U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso and his wife Amy Sanders O’Rourke speaks to the local and national media at UTEP before the start of his final campaign rally before the midterm elections, Monday, November 5, 2018, in El Paso, Texas. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
Ignore Beto O’Rourke’s misbegotten presidential campaign for a moment, and give the El Paso Democrat his due: He is the reason Texas Democrats are hopeful and Texas Republicans are worried.
Don’t take this as any kind of endorsement, either — it’s just recognition of the jolt his surprising finish in the 2018 U.S. Senate election had on the Texas GOP’s hold on state politics.
You know the drill: No Democratic statewide wins since 1994, Republican control of both houses of the Legislature since 2003, increasing wins in many county offices and so on. In 2018, the Democrats won a couple of seats in Congress that the Republicans never expected to lose. One was John Culberson’s Houston loss to Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. The other, where the winner was Colin Allred, offered up a sign of the kind of election it was. Allred flushed Pete Sessions, who held the district for 22 years, right out of Dallas. This year, he has declared his candidacy for a district that runs from Waco to Bryan — well south of his old stomping grounds.
The Democrats wrested a dozen seats from the Republicans in the Texas House in 2018, too, when most of the smart kids were saying they might win 5 or 6. You can credit that to hard work, good candidates, enthusiastic like and dislike for President Donald Trump, high voter turnout or whatever else you can think of. You’ll be right, in part.
But you won’t be right if you leave out the race at the top of the 2018 ballot, and what it meant in the statewide races below it.
Texans started their 2018 general election voting with that top race, where U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was trying to win his first reelection, just two years after flaming out at the end of the 2016 Republican primary against Trump. Cruz ran a good presidential race. He made it to the last lap. But he irritated Republicans with his initial “principled” refusal to support the nominee, and then with his decision to turn around and support him. Republicans who like him and Republicans who don’t found that irksome at the time.
In 2018, Cruz also had all those Democrats to contend with — voters who knew less about him in his first 2012 race for U.S. Senate against former state Rep. Paul Sadler than they knew about the national and divisive conservative who was seeking a second term in 2016.
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