HOUSTON, TEXAS—On the Monday afternoon before Election Day, a specter was haunting the Creekwood Grill, a barn-like burger joint in the Houston suburb of Cypress. Democrats like Beto O’Rourke are “trying to shove a socialism-type government,” said Linda Parmley, 67, her blonde hair held back by a red bandana. “It’s not gonna work. We’re too intellectual, we’re too smart for that, you know?”
“We’re gonna become Venezuela,” someone else muttered.
As people waited for Ted Cruz to take the stage, two young men set up outside the venue to hawk pro-Trump memorabilia and Cruz gear. The crowd—white, largely middle-aged—chatted amicably and ate burgers to pass the time. They were ready to hear the gospel of Fox News turned flesh.
State Senator Paul Bettencourt bounded up on stage, decked out in a button-up shirt patterned like the Texas flag. He was there to throw red meat to the eager crowd, the hype man for Cruz, who had yet to arrive.
“We know that Bay-to wants to be Mr. Open Borders!” Bettencourt boomed, his jowls quivering. Boos rose from the crowd.
“We know that Bay-to wants to do away with ICE!”
“And we know that basically Bay-to is a socialist, true?”
“So what do we do with a guy that wants to have open borders, do away with ICE, and wants to take all your money and raise your taxes?” A confused jumble of suggestions rose up from the crowd.
“I got an idea,” he quickly offered in response. “How about we veto Bay-to?”
The crowd immediately took up the chant—“Ve-to Bay-to! Ve-to Bay-to!”—a homegrown Texas version of the “Lock her up” chant.
Earlier that day, about 30 minutes away in downtown Houston, hundreds of people had gathered at the House of Blues to see Bay-to. In the cave-like interior of the venue, the ominous threats listed off at the Cruz rally—a critical posture toward Immigration and Customs Enforcement, universal healthcare—were, among this crowd, the great hope of the state. In Texas, as in states around the country, the Senate campaign had become bigger than the election itself—it was a referendum on dueling visions not just for the future of Texas, but the country.
Just as he made for an easy foil at the Cruz rally, among progressive Texans, O’Rourke, the improbable challenger for Cruz’s Senate seat, had become a sort of savior, almost a Christ-like figure.
“He reminds me of Robert F. Kennedy,” Dana Camp-Farber, 66, told me reverently. Sitting nearby behind a check-in table was Lan Pham, 60, working a volunteer shift for O’Rourke’s campaign, passing out beer coozies and buttons. “I have never carried political signs in my yard. I’ve never volunteered before,” Pham said. “I just have so much trust in him.”
Daria Savannah, her hair a neat cap of red, had even been inspired to write a song: “Beto O’Rourke For Senate, PERIODDTT!” “He’s trying to do everything we need in this state and this country,” she told me, before launching into a throaty rendition of her paean to O’Rourke:
Beto, Beto, Beto, where have you been /
You are so just what we needed, to come and swoop in /
And pay attention to what we need, you see us all as equal human beings
She ends it with: “Go vote!”
Standing next to Savannah was Rick Organ, 74, his straw cowboy hat decorated with the Texas flag and a “Beto for Senate” sign. He’d driven all the way from Amarillo just to see O’Rourke speak for the fifth time, he said. Organ looked like someone who fit the image of a staunch Republican—old, white, beer-bellied—but told me he was O’Rourke all the way.
“He reminds me of what Jesus says: All people are equal. Beto says that,” he explained. “I feel real close to my heart that Beto is for all people, not so much like you know who, who wants to build walls to keep people out.”
It was the final push of what had been a long campaign season, and as much as the crowds at both rallies seemed to draw a certain energy from the urgency of the moment—the rallies! the canvassing! the national stakes!—it was also clear that people were ready for election season to end. If the future of Texas really was on the line, then let’s get on with it.
It’s hard to know what that future will look like. Five Thirty Eight gives O’Rourke a 2 in 9 chance of winning. Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss-up. An Emerson poll gives Cruz a three point advantage. A Quinnipiac poll released a week before election day had Cruz up by five percentage points. Change Research has it as a dead heat. Previous polls, like a Reuters/Ipsos survey from September, even gave O’Rourke a slight two point lead.
“This is still Texas,” people sigh—meaning, this is still Texas, a state that does its best to prevent people (and we all know which people) from voting, a state where Republican-led gerrymandering has allowed Republicans to tighten their grip on power despite a rapidly diversifying electorate, a state where immigrants and communities of color are still largely ignored by the Democratic Party.
As much as O’Rourke—and by extension, his supporters—traffics in a relentless optimism, so too, in a fashion, do Cruz fans and the hardcore Republican voters who showed up on Monday afternoon to see him. Though for them, it’s more the confidence of knowing you usually get what you want. As has been endlessly repeated, Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994. The last Democratic senator voters sent to Washington DC was Lloyd Bentsen, who left office in 1993.
Right now, the polls and predictions based on early turnout tell a range of stories. The election is closer and fiercer than anyone could have predicted this time last year, and that is perhaps the most remarkable thing of all—that for all of the structural barriers in place, for all the Deep Red certainty about how things go in Texas, something is shifting.
Ted Cruz finally arrived on stage, dressed in loose-fitting dark jeans and ostrich-skin cowboy boots. Up close, his face appeared even more wax-doll like than in photos. His message could be boiled down to this: freedom is good, guns are good, jobs are good, military spending is good, building a border wall is good, and Beto O’Rourke is bad (as is the New York Times and the migrant caravan). Cruz has the mannerisms of a third-rate Baptist preacher; whenever he made an emphatic point, his chin would dip, like a pleased squirrel finding a nut.
At the end, he roused the crowd one last time, promising they would win.
“Let me tell you how I know. Because this is Texas,” Cruz said. “And a horde of invading zombies from the liberal coast can’t change the fact that in Texas it is in our DNA to defend freedom!”
The crowd started chanting, or trying to chant, his name in unison, but they couldn’t find the beat.
At the House of Blues earlier that day, O’Rourke had opened with an inverted version of Cruz’s closer. “Isn’t Texas a red state? Can a guy from El Paso really win this?” O’Rourke said, to huge cheers.
“We are organized for a future that includes every single one of us. I defy you to place this on the political spectrum,” O’Rourke told his supporters. “Not Democrats, not Republican, but American.” In the crowd, someone waved a sign that read “Beto Days Ahead.”
He launched into his stump speech, one he’s likely given thousands of times as he’s crisscrossed the state—support for public school teachers, universal health care, a humane immigration system, reproductive rights, fighting climate change, ending the school-to-prison pipeline. What he didn’t mention, not once? The name of his opponent or Donald Trump.
This is a familiar strategy among progressive Democrats running this cycle. Most of the country knows where we are right now—wages are stagnant, immigrant communities are under attack, and healthcare costs are rising. The part that is missing, and the vacuum candidates like O’Rourke are attempting to fill, is what might come next. Which is both the promise and the pain of an improbable, long-shot campaign like his: knowing where you want to go, winning the backing of millions, but realizing you might not get there, at least not now.
No matter the outcome, Texas politics will likely never be the same. People know that. “He has demonstrated that a bona fide progressive can compete in Texas, that you can run a successful campaign by doing more than chasing white Reagan Democrats, that the young and disaffected can be reached while also firing up black, Hispanic and other traditional Democratic voters,” the Texas Observer wrote of O’Rourke on Monday. I heard the same thing again and again from O’Rourke’s supporters. That this felt different. Things were different now.
Toward the middle of his rally, as he’s wont to do, O’Rourke began speaking in Spanish. “Órale, Beto!” Rick Organ shouted back. “God bless you, Beto!” someone called out.
He ended by exhorting the audience to make one last push. “All we’re asking is that you put this country first, before party, first before anyone’s career, first before any meaningless distinction,” he said. By now, he was dripping in sweat, stains blooming on his shirt. “This is about the United States of America.”
He continued, echoing Cruz once again about a victory that was within their reach: “If you will commit to doing that, we will win this election Tuesday night. Are you all ready to win? Ready to win? I guarantee you, if we keep this up, that you will be here in Houston, I will be in El Paso, and tomorrow night we will be celebrating the victory of our lifetimes for this state, for this country, for this generation, and for every generation to come!”
He left the stage; the few people who had yet to buy a campaign shirt rushed the merch table. Outside, volunteers signed people up for last-minute get out the vote shifts. It was a final wind-up before the wind-down.
After months of endless speculation, of intense media scrutiny, the day of reckoning was almost here. With only days left until the election, it seemed like most people had already made up their minds—early voting in Texas had broken the record for an off year—but millions would still be casting their ballots on Election Day itself. At some point, after the polls close on Tuesday, we will know which vision won out in the state. Cruz may hold on to his seat and O’Rourke’s campaign may recede into the white noise of history, but one thing feels true, at least today—the future of Texas is closer than it’s ever been.