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Analysis: One last Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke Texas election headline

It’s Ted.

Cruz, a populist social conservative who came tantalizingly close to winning the Republican nomination for president just two years ago, and who took his place in the U.S. Senate after a 2012 race he wasn’t expected to win, held off a spirited and charismatic Beto O’Rourke, the longshot El Paso Democrat who decided to term-limit his time in the U.S. House by challenging Cruz.

Until the last few months, it was almost unthinkable that a Democrat could beat a Republican in a statewide race in Texas. It hasn’t happened since 1994. Texas is the biggest and most important foundation block in Republican politics in the U.S.; it’s virtually impossible to put together a winning GOP presidential campaign without Texas.

There was no particularly good reason to think 2018 would be any different. The path to victory in Texas statewide elections for the last two decades has been simple: Win the Republican primary and then don’t do anything stupid enough to blow the structural million-vote lead.

O’Rourke started with built-in political deficiencies. A Democrat in Texas. Enough said about that. An El Pasoan. Nobody from El Paso has ever won a statewide election in Texas. A member of Congress, one of 36 from the state of Texas. Another way to put that is that O’Rourke had never run statewide and started his race virtually unknown outside of his Far West Texas district. In spite of his hometown ties, he had no natural appeal to the Hispanic voters who, in spite of their historically anemic election turnout, are critical to Democratic politicians in this state. That persisted, too; O’Rourke won the Democratic primary with 61.8 percent over two others who barely campaigned. Sema Hernandez won 23.7 percent and did particularly well in counties with large numbers of Hispanic voters.

The Ted Cruz running in 2018 had a lot of attributes the Ted Cruz of 2012 didn’t have. There’s nothing like a nearly successful campaign for president to make your name known, both with your friends and with your enemies. And Cruz finished well enough in that race to be on anyone’s short list of Republican contenders the next time there’s a race for president.

2012’s unknown newcomer was 2018’s national brand name. It helped him a lot, but it appeared to help O’Rourke more. The Democrat combined his attention-getting travel (all 254 counties, did you hear?) with the attraction of being not-Ted-Cruz at a time where there was an ample audience for that. It was attractive outside the state, too, pulling in money for the campaign and scads and scads of national media coverage.

Polling over the summer and into fall justified the rising interest in the U.S. Senate race: Cruz was ahead in virtually all the surveys, but not by the 15 or 20 percentage points to which Texas Republicans are accustomed. O’Rourke was steadily building big crowds. Cruz was telling his supporters that complacency and overconfidence would lose the election.

The competition was unusual for a Texas race. It drove interest on both sides. And fundraising. And, in the last couple of weeks, voter turnout.

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Texas has seen other big races, but they regularly fizzle out. Top-of-ticket Democrats in Texas couldn’t get 45 percent of the vote for ages. Wendy Davis, the state senator who rose to national prominence on the strength of a dramatic filibuster of abortion legislation in the Texas Legislature, flamed out in an expensive 2014 race for governor, finishing with less than 40 percent of the vote and nearly a million votes behind Greg Abbott.

She was just the latest to challenge the Republican juggernaut in Texas. Before Abbott, Rick Perry held the Governor’s Mansion for a record-setting 14 years. Before him, it was six years of George W. Bush. No Texas Democrat has won a race for U.S. Senate since Lloyd Bentsen in 1988.

For Democrats, it’s a desert out there.

Maybe that bug is turning into a feature. Cruz, like many of his fellow Republicans, has proven adept at winning tough primaries — and happy to coast through non-competitive general elections. Maybe they had forgotten what a genuine threat like O’Rourke looked like.

The governor seems to be an exception to that, running a large-scale voter turnout organization that kept Cruz from drowning on his own. Donald Trump came to Houston to rally voters behind his former presidential primary rival.

It was in many ways a race between the Republican machine in Texas and a Democratic do-it-yourself operation run by a liberal who raised money without political action committees, ran his operation without pollsters and the conventional array of consultants, drove his own campaign car and actually seemed to be having a good time at it.

Hate him or like him, that’s different. And in the most practical sense, it worked. Expect to see future candidates try to replicate the O’Rourke campaign.

That leaves the future. Both of the Texas candidates are regularly mentioned in conversations about future presidential campaigns, Cruz because he’s been there before and almost got the nomination, O’Rourke because he’s one of the newest, shiniest stars on the national Democratic bench.

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Maybe 2018 was just the first round.

Ross Ramsey is executive editor of The Texas Tribune.

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Rodolfo Gonzalez/Marjorie Kamys Cotera/Texas Tribune

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso (left), and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.