By Ciara Chow (PO ’22)
Beto O’Rourke, the Texan Democratic candidate running against Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz for U.S. Senate, has unexpectedly reached widespread fame in the state. Beto raised a record-breaking $38.1 million in the third quarter compared to Cruz’s $12 million over the same period of time. Moreover, Beto raised three times as much as Cruz in the months before the election solely from individual donors, which is reminiscent of Bernie Sanders’s approach to the 2016 Presidential primaries in which he relied solely on grassroots donations instead of PACs. However, despite his widespread popularity, Beto still lags behind in most polls by 9 points as Texas approaches election day. Even if O’Rourke does not secure the senatorship, his campaign has reshaped Texas’s political landscape for both political parties.
Beto O’Rourke’s rise in Texas may appear to be an anomaly. In the 2016 Presidential election, Texas went to Donald Trump by 9 percent percentage points, reaffirming the state’s status as solid red. Furthermore, Texas has not elected a Democrat to U.S. Senate since 1994. O’Rourke is pro-immigration, pro-universal healthcare and outspoken against Trump, making the massive support he has received that much more impressive.
Paradoxically enough, part of O’Rourke’s appeal stems from his similarities to Trump in personality as opposed to policy. Like Trump, O’Rourke is a former businessman who markets himself as the anti-establishment candidate. By not taking PAC money and railing against the corporate influence in Washington, Beto is essentially calling to drain the swamp. After watching the White House slash taxes for the wealthy, many Texans are becoming disillusioned with the President’s economic policy and now look to Beto for the same reasons they voted for Trump two years ago. As a result, O’Rourke has access to the demographic Trump activated in 2016.
O’Rourke has also received high praise from the left. He openly supports Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem and supports greater gun control. Beto’s popularity among liberals plus support from disillusioned Trump voters gives him an advantage in demographics where Cruz has a weaker hold.
Beto’s outgoing and inclusive demeanor is diametrically opposed to the aggression seen in the 2016 election and the Kavanaugh hearing on both sides of the aisle. His polite and personable approach makes the Democratic candidate a nice change of pace in the world of politics for voters. However, whether his charm will be enough to ensure a victory in the Senate race remains debatable.
Since his initial rise in the polls, Beto has not managed to close the 9 point gap between him and Cruz in the last weeks before the election. As of October 20, FiveThirtyEight reported a 1 in 5 chance of an O’Rourke victory, and recent events do not seem to indicate a change in odds. Trump rallied to Cruz’s aid on Monday to boost support for the incumbent and has accused Beto of being a socialist on Twitter. Questions about Beto’s 1998 DUI arrest and his behavior in the final debate, where he referred to Cruz as “Lying Ted,” might also hurt his polite image and his standing in the polls.
While the Beto frenzy may be fading, his enthusiastic campaign itself has had an impact in Texas politics and beyond. Democrats hope they will see the immediate effects of Beto on the rest of the ballot. Even if Beto loses, an increased voter turnout of Beto supporters may lead to an increase in Democratic wins down the ballot for House representatives. O’Rourke’s stardom should also concern Republicans, as it signals that Texas might be less predictably red than they thought and more open to liberal policies.
More broadly, Beto’s popularity demonstrates a trend in today’s politics. Between Trump, Bernie, and Beto, there is undoubtedly a demand for politicians who promise to reject the establishment and corporate interests. However, the overwhelmingly positive response to Beto’s platform of civility is an important message for Democrats and Republicans. Beyond having out-of-the-box candidates, both parties should note that voters do respond to the temperate candidates like Beto, not just attack campaigners.
A Democratic win in the Texas Senate race may be a distant dream, but Beto’s influence is undeniable. This loss would be tough for Democrats, who are desperate to win seats in the Senate this November. Nevertheless, Beto is a beacon of hope for Democrats looking to turn Texas a little bluer, a warning to Republicans to reassess the relevance of their policy platform, and a reminder to both parties that there are effective alternative strategies to Trumpism that can still sway elections.