The rain’s coming in sheets as folks file into the Douglas Community Center in Pittsburg, Texas, population 4,707.
The organizers of an event for Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke have set out 50 chairs, but they’re worried now that’s going to be too many. But by the time the candidate bounces through the door, they’re unfolding dozens more chairs as the crowd zooms past 100.
O’Rourke, who currently represents the El Paso area in the U.S. House, is running for the chance to unseat the Republican incumbent, Ted Cruz. No Democrat has represented the Lone Star State in the Senate since 1993, but O’Rourke believes he can beat the odds, in part by campaigning aggressively in every part of this sprawling state.
“Of the 254 counties [in Texas], we’ve visited 226 so far. This is 226 today,” O’Rourke tells the crowd, who have been chanting, “Beto, Beto!”
O’Rourke has his work cut out for him. A recent Texas Politics Project poll showed nearly 40 percent of Texas voters have no idea who he is.
But county by county, O’Rourke is slowly getting his name out with crowded, grass-roots events like the one in Pittsburg.
“I love Beto, I came out to see him. I’ve probably seen him eight times. He stands for everything that Ted Cruz doesn’t and I think he’s the real deal,” said retired teacher Barbara Rosel.
O’Rourke’s substantial fundraising has also drawn notice.
“In the first 45 days of this year we raised $2.3 million with an average online contribution of 25 bucks,” said O’Rourke as he spoke to NPR while sitting down for lunch at a Pittsburg restaurant called Hot Links. Cruz raised about $800,000 during the same period. “I just haven’t seen this kind of excitement and energy and willingness to do what it takes in Texas in my life,” O’Rourke added.
That fundraising may help him make up for the lack of awareness Texas voters have of the Democrat, according to Texas Tribune executive editor and political analyst Ross Ramsey. “I think he’ll have enough money, whether they vote red or blue in November, Texans will know who Beto O’Rourke really is,” Ramsey told NPR.
O’Rourke is capitalizing on an extremely restive Democratic electorate. Although Texas Democrats have been largely shut out of statewide office for the past two decades, they’ve been closing the gap with Republicans. In 2016, Hillary Clinton got 600,000 more votes in Texas than Barack Obama did just four years earlier. President Trump won the state by about 9 percent.
O’Rourke says the president has a lot to do with the energy among Democrats.
“They’re coming out because they don’t want a wall [with Mexico]. People are coming out because they don’t want to hear the president refer to the countries of Africa as ‘s***hole’ nations,” said O’Rourke. “People are coming out because they don’t think the press is the enemy of the people, they think they’re the best defense against tyranny. People are coming out because they want women to be treated with dignity and respect.”
The tall, thin 45-year-old sometimes gets described as a West Texas version of John F. Kennedy. But it’s O’Rourke’s unabashed liberalism and earnest delivery that makes Democrats swoon.
At the Pittsburg event, O’Rourke criticized the state’s decision to shut down family planning clinics, arguing it has resulted in sky-high maternal mortality rates. In a state where guns are sometimes seen as a birthright, he argues for universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.
O’Rourke has two challengers in this Tuesday’s Democratic primary, but had a 50 point lead in the latest polling.
This fall, it’s likely O’Rourke will face Ted Cruz in the general election. Although Cruz’s reputation with Republican voters suffered when he refused to endorse Donald Trump’s nomination at the 2016 Republican National Convention, he is an accomplished fundraiser and formidable opponent.
Cruz’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment, but Cruz is taking the race seriously.
He recently warned Houston-area Republicans: “The left is going to show up. They will crawl over broken glass in November to vote.”
Early voting numbers in Tuesday’s Texas primaries show that Democrats have more than doubled their numbers from the same point in the 2014 midterms, while Republicans are up only 15 percent, according to David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.
Ramsey warns that it’s easy to read too much into early vote totals, since they may just indicate Democrats are taking advantage of the convenience of early voting. The final turnout on Tuesday will be a better indication of where things sit.
“It’s still a Republican state. It would take a lot of things to fall in place, but that said, up to this date O’Rourke has a lot of things going for him,” Ramsey said.
He added that many Texas political observers are reminding themselves that they saw the rise of another long-shot Senate candidate six years ago.
His name was Ted Cruz.