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Betomania: Down ballot candidates hoping to benefit from O'Rourke's


The energy and enthusiasm behind Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) Senate campaign is having a ripple effect down the ballot in deep-red Texas, giving Democrats a much-needed jolt in the battle to pick up seats in the House.

While O’Rourke may end up losing to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, he could help Democrats in the House if his Senate bid significantly drives up turnout—particularly in three districts held by GOP Reps. Pete Sessions, John Culberson and Will Hurd, who are all fighting for their political lives.

Democrats haven’t won a statewide race in Texas since 1994, but O’Rourke, 46, has fueled liberal hopes of unseating Cruz, 47, through massive rallies, record-breaking fundraising and engagement with young voters - a phenomenon that some are calling "Betomania."

In doing so, O'Rourke is sparking a level of enthusiasm down the ballot that no other Democratic candidate including gubernatorial nominee Lupe Valdez has been able to generate in Texas.

“He creates activity and interest that’s very hard to generate from down-ballot activity alone,” said Matt Angle, a veteran Democratic strategist in Texas and director of the Lone Star Project.

The enthusiasm comes even as O'Rourke himself may end up unable to defeat the conservative firebrand. Though O'Rourke raised a record $38 million in the third fundraising quarter, recent polls have shown Cruz consistently building a lead in the statewide race.

But an increased turnout could be enough to tip the races in smaller House districts, according to strategists.

Mary Beth Rogers, who was campaign manager to the late Ann Richards, the last Democratic Texas governor, said O’Rourke will need to do about 5 to 6 points better than 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton did in some parts of the state in order to give a boost to some of the competitive House races.

Other Democrats argue that some voters who traditionally vote straight-ticket Republican might be tempted to vote for O'Rourke – and in doing so could give a second look to other Democrats down the ballot.  Meanwhile, Democrats could choose straight-ticket voting, an option being pushed by the party that will be eliminated after the November election.

The party is feeling especially good about their prospects in three districts that voted for Clinton in 2016 but also backed their Republican Congressmen.

These House races also have another common thread: the Democrats running are all first-time candidates who have outraised their respective GOP challengers by at least $1 million in the past fundraising quarter.

Democrats can still achieve the magic number of 23 seats for the House majority without flipping seats in Texas. But many view those districts as bellwethers that could serve as a barometer for the national political environment and prospects for a blue wave.

Two of these seats, currently held by Culberson and Sessions, represent largely suburban districts including parts of big cities where demographics have greatly shifted over the years.

Culberson’s Houston-area district has a growing Hispanic population, while Sessions’s north Dallas district has both a sizable Hispanic and African-American population.

Culberson is running against Democratic attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, while Colin Allred, a civil rights lawyer and former NFL player who worked in the Obama administration, is challenging Sessions, the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee who didn’t even face a Democratic opponent in 2016.

Recent New York Times/Siena polls show both races are in a dead heat, with the GOP incumbents holding slim leads that fall within the margin of error.

Hurd also represents an expansive swing district, but unlike the other two races, he appears better positioned to hang on for a third term in a district that Democrats had occupied until 2014.

The majority Hispanic district spans 800 miles along the U.S.-Mexico border from El Paso to San Antonio, a vast area that includes pockets of cities but also rural areas, making it more challenging for Democrats.

Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer, is still getting plenty of help from the national party, and she’d make history as the first Filipina-American elected to Congress should she win.

But Jones is 15 points behind Hurd, according to a NYT/Siena poll earlier this month.

Some Democrats even believe O’Rourke’s energy could help longer-shot races that President Trump easily carried outside of Austin where Democrats have fielded strong challengers.

GOP Rep. John Carter’s race against Democrat MJ Hegar garnered some national attention when Hegar’s ad about her military service went viral.

Another one is the open-seat race for retiring GOP Rep. Lamar Smith’s seat. Democrat Joseph Kopser, another military veteran, faces Republican Chip Roy, a former Cruz aide.

But Republicans warned against expecting an O'Rourke-inspired blue wave. They expressed confidence about holding onto all three House seats because of the strong economy and conservative energy over the Supreme Court confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh – the same factors helping Cruz statewide.

They also predict minority voters will not be as motivated to vote for Democrats because of low unemployment for Hispanics and African Americans in Texas.

“They haven’t created the case for a wave here or nationally,” said George Seay, the former Texas chairman of Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) presidential campaign.

“There’s so much prosperity for so many demographic groups.”

Plus, Republicans have their own star power on the campaign trail. Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. have campaigned and fundraised for Sessions. And the president is holding a campaign rally in Houston on Monday for Cruz, which could also help elevate some House members.

Ultimately, much could depend on how much O’Rourke can run up the score among Hispanic voters, who will be especially critical in the Sessions, Culberson and Hurd districts.

An increase in Hispanic turnout, combined with other members such as college-educated women and moderate suburban voters frustrated by the president, could easily tip the scales to Democrats, observers said.

“They’ll need him to be successful in the Hispanic community and suburban areas with college-educated white women,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, political science professor at the University of Houston. “Democrats can perform better than expected if they can get those folks out.”

Such a coalition could spell doom for Republicans, even if it's not enough statewide to help O'Rourke prevail over Cruz.

“If O’Rourke can get Democrats to polls to also pull the lever for the rest of the party, that helps Democratic candidates for Congress,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist who managed Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) 2014 race.

“How much? I don’t know. Clearly with that kind of money and enthusiasm, it’s something we’re all thinking about and prepared for.”

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