After O’Rourke Defeat, East Texas Democrats Disappointed but Optimistic about Future
By Vicky Camarillo
LUFKIN — At 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, Hilda Sustaita, 66, stared blankly at the television screen as a news anchor declared incumbent GOP Sen. Ted Cruz the victor in Texas’ U.S. Senate race. An hour earlier she was convinced that the candidate she favored, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, was about to win. Texas hadn’t elected a Democratic senator since Sustaita was 36 years old, but on Tuesday night the Democratic drought would end — she had been sure of it.
“This is unreal,” Sustaita said after O’Rourke’s defeat. “It feels like when Trump won.”
Sustaita had attended four of O’Rourke’s rallies before the election and was blown away by the enthusiasm and size of the crowds. On Tuesday evening, she joined a few dozen other East Texas Democrats at a friend’s house to watch the election returns. “Beto for Senate” signs dotted the home’s front lawn, an uncommon sight in Lufkin, a deeply conservative town of about 36,000 people.
O’Rourke’s defeat left some of the election party attendees asking: If a hardworking, ready-for-prime-time candidate such as O’Rourke can’t win in Texas, when will the state turn blue? Others said O’Rourke’s strong showing should inspire optimism about Democratic candidates’ chances in future statewide elections.
Dozens of East Texans such as Sustaita had spent months upon months doggedly trekking door to door to promote O’Rourke. They talked to passionate Republicans who argued that the Democrat didn’t stand a chance against Cruz, yet the Democrat true believers clung to the hope that O’Rourke, who has drawn the eyes of the nation, could turn the political tide in Texas.
He was, after all, a candidate whose campaign fundraising, totaling at least $69 million, was the most ever raised for a U.S. Senate race. He had visited each of Texas’ 254 counties and made public appearances that produced rock-star-level mania. His grassroots campaign and his charisma captured the imaginations of East Texans such as Sustaita and had convinced them that Texas was at last, after more than a decade of political pundits’ proclaiming it, about to turn blue.
Settling into a sofa, 70-year-old Jim Todd said he’d been hopeful about O’Rourke’s chances but had known O’Rourke faced an uphill battle, especially in the eastern part of the state.
East Texas has long been the epicenter of the conservative movement in the state and is home to Texas’ most prominent grassroots conservative leaders. Texas’ 1st Congressional District, which hugs the border with Louisiana, is represented by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tyler), whom the congressional data website GovTrack has named the fourth most conservative member of Congress. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won about 75 percent of the vote in the district.
Trump appealed to East Texans’ racist side, Todd said, and that racism is one reason that the area wasn’t ready for a candidate like O’Rourke. O’Rourke has described Trump’s desire to construct a wall on the southern border as “racist” and has spoken out in favor of NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality against people of color.
“That’s not going to change here in East Texas — East Trumpistan,” Todd said. “It’s the people my age and older. I don’t know what they’re afraid of, but they’re afraid that everything’s going to change. And I hope it will.”
Todd acknowledged that his political views are out of step with the majority of East Texans, especially people his age. Todd supports LGBTQ rights and is sympathetic to undocumented immigrants and religious minorities.
“There are people like me,” he said. “I hope that will prevail. It may not be this cycle, but we’ll get there.”
Although the mood turned somber when television anchors started declaring Cruz the victor, the thin margin — about 2.5 percent of the vote separated the candidates — gave the O’Rourke supporters some hope. In 2012, Cruz defeated his Democratic challenger by almost 16 percent.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said even with O’Rourke’s loss, he expects a Democrat to win a statewide race in the not-so-distant future.
“I think that is very likely over the next couple of decades as the Anglo population declines, as the Hispanic population increases, and assuming that the demographic breakdowns between the two parties stay about the same,” Jillson said. “It is just a matter of time.”
One of O’Rourke’s younger supporters at the election watch party, 22-year-old Arlett Bahena, said she remains optimistic about Democrats’ chances in future statewide elections.
“Just the fact that we got that close says a lot,” Bahena said. “I think it’s a big win.”