as motivated to vote for Democrats because of low unemployment for Hispanics and African Americans in Texas.

“They haven’t created the case for a wave here or nationally,” said George Seay, the former Texas chairman of Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioApple under pressure to unlock Pensacola shooter's phones Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech Surging Sanders draws fresh scrutiny ahead of debate MORE's (R-Fla.) presidential campaign.

“There’s so much prosperity for so many demographic groups.”

Plus, Republicans have their own star power on the campaign trail. Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceSunday shows preview: Lawmakers gear up for Senate impeachment trial Is Mike Pence preparing to resign, assume the presidency, or both? Pence to visit Iowa days before caucuses MORE and Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpComedians post fake Army recruitment posters featuring Trump Jr. Trump Jr., Ivanka garner support in hypothetical 2024 poll FWS: There's 'no basis' to investigate Trump Jr.'s Mongolian hunting trip MORE have campaigned and fundraised for Sessions. And the president is holding a campaign rally in Houston on Monday for Cruz, which could also help elevate some House members.

Ultimately, much could depend on how much O’Rourke can run up the score among Hispanic voters, who will be especially critical in the Sessions, Culberson and Hurd districts.

An increase in Hispanic turnout, combined with other members such as college-educated women and moderate suburban voters frustrated by the president, could easily tip the scales to Democrats, observers said.

“They’ll need him to be successful in the Hispanic community and suburban areas with college-educated white women,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, political science professor at the University of Houston. “Democrats can perform better than expected if they can get those folks out.”

Such a coalition could spell doom for Republicans, even if it's not enough statewide to help O'Rourke prevail over Cruz.

“If O’Rourke can get Democrats to polls to also pull the lever for the rest of the party, that helps Democratic candidates for Congress,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist who managed Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSunday shows preview: Lawmakers gear up for Senate impeachment trial Parnas pressure grows on Senate GOP Hillicon Valley: Biden calls for revoking tech legal shield | DHS chief 'fully expects' Russia to try to interfere in 2020 | Smaller companies testify against Big Tech 'monopoly power' MORE’s (R-Texas) 2014 race.

“How much? I don’t know. Clearly with that kind of money and enthusiasm, it’s something we’re all thinking about and prepared for.”