Beto lost but Texas Democrats have a lot to celebrate

Beto lost but Texas Democrats have a lot to celebrate
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Rep. Beto O’Rourke came closer to victory in a statewide race than any Texas Democrat in 20 years — but ended the night being still a bridge too far to beat incumbent Republican Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDemocratic strategist warns Beto should be ‘careful’ with social media presence Hillary advisers battle over whether she’ll run in 2020 O'Rourke writes blog post describing a literal run from near the capitol to near the White House MORE. This is Texas after all, and in spite of the national and international media hoopla, O’Rourke’s odds of victory were always extremely long.

Thus, in spite of O’Rourke’s ability to energize young Texans to turn out in record numbers for a midterm, there were still enough older Anglos in Texas to put Cruz over the top, albeit by a much narrower margin (2.7 percent) than Cruz would have hoped.

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Cruz’s ace in the hole were reliably-Republican Anglos over 50 years-old who live in medium-sized metro suburban counties such as Ellis (south of Dallas) and Montgomery (north of Houston), and medium-sized population centers in less populated areas of the state like Lubbock in West Texas and Smith (Tyler) in East Texas.

O’Rourke raised more money than any other Texas Democrat ever and electrified crowds like no Texas Democrat (or Republican) in recent history. He also breathed new life into a moribund Texas Democratic Party which four years ago saw its superstar gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis spend close to $50 million dollars only to lose to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott by more than 20 percentage points. 

On Tuesday, O’Rourke had very long coattails, and helped Democrats flip two Texas state Senate seats (out of 16 up for election) and 12 Texas House seats, in the latter case cutting the Republican majority in the Texas House from 95-55 to 83-67, with the GOP caucus far more divided internally between establishment conservative, mainline conservative, and Freedom Caucus wings.

O’Rourke also helped lift two Democratic congressional challengers to victory, Colin Allred in the 32nd Congressional District in Dallas and Lizzie Fletcher in the 7th Congressional District in Houston. 

O’Rourke’s coattails were not only effective in helping propel Democrats to victory in legislative seats. In Harris County, population 4.7 million (more than in 25 states), his coattails combined with a record level of straight-ticket voting (77 percent of voters employed the straight ticket option with a 55 to 44 percent advantage for Democrats). This resulted in a complete Democratic sweep of all 59 judicial posts up for election at the county level as well as several other positions, including the county executive (county judge) where the popular incumbent Republican Ed Emmett was defeated by a 27-year-old community activist and first time candidate Lina Hidalgo.

While 2018 Betomania has bitten the dust, it was anything but phony, and O’Rourke still has an incredibly bright future ahead of him.  Over the next six months he can choose to explore a 2020 presidential bid. He proved himself as a fundraiser with over $80 million dollars from individual donors from across the nation. He also put a serious scare into Cruz in the largest and most important red state in the country. 

Or, O’Rourke could keep his sight set on the Senate and challenge Texas’s Republican senior Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump’s backing may not be enough on criminal justice reform Congress should ban life without parole sentences for children  Senate GOP discussing Mueller vote MORE in 2020, a nomination that is his for the taking as the unquestioned new star of the Texas Democratic Party.

In 2012, 2014 and 2016 one could often hear the crickets in the Lone Star State on election night in November. But thanks to O’Rourke and President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichelle Obama says not always easy to live up to "we go high" Georgia certifies elections results in bitterly fought governor's race Trump defends border deployment amid fresh scrutiny MORE (who, based on yesterday’s results, is an electoral liability for the Texas GOP), Texans experienced what was arguably their most dramatic and exciting midterm election since first-time candidate George W. Bush faced off against Democratic Gov. Ann Richards in 1994.

Texas saw the highest percentage turnout by registered voters in a Texas midterm since 1970 when Democrat Lloyd Bentsen defeated Republican George H.W. Bush in a U.S. Senate election — and in that election, the voting age was 21.

On Tuesday, 53 percent of registered voters turned out to cast a ballot. The previous four midterms drew between 34 percent (2014, 2006) and 38 percent (2010) of registered voters to the polls. 

Democrats didn’t take home the big prize on Tuesday — but it was a very different Texas election.

Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s fellow in political science and the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University as well as a co-author of “Texas Politics Today: 2017-2018 Edition.” Follow him @MarkPJonesTX.