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 CruzGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan NRA says Trump administration memo a 'non-starter' Barr fails to persuade Cruz on expanded background checks 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 SessionsHillicon Valley — Presented by CTIA and America's wireless industry — Lawmaker sees political payback in fight over 'deepfakes' measure | Tech giants to testify at hearing on 'censorship' claims | Google pulls the plug on AI council Lawmaker alleges political payback in failed 'deepfakes' measure As Russia collusion fades, Ukrainian plot to help Clinton emerges MORE, John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonLack of transparency may put commercial space program at risk Ex-GOP Rep. Roskam joins lobbying firm K Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers MORE and Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdGOP struggles with retirement wave Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Pelosi: GOP retirements indicate they'll be in the minority, with Democrat in the White House 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 ClintonQueer Marine veteran launches House bid after incumbent California Rep. Susan Davis announces retirement Poll: Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Florida Former immigration judge fined, temporarily banned from federal service for promoting Clinton policies 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 conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE easily carried outside of Austin where Democrats have fielded strong challengers.

GOP Rep. John CarterJohn Rice CarterCornyn faces toughest race yet in changing Texas Texas Republicans sound alarm about rapidly evolving state Democrats keen to take on Cornyn despite formidable challenges 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 SmithDemocratic staffer says Wendy Davis will run for Congress Ex-GOP Rep. Roskam joins lobbying firm Anti-corruption group hits Congress for ignoring K Street, Capitol Hill 'revolving door' 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 KavanaughPelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Kavanaugh book authors dismayed about Democrats 'rush to judgment' on impeachment calls Clinton celebrates first visibly pregnant CEO to be on business magazine cover 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 RubioTrump faces difficult balancing act with reelection campaign Republicans wary of US action on Iran California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth 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 PenceBillionaire to host top-dollar fundraiser in New York City for President Trump Poll: Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Florida Trump fires back at Graham over Iran criticism MORE and Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpDemocrats introduce bill to block taxpayer-funded spending at Trump properties Trump dismisses NYT explanation on Kavanaugh correction The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico 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 CornynGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Trump administration floats background check proposal to Senate GOP 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.”