November 13, 2018
Best Challenger Campaign
Best Incumbent Campaign
Best Open Race Campaign
Best Organizational Effort
Most Valuable Player
The legendary Los Angeles Lakers guard Jerry West, former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley and ex-New York Yankees shortstop Bobby Richardson have something in common with U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke that's a rarity in a world where winning is everything and you're either first or your last. The former professional athletes are the only three figures from their respective sports leagues to ever win the award for most valuable player in a championship game or series that their team lost. None of them deserved that honor as much as the third-term El Paso congressman who almost beat Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in the battle at the top of the Texas ballot in the general election in 2018.
Forget the buffalo herd mentality theories on how O'Rourke failed to articulate a clear message with talking points that weren't tailored for independent voters and moderate Republicans that he'd have to have to break the nation's longest statewide losing streak for a major political party. Most of the prominent national analysts agreed that Cruz would beat O'Rourke by the same basic margin that the public polls had been showing for months. Beto was going to blow it because he didn't get it. Texas was way too conservative for an unapologetic progressive with some of the same advisors from the Bernie Sanders campaign.
But the only reason that O'Rourke fell short in a quest for the impossible dream was because he was running for the U.S. Senate in Texas as a Democrat. The only thing about the O'Rourke campaign that wasn't perfect was the fact that he didn't win.
O'Rourke was determined to do it his way - and the fact that he finished less than three points behind Cruz at the polls is a testament to an extraordinary effort with a bid that was more a political cause than a campaign. O'Rourke left expectations shattered in his wake with a race that launched as a challenger with minimal experience, zero no name identification outside his hometown and odds that couldn't have been lower at the outset with the heavy baggage of the D by his name. Folks were wondering why some guy from the only major Texas city that's not in the Central Time Zone would be willing to give up a safe seat in Congress for a spot at the top of a ticket that was destined to go down in flames in a state where the Democrats had gone 20 years without a statewide victory. They're wondering now whether will Beto will be a candidate for the U.S. Senate again in two years or wait to run for governor in 2022 if he isn't already the president by then.
But O'Rourke's odds had soared from zero to 49 percent at least by the final weekend before the vote when Cruz's polls showed him with a fragile 51 percent and a very real chance to lose a race that most of the national prognosticators had rated as leaning or likely Republican based on the public polls that proved to be about as accurate in the Texas race this year as they'd been with the unanimous Hillary Clinton prediction in 2016. But Cruz's camp understood the difficulty in polling on a race that would produce a record number of new voters who were mostly Beto backers.
While O'Rourke did not win the individual battle that he'd entered, he single-handedly put the Democrats here a chance to win the war a lot sooner than anyone could have imagined at this time a year ago. O'Rourke had the longest and most substantial coattails that anyone in Texas or beyond had ever witnessed in a statewide campaign despite the outcome of his own race. But O'Rourke had the luxury of running a campaign relatively autonomous of the party as a candidate who raised more for a U.S. Senate campaign than anyone had ever done in the past in any state.
O'Rourke started getting everyone's attention with a fundraising operation that broke its own records with each campaign finance report that he filed. The U.S. Senate race with the all-time highest price tag had transpired in Massachusetts in 2012 when Democrat Elizabeth Warren and a GOP foe raised almost $76 million combined. O'Rourke has surpassed the $71 million mark as a singular candidate by the time the votes had been cast and counted. He should have more than enough left over to just keep on running with the state's other U.S. Senate on the ballot in 2020 if he isn't aiming higher then as the first bona fide superstar for the Democrats since the emergence of a young Barack Obama more than a dozen years ago.
Cruz was no slouch in the fundraising department - having raised more than twice the amount for the re-election race that he'd rounded up from contributors in his initial U.S. Senate bid six years ago when he trounced a former Democratic state lawmaker by almost 16 points. While Cruz had become his own worst enemy when he failed to keep his cool after Trump trashed his family, the Texas solon demonstrated that his political acumen was still intact when he ran for the past year like he was losing amid repeated warnings about the threat that O'Rourke posed.
It should have been apparent to the party faithful that Cruz was in trouble when Governor Greg Abbott portrayed the O'Rourke campaign as a cult when people's crusade would have been a more accurate metaphor. Cruz appeared to be hitting the panic button when he accepted an offer from Trump to stage a rally for him in Houston on the first day of early voting last month. Politicians never turn to former recent enemies for salvation unless they're desperate. O'Rourke ended up doing as much or more to promote Cruz's joint appearance with the president in advance more than Cruz and his fellow Republicans. And the rally may have hurt more than it helped when Trump characterized the incumbent who'd called him every bad name in the book not long ago as Beautiful Ted while branding himself as a nationalist for the first time. Harris County voters showed their appreciation for the president's eleventh-hour rescue mission when almost 58 percent of them voted for O'Rourke instead.
While O'Rourke blew Cruz away in the Dallas, Houston and Austin area as expected, the challenger's most remarkable accomplishment may have come when he carried the Republican stronghold of Tarrant County with 49.9 percent of the vote. This is the same place where Abbott beat a Democratic state senator from the Fort Worth area by more than 16 percentage points in his debut bid for governor just four years ago.
O'Rourke's charisma inspired comparisons to John and Bobby Kennedy in a state that JFK would not have carried with 51 percent of the 1960 vote without Texas Democrat Lyndon B. Jonnson as his running mate. O'Rourke's down-ballot effect was unprecedented for a candidate who'd led the ticket in a losing race. O'Rourke gave Texans who despise Trump a place to channel their emotions in a productive way - the amazing race that he ran made it possible for Democrats to pick up a record 12 seats in the Texas House while knocking off incumbent Republicans in two state Senate contests and pair of congressional battles in the Dallas and Houston areas.
With Trump in the White House for at least two more years and on the ballot again in 2020 if he runs for a second term as planned, O'Rourke and the Democrats have a chance to demonstrate that the vote this year wasn't an aberration. With a gold mine of name identification, massive momentum and money and the most sophisticated and effective voter turnout operation ever, the sky could be the limit for the former city council member.
O'Rourke imagines a world where everyone gets along and lives in peace and makes cooperation a priority in the same league with competition. O'Rourke establish himself as the antithesis of politics as usual in an arena where Cruz and Trump used to be. It's conceivable that the Democrat's U.S. Senate contender got a partial realignment in the Lone Star State under way with the campaign of a lifetime that may just be warming up for the next round.
The Best of the Election selections for fall vote in Texas in 2018 will be unveiled this month in separate installments for several different categories.