When Beto O’Rourke, the punk rock guitarist turned US congressman for the distant border town of El Paso, announced in March 2017 that he was going to run for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat in Texas, the spokesman for the state’s Republican party quipped: “Who?”
No one is asking who Beto O’Rourke is now. He may have lost his plucky bid to win the first statewide election in Texas as a Democrat since 1994, but he came so close that he thoroughly wiped the smirks off Republican faces.div">>
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Less than three percentage points separated the incumbent senator and his insurgent challenger – 50.9% Cruz, 48.3% O’Rourke – 222,922 votes out of more than 8m cast.
For O’Rourke it marks a phenomenal achievement. In just 19 months, almost unassisted, he took the Texan Democratic party from its virtually moribund condition, gave it a stiff dose of adrenalin, and brought it back to life.
For Texas, and for the US, the fact that O’Rourke came within striking distance represents something even bigger – the hope that the second largest state in the union might finally be freeing itself from the iron grip of the Republican party.
That in turn raises a tantalizing prospect for progressives everywhere – if O’Rourke could do it in Texas, a place synonymous with the modern hardline Republican party, what could he do in other parts of the US?
“If you look at the top line and see O’Rourke losing, you’re missing the point,” said Bethany Albertson, associate professor at University of Texas at Austin. “No Democrat has come close in Texas in decades, voter turnout was way up, and young people who have never voted before were drawn for the first time into the democratic process.”
That’s a formula that the Democratic party nationwide is desperate to replicate. But how did he do it? What was the secret of the Beto magic?