A New Texas: Beto O’Rourke and the Fight for the Soul of Texas - by Nick Yeager
The eyes of the nation are on Texas right now—or they should be. As the 2018 midterm election races heat up, Beto O’Rourke’s name is buzzing in the air. O’Rourke is running for the U.S. Senate seat against incumbent Ted Cruz, who has held the position since 2013. Over the months, O’Rourke has amassed a loyal, impassioned following. The left in Texas has mobilized around him. His speech supporting black NFL players who choose to kneel during the national anthem went viral across the country in August. Analysts in Texas wonder if his campaign can bring out hordes of voters who will go Democrat across the ballot; he is inspiring real hope. Whether he can win is one question: he’s long been considered a long shot, like all Texas Democrats, yet recent polls have him neck and neck with Cruz. But there’s another, bigger question. What’s the future of Texas, and why does it matter?
Here’s why it matters: Texas is turning into a blue state, and one with enormous power. As a state with 38 electoral votes and a great deal of policy influence, a shift leftward in the state will change the entire political landscape of the nation. And Texas is going blue. The question is not if, but when.
Every left-leaning political analyst, community organizer, or activist in the state believes that Texas would already be a Democratic stronghold if voter turnout was higher. This is partly due to voter suppression and discriminatory voter ID laws that are meant to intimidate. However, it is also due to the lack of a culture of voting across the state. In the March primary, almost 77% of voting age Texans were registered to vote, but only 17% of those who were registered (or 13% of voting age Texans) turned out to vote. This was considered a high turnout for the midterm primaries in Texas, which consistently is ranked among the lowest in the nation in voter turnout. A recent study showed that Texas ranked dead last for voting in midterms.
A huge group with untapped political power is Texas youth. Texans between 18 and 25 have dismal voter turnout, and they make up a left-leaning demographic. More unrealized power lies in the Latinx population, which makes up 40% of the state (and growing) but votes at low numbers. The Latinx population is also disproportionately young, with ⅓ of Latinx Texans under 18. Yet if Latinxs in Texas voted at the rate that they do in California, it would already be a blue state. There are some theories about why Latinx voter turnout is better in the Golden State. One says that the labor movement in California in the 1960s, in which Cesar Chavez organized farm workers into a union, encouraged a culture of voting and civic participation. This was never possible in Texas, a right-to-work state.
Others look to the 1990s in California, including Cristina Tzintzún. Tzintzún is a longtime workers’ rights activist and now the founder of Jolt Texas, a grassroots organization focused on building the political power of the Latinx community in the state. She often tells the story of 1994 in California, when a ballot initiative called Proposition 187 aimed to limit access to state services for undocumented immigrants. Republican support for the proposition pushed Latinx Californians toward the Democratic Party, and many describe it as a turning-point in the state’s political history. The parallel in Texas would be SB4, a “show me your papers” law that requires local law enforcement to operate like ICE agents and mandates racial profiling. The law went into effect last September, but Tzintzún believed it could mobilize Latinx resistance in Texas like Prop 187 did in California. The reality is that many Texans of color feel completely unrepresented by a political system that was not built for them. Given the horrific treatment of families on the border and immigrants throughout Texas, maybe O’Rourke, who has spoken out for the DREAM Act and the demilitarization of the border, will provide another opportunity for mobilization.
Outside of the Latinx community, too, Texans are living within a culture in flux. Just as polarized as the rest of the country, the state is consumed with division. There is a fight for the soul of Texas being fought right now. While the default image most Americans have of Texas is of a single white cowboy on the plains, today over 85% of Texans live in metropolitan areas and whites are a minority. Despite the reputation of Austin as the only liberal oasis in Texas, all the major cities (Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and El Paso) with the exception of Fort Worth are blue. People of color are staking their claims for a “new Texas,” one that respects diversity and basic rights for all. Given that the land of Tejas was violently stolen from Mexico less than 200 years ago by white colonists determined to hold onto their black slaves, some might say it’s about time.
Clearly, the 2018 midterms take place within a context of culture wars in Texas that have been building up for a long time and have been inflamed by Trump’s presidential win. The left is fired up: Texans of all backgrounds have a stake in the state’s new identity. Many have grown up critical of the state’s increasingly extremist right-wing politicians but felt resigned to the state’s resolute “red” reputation. Beto O’Rourke challenges this and gives voice to new possibilities. There’s certainly a “Bernie” factor to his appeal, as he has proudly refused corporate or PAC money and invokes a populist rhetoric as he repeats again and again that he has visited every one of the 254 counties in Texas.
Texas is the scene of some of the worst acts of cruelty and evil taking place along the border. Its inhabitants live under draconian women’s health policies, which disproportionately affect black and Latina mothers. It ranks dead last for the percentage of adults with health insurance, 51st behind every other state and the District of Columbia. 10% of public school students in the country live in Texas, which is why it has a huge influence over the textbook-publishing industry nationwide. The extreme right that rules in Texas is being made to grapple with its commitment to highly unrestricted gun rights, homophobic and sexist evangelical Christianity, denial of climate change, repressive voter ID laws, anti-public education policy, and their white supremacist status at the top of the hill. A new Texas is coming, and Ted Cruz and his cohorts can’t stop it. Unless Texans don’t vote.