Ted Cruz is predicted to hold on to his Senate seat. The unexpectedly tight victory brings an end to a race that captured the nation’s attention, both as a reflection of a changing political landscape in Texas and a proxy for the nation.
In the week between the start of Early Voting in Texas and Tuesday’s Election Day, Cruz held on to a slimming advantage over O’Rourke, a progressive congressman from El Paso who captivated the national media with his charisma, boyish looks (truly, a moratorium on any comparisons to Kennedy should now be in place), progressive values, and profuse sweating. A poll released a week before Election Day showed Cruz with a 10-point lead over O’Rourke; another poll published just few days later estimated that lead was more like 3 points. The weekend before, Change Research released a poll that had O’Rourke and Cruz “dead even.” “We’ve polled a lot in Texas the past few months, and this marks a notable shift towards Beto,” reads a tweet from the left-learning polling organization.
In many ways, O’Rourke should not have made it this far. There were other, more well-known Texas Democrats gearing up for the party’s nomination, like Rep. Joaquin Castro, whose twin brother Julian was once—what feels like eons ago—rumored to be on the list for Hillary Clinton’s running mate for the 2016 presidential election. Running as a pro-immigrant, anti-border wall Democrat in 2018, just two years after Texas voted to elect a president who’d referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists in his first campaign speech, O’Rourke was the definition of an underdog.
But there was a fiercely independent streak to O’Rourke and the media-savvy campaign he’d run that spoke directly to many Texans. “Beto’s not your normal Democrat,” one voter told the Washington Post at a small rally in Fort Davis this summer. “He’s a real Texan.” Again and again, O’Rourke has been able to appeal to voters by bucking partisan talk and honing a message that placed Texans and their right to self-determination first. O’Rourke rejected super PAC money and still out-fundraised Cruz two to one, according to the latest numbers from the Texas Tribune. A month before the election, O’Rourke said he “wasn’t interested” in Barack Obama’s endorsement—a smart move in a state that voted for the Republican candidates running against Obama in both 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.
He took a similar approach to Cruz. “I don’t pay attention to what Senator Cruz is doing or not doing because I don’t feel like I’m running against him,” O’Rourke told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I’m running for this country. For everyone in the state of Texas.”
At times, that kind of reach-across-the-aisle talk held O’Rourke back from campaigning with a more aggressively progressive agenda. “If you purchased an AR-15, keep it,” he told a radio station in Lubbock when asked about his support of a complete ban on semiautomatic assault rifles. O’Rourke is against Trump’s proposed border wall, but went back and forth when asked about abolishing ICE, ultimately arguing it would accomplish nothing.
O’Rourke may have lost, but the story of Texas’s future is still being written.