Mother Jones

HOUSTON, WE HAVE PROGRESS

THE GOOD NEWS: DEMOCRATS’ FUTURE MIGHT BE IN TEXAS. THE BAD NEWS: SEE THE GOOD NEWS.

When Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a third-term Democratic congressman from West Texas, announced this spring that he would quit his promising career in the House to run for the Senate against Ted Cruz, Republicans could hardly stifle a laugh. “I know Beto—he’s a good guy,” said John Cornyn, the state’s senior senator. “But I think this is a suicide mission.”

It certainly looked like it. Texas Democrats have lost (or didn’t even compete in) 123 consecutive statewide races since 1996—the longest losing streak of any state party in the country. The only thing worse than the odds for Democrats overall are those for candidates from O’Rourke’s hometown, El Paso. Texas’ sixth-largest city—separated from the rest of the state’s population centers by hundreds of miles, a desert, a handful of mountain ranges, and a time zone—has never produced a successful candidate for statewide office. Not a senator, not a judge, not even a railroad commissioner.

Even O’Rourke can’t quite explain his path to victory. “The numbers on paper just don’t add up,” he conceded when we met in May, over coffee at his Washington, DC, row house. But his optimism comes, in a strange way, from what he believes really happened last November. He’s been thinking about what a man in Amarillo said to him about the wall.

“He said, ‘Look, I have friends who voted for Trump, and I don’t know if they literally want a wall. What they like is that you fuckers have been there for 30 years in Congress talking about immigration reform, and…nothing’s happened,’” O’Rourke said. He thumped the table for emphasis.

“‘So here comes this guy who’s like, “Fuck all y’all. I’m gonna put a 2,000-mile wall, 30 feet high, buried 6 feet with concrete”? It’s like saying “fuck you” to DC. And it’s very satisfying.’”

O’Rourke’s politics, forged in one of the largest border communities on Earth, are in many ways the antithesis of President Donald Trump’s; he supports single-payer health care and marijuana legalization, hates the wall, and loves Mexico. Trump’s platform was all but designed in a lab to devastate predominantly Hispanic ports of entry like El Paso. But in Texas, a state gripped by one-party rule, anemic turnout, and a photo ID law that makes voting disproportionately harder for college students and people of color, O’Rourke believes the same frustration that ushered in Trumpism can also be harnessed to thwart it. A year ago, running against Cruz might have looked like a suicide mission—maybe it still is. But something is happening in Texas.

After Election Day, when the Democrats’ fabled Great Lakes “blue wall” crumbled, party leaders descended on white working-class enclaves of the Rust Belt intent on finding the path back. Sen. Bernie Sanders huddled with miners in West Virginia. Joe Biden reflected on what went wrong in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Mark Zuckerberg put on his pith helmet and parachuted into Ohio. “We’ve gotta find a way to get them back in,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, whose Youngstown district was ground zero for blue-collar anthropology, “and that starts with a message that resonates in the flyover states.”

But there is another way of looking at what happened. The Trump wave masked a riptide. Hillary Clinton made huge gains across the Sun Belt, in such bastions of Republicanism as Orange County, California, and the suburbs of Houston and Dallas. Texas was closer than Iowa. Arizona was closer than Ohio. The white women and energized Hispanic voters Clinton was counting on really did exist—they just didn’t live where she thought they did.

Now the dilemma facing party leaders is this: In 2016 the Democratic presidential nominee received 43

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