Beto O’Rourke is running for president. He has to be; he’s far too fluent in the interpersonal touches that presidential politics rewards. It’s too easy to imagine him running for president. It’s too easy to imagine him winning. But first, Beto O’Rourke is running for the U.S. Senate in Texas, a state where he’s doomed to lose by 10 points.
On Tuesday night, O’Rourke — the Democratic congressman representing the El Paso district— faced the state’s incumbent Republican senator, Ted Cruz, in their second televised debate together. For 60 minutes, Cruz and O’Rourke traded soundbites about national political concerns — abortion rights, Brett Kavanaugh, federal tax cuts, and climate change. They clashed in words, style, ideas, and overall effect. O’Rourke spoke compassionately about his family, his campaign staff, and his extensive travels throughout the state. Cruz spoke fearfully about O’Rourke’s left-wing distance from “the people of Texas.”
The Texas Senate race has — despite its long odds in favor of the Republican incumbent, Cruz — become a localized referendum on the post-Trump political landscape. It’s the rare contest where both major party nominees shamelessly represent the activist pulse of their respective parties. O’Rourke and Cruz disagree about immigration. They disagree about police brutality. They disagree about Obamacare, federal taxes, and deficits. They’ve at least agreed to discard all pretense of post-partisanship, triangulation, and centrism. The Texas Senate race is a tough bet for Beto O’Rourke. It’s also the only honest game in town.
For modern Democrats, Texas is the great, perpetual misadventure. For 25 years, the state party’s candidates have tried and failed to shatter the GOP’s dominance. The abortion rights champion Wendy Davis ran for governor four years ago, winning nationwide enthusiasm and admiration — she lost the election by 20 points. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stoked hopes of turning Texas blue in the electoral college, but to no avail.
In 2018, Texas Democrats have placed their bets on O’Rourke, the starry-eyed liberal challenging Cruz for his supposedly safe Senate seat. O’Rourke has raised $38 million this quarter — the largest fundraising haul for any Congressional candidate in U.S. history — and he’s running the year’s most hyped Democratic campaign. In fact, he’s raised more money for his Senate bid than many national candidates raise for their presidential campaigns. Crucially, O’Rourke’s got a rare, charismatic appeal; he’s easy on the eyes and electrifying on the campaign trail. O’Rourke’s insurgency recalls last year’s special election in Georgia starring the Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff, an overnight celebrity candidate who ultimately lost his high-profile House race to Karen Handel, the heavily favored Republican challenger. But Ossoff ran an uptight campaign. O’Rourke has cut loose, improvising wildly on the stump and underscoring his punk rock roots. To Cruz’s chagrin, O’Rourke has transformed the Texas Senate race into an underdog spectacle. The national magazines have all profiled O’Rourke to the point of exhaustion. Last week, Texas Monthly launched a new podcast series, Underdog, about Beto O’Rourke’s already mythological Senate bid. O’Rourke’s profile grows even as the latest polling spells his doom against Cruz at the polls.
The Texas race has run its course in a national primary season full of competitive and captivating campaigns; O’Rourke’s is just one of several wunderkind narratives on the Democratic side. But the earlier months of the midterm season were largely dominated by proud discussions of socialism. The Bronx insurgent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez starred throughout the primary season, representing a national theme across many local and statewide elections. In the general election, the Democrats are largely defined by their Senate campaigns in red territory — Tennessee, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. O’Rourke defies the standard template for defensive, centrist Democrats playing in red states. He hasn’t embraced socialism, and he’s stopped short of Ocasio-Cortez’s calls to shutter ICE. But O’Rourke is running as the liberal alternative to a GOP incumbent in a year when other Democratic nominees in unfavorable Senate races have been far more ambiguous, and ambivalent, in their opposition to the party of Trump.
The race’s fundamentals aside, O’Rourke enjoys the distinct advantage of running against Ted Cruz — the U.S. senator whom no other U.S. senator likes. Cruz is a quaint political figure. He’s the dweeby sort of think tank conservative whom Trump has thrown out of vogue. When they battled one another in the Republican presidential primaries, Trump — ever the vulgarian — brutalized Cruz for several months, from the earliest GOP debates through Trump’s nomination in July 2016. Throughout Trump’s presidency, Cruz has languished in soft-tempered irrelevance; he’s neither a fervent convert to Trumpism, such as Lindsey Graham, nor has he proven to be one of Trump’s conservative critics, such as Ben Sasse or Jeff Flake. Indeed, Trump will campaign with Cruz at a rally in Houston next week — a sign from the White House that O’Rourke has perhaps gained too much ground against Cruz in supposedly safe territory for Republicans.
O’Rourke and Cruz are as different as they seem. They both speak with the convoluted passion of overeager debate team captains who have, effectively, been running for U.S. president since the eighth grade. They’re both “thinking man’s” candidates, which is to say they’re both ideologues who speak for their respective parties with a definitive force. But O’Rourke cuts a far more youthful and exuberant figure against Cruz’s withering presidential profile. Cruz is favored, but he’s no one’s favorite — he’s no Beto, who enjoys more comparisons to Ronald Reagan than the actual Republican in this race could ever wish upon himself.
The presidential comparisons and aspirations are why the Texas contest seems so important, despite O’Rourke’s long odds. O’Rourke’s campaign isn’t just a bellwether of some nationwide enthusiasm for the Democrats to dominate Congress next year. It’s the proving ground for a new leader who might one day — perhaps as soon as 2020 — run for president.
For now, O’Rourke’s supporters have gone somewhat pale in the weeks following Brett Kavanaugh’s tumultuous appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court — an ordeal that Republicans insist has revitalized the GOP base. Before Kavanaugh, O’Rourke seemed to be leading a blue wave that would sweep Democrats into power. After Kavanaugh, O’Rourke’s boosters have come to regard his campaign as a quixotic candidacy: doomed but nonetheless hopeful, if only because O’Rourke has run so shamelessly through Texas as a true-blue liberal.
Now, the late-stage optimism surrounding O’Rourke comes with qualifications: “Beto O’Rourke Matters Even If He Loses,” reads one Bloomberg headline. Suddenly, the fundamentals seem as daunting as more cynical observers judged them to always be. In Texas, there’s voter suppression, there’s rampant gerrymandering, and there’s barely any foundation for a dominant Democratic Party. And yet, O’Rourke defies gravity. He makes it all seem so easy to overturn so many drab realities with a single, cathartic landslide that may never come.