Beto O’Rourke is on fire. In front of the altar of the historic Good Street Baptist Church on a steamy late-summer night in Dallas, the wiry young congressman is pacing back and forth across the red carpet. He is not speaking. He is preaching, with a fury at injustice that echoes across the centuries—from the West Texas populist rabble-rousers of the 1890s to the San Antonio labor organizers of the 1930s to the border-town civil-rights campaigners of the 1950s and the intersectional activists of right now. O’Rourke’s words do not come in a steady stream of predictable political parlance. They explode in bursts of righteous anger and indignation over the killing of another young African-American man by another white police officer.
“How can it be, in this day and age, in this very year, in this community, that a young man, African-American, in his own apartment, is shot and killed by a police officer?” he demands. People in the crowd of 2,000, which has packed the church days after 26-year-old Botham Jean was killed by a police officer in his Dallas apartment, begin to rise. They are clapping—slowly at first, and then faster. There are shouts of “Yes!” and “Right!” More people rise as O’Rourke continues. “And when we all want justice and the facts and the information to make an informed decision, what’s released to the public? That he had a small amount of marijuana in his kitchen.” The applause is now thunderous. Everyone is on their feet, roaring their approval as O’Rourke thunders: “How can that be just in this country? How can we continue to lose the lives of unarmed black men in the United States of America at the hands of white police officers? That is not justice. That is not us. That can and must change.”
That’s the Democratic nominee for the US Senate in the Lone Star State talking. Texas: the state that has not backed a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Texas: the state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994. Texas: the state that in 2012, by a 57–41 margin, elected Senator Ted Cruz, the paleoconservative firebrand who would briefly serve as the standard-bearer of the “Never Trump” Republicans, who entertained the fantasy that there was a space to the right of Donald Trump. Cruz would have preferred to be president, but he’ll settle for another term in the Senate. To that end, he has made his peace with Trump—a compromise that has earned him ridicule, like the mobile billboard that’s been showing up all over Texas with a Trump tweet from 2016 reading: “Why would the people of Texas support Ted Cruz when he has accomplished nothing for them? He is another all talk, no action pol!”
Cruz is an absurd figure, a political careerist so craven that he is now carrying water for the guy who tried to link Cruz’s own father to the John F. Kennedy assassination. But, historically, absurdity has not been a disqualifying trait in Texas. So the best bet going into the 2018 election was that Cruz would do what Republicans have done in every Senate race for a quarter-century: Slay the latest Democratic sacrificial lamb. “Since 1988, when Lloyd Bentsen won re-election to the Senate, Democrats have spent close to a billion dollars on consultants and pollsters and experts and campaign wizards and have performed terribly,” O’Rourke told The Texas Tribune as he launched a rule-breaking challenge to the incumbent. For a campaign that would upend Texas politics, O’Rourke gave up a safe seat in the House, renounced PAC money, and headed off in a Dodge Grand Caravan to campaign in every one of the state’s 254 counties. “There’s no private jet, no consultant, no pollster saying, ‘This is the message you have to say to this group or that,’” O’Rourke announced. “We allow people to drive the conversation and this campaign.”