Can charisma carry Beto O’Rourke in reliably red Texas?

Can charisma carry Beto O’Rourke in reliably red Texas?

Let’s begin with the very obvious. Texas is a Republican state.  

How Republican? Republicans hold all nine elective offices in the state’s executive branch. The nine elected positions on the state’s supreme court are held by Republicans.


Since 1995, the GOP has won every gubernatorial election. It overwhelmingly controls both houses of the state legislature.


If that’s not enough, how about this one: The last 10 presidential elections have been won by the Republican nominee. The last time a Democrat carried Texas was Jimmy Carter; that was in 1976. 

The present congressional delegation is composed of 24 Republicans and 11 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The last time a Texas Democrat was elected to the U.S. Senate was 1988. 

With all this going against him, why do some political observers give a young Democrat with a different-sounding name a chance of pulling off the miracle of 2018?

Beto O’Rourke is serving his third term in the U.S. House. He is 45 years old and previously served on El Paso’s city council. He defeated Rep. Silvestre Reyes in a Democratic primary in 2012.

O’Rourke is an interesting mix that has inspired national attention, recognition and interest. He speaks fluent Spanish in his 79 percent Latino district. He attended Woodberry Forest, an elite secondary school in Virginia, on scholarship and then worked his way through Columbia University, where he starred in a rock band called “Foss.”

He went back home and formed a tech start-up called Stanton Street Technology.

I asked Martin Frost, a former Democratic congressman from Texas who at one time was the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, about O’Rourke possibly beating the incumbent GOP senator and former presidential aspirant, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz blocks amended resolution honoring Ginsburg over language about her dying wish Trump argues full Supreme Court needed to settle potential election disputes Press: Notorious RBG vs Notorious GOP MORE.

Frost did not hesitate before he blurting out “Not a chance.” 

Frost knows all too well the deceptive numbers concerning the state’s demographics. There is much talk about the emerging non-white trend in the second most populous state of 28.3 million; this trend is, ultimately, supposed to help Democrats in the Lone Star State. 

But recent history disproves this theory.

In 2014, Democrat Wendy Davis was supposed to give Republican Greg Abbott a real race for governor. Davis got clobbered; she lost by 20 points. 

More recently, in 2016, Republican Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Romney: 'Unthinkable and unacceptable' to not commit to peaceful transition of power Two Louisville police officers shot amid Breonna Taylor grand jury protests MORE beat Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic groups using Bloomberg money to launch M in Spanish language ads in Florida The Hill's Campaign Report: Presidential polls tighten weeks out from Election Day More than 50 Latino faith leaders endorse Biden MORE, 52 percent to 43 percent. The margin was huge; Trump won Texas by 807,179 votes.

If you consider the population numbers, it looks promising for Democrats. The white population is 43 percent. The Latino population is 39 percent — and, add in the African American population of 13 percent, and you have a majority-minority population. 

Yet, when you also consider the two most significant indices, then political reality jars the probabilities. 

Among those deemed eligible voters, the numbers are quite different. It is 53 percent white and just 31 percent Latino, according to the Almanac of American Politics.

Even worse for Dems are the 2012 presidential election numbers: Of those who cast ballots in that election, 59 percent were white and only 22 percent were Latino, and 15 percent were African American. 

For O’Rourke to beat Cruz, he must do extremely well in the urban areas; the state’s population is, surprisingly, 54 percent urban. But the problem for Democrats, and for O’Rourke, is in getting voters in suburban and exurban areas to go for them, too. 

O’Rourke has demonstrated that he can raise the necessary funds. In the last quarter he raised $6.7 million; Cruz, in the last quarter, raised half as much — $3.2 million. Cruz was described at one point by Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Memo: Trump's strengths complicate election picture Mark Kelly: Arizona Senate race winner should be sworn in 'promptly' Cindy McCain: Trump allegedly calling war dead 'losers' was 'pretty much' last straw before Biden endorsement MORE as a “wacko bird.” While Cruz is a Tea Party darling, he is not a favorite of the GOP establishment in the state; he beat their candidate, former Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, in a GOP run-off in 2012.

Many establishment Republicans might just pass up this election in 2018 and not vote for the office at all. Cruz’s political persona — “I will not compromise” — just might be rubbing voters the wrong way. 

O’Rourke has loads of charisma but, in this overwhelmingly red state, is that trait enough to win? 

O’Rourke, I’m sure, will remind voters that Texas has elected Democrats Ralph Yarborough and Ann Richards. But that was a long time ago. 

O’Rourke, by vigorous campaigning in every part of the state, seeks to bring back the Democratic tradition of actually winning elections. The odds, however, are definitely against him, since the intrinsic core of the state is conservative and Republican.

Yet, in a giant blue wave that seems capable of forming in the 2018 midterms, Beto O’Rourke — with his star quality and with changing demographics that could finally emerge — has the potential to be the big surprise winner of election night. 

As one Democratic partisan advised me, don’t take your eyes off Texas.

Mark Plotkin is a contributor to the BBC on American politics. He previously was the political analyst for WAMU-FM, Washington’s NPR affiliate, and for WTOP-FM, Washington’s all-news radio station. He is a winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in writing.