EL PASO, Texas — Beto O’Rourke attracted massive crowds and intense media attention, raised and spent tens of millions of dollars and even won the coveted Willie Nelson endorsement, but in the end, it still wasn’t enough to turn Texas blue.
In a dramatic end to the country’s most surprisingly competitive election, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz survived the political fight of his life, besting O’Rourke, a Democratic congressman from El Paso, to win another six years in Washington.
O’Rourke, a political unknown even to members of his own party until this race, had been vying to be the first Democrat elected statewide in Texas since 1994 and the first elected to the U.S. Senate from the state since 1988.
Until recently, that seemed like a hopeless quest in deeply conservative Texas, a state that has moved further and further to the right since George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards, the sitting Democratic governor, in a stunning upset that put Republicans firmly in control of the Lone Star state 24 years ago.
But O’Rourke raised the hopes of Democrats here and nationally with an unorthodox social-media heavy campaign, in which he sought to not only take advantage of the state’s rapidly changing demographics and but turn out millions of so-called “nonvoters” in a state where voters notoriously fail to show up to the polls.
In a place where most statewide elections are battled out and decided in the big cities, O’Rourke, who served as his own strategist, fought to expand the map — making a point of visiting all of Texas’s 254 counties, including small rural towns where statewide candidates rarely campaigned. It was a strategy initially mocked by Cruz and even some Democrats, who saw it was a waste of time, but O’Rourke soon gained traction, attracting attention for his undeniable charisma on the stump and his hopeful message that inspired comparisons with Bobby Kennedy and Barack Obama.
The congressman’s candidacy stuck at a moment when Texas had become a microcosm of political tensions that had divided the rest of the country. They included the battle over the border; the disconnect between urban and rural voters; and discontent, even among some Republicans here, over the presidency of Donald Trump and the extreme partisanship that has divided Washington. O’Rourke presented himself as a genial and unapologetically liberal counterpoint to the Trump presidency and the toxic partisanship he said had been championed by Cruz, a tea party Republican.
O’Rourke’s candidacy dramatically shifted a race where Cruz had been an easy bet for re-election, forcing the Republican to campaign more and follow his Democratic opponent into parts of rural Texas that were suddenly and surprisingly up for grabs.
With the polls tightening, Cruz, who was elected in 2012 as part of the so-called tea party revolution, sought to win back Republicans, some of whom were angered that he began seeking the 2016 presidential nomination almost as soon as he was elected. And he was forced to turn to Trump, his former political rival, for help, appearing with him at a massive rally in Houston and recasting his re-election to be less about him and more about the fate of the president’s agenda. He pointed out that O’Rourke had expressed support for impeaching Trump and predicted partisan chaos if he were elected.
At the same time, at least a half dozen political action committees came to Cruz’s rescue, spending tens of millions of dollars to flood Texas airwaves with attack ads that suggested O’Rourke was more liberal than Democratic bogeymen like Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, calling him “too reckless for Texas.” In the final week of the campaign, ads from both the Cruz campaign and outside groups piled on O’Rourke’s views on immigration, running alarmist ads that suggested he was welcoming the much-publicized caravan of Central American migrants en route to the U.S. border.
The race was always Cruz’s to lose, simply because there are more Republicans than Democrats in Texas. O’Rourke never led one pre-election poll, but Cruz and his team became nervous in recent days at the growing energy and size of the O’Rourke crowds and the historic turnout in early voting, far beyond what they had projected.
Even before the polls opened Tuesday, more than 4.9 million Texans had cast their votes early — exceeding the total number of votes cast in the last midterm election in 2014. On Tuesday, millions more Texans all over the state waited, sometimes for hours, to vote. Projections suggested the turnout would be on par with the number of people who vote in presidential election years.
But in the end, it was not enough for O’Rourke, leaving Democrats to wonder who can win in Texas, if Beto can’t?
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