Simshauser ’20: Can progressive values flip Texas?

With the 2018 midterm elections less than a month away, much of the optimism for Democrats has been focused on the House of Representatives. This is for good reason — a “Blue Wave” is more likely to manifest in the larger sample of 435 House races, in which 432 have a Democratic candidate. Moreover, both polling and fundraising augur success for Democrats in the House; FiveThirtyEight’s forecast gives Democrats a 74 percent chance of winning a majority of representatives.

In the Senate, however, Democrats’ ambitions are comparatively dampened. Democratic incumbents are running in ten states won by President Trump in the 2016 election. For Democrats to seize control of the Senate, they must hold all ten races, while also gaining two seats in Sun Belt states — Tennessee, Arizona, Nevada or Texas. This geographic area is vital for the Democratic Party in the near-term, but also in terms of the broader, macro-level trends of national politics. As demographic changes rapidly alter the national electorate, Democrats can no longer rely on the predominantly white, older voter in the traditional Midwestern swing states. Instead, the most pivotal question facing Democrats — for both the midterms and beyond — is whether they can overturn the decades-long Republican hold in the Sun Belt.

The Senate race in Texas, between Rep. Beto O’Rourke and incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), represents the first race in the new electoral battleground. Nowhere has the electoral landscape shifted as rapidly as it has in the Lone Star state. Once the emblem of Sun Belt conservatism, Texas’ transformation into a purple state was codified in the 2016 presidential election; Hillary Clinton came closer to winning in Texas than she did in the apocryphal “swing state” of Iowa. For its part, the Democratic Party has invested substantially in O’Rourke’s campaign, and the campaign itself has generated enthusiasm from progressive Democrats and independents alike, thus building on his fundraising advantage. This caused the Cook Political Report to revise its forecast of Texas from “lean Republican” to “toss-up,” further concretizing the notion of Texas as a battleground state.

Unlike other Democratic candidates in Sun Belt states — Tennessee’s Phil Bredesen comes to mind — O’Rourke has not branded himself as a centrist Democrat. Instead, he uncompromisingly promotes tenets of the progressive agenda. At freewheeling town halls, he advocates for gun control. He stresses the need for a single-payer health care system. And he praises the fortitude of NFL players who knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality. But above all, his campaign’s keystone issue is immigration. Throughout his campaign, he has emphasized the need to embrace all immigrants, irrespective of their status; “The right thing to do is to legalize America,” O’Rourke has said, emphasizing that amnesty is fundamental to his message. While incumbent Democrats in red states gave ambiguous responses to Trump’s deplorable positions on immigration, O’Rourke solidified his progressive stance.

O’Rourke’s background makes him uniquely suited to champion sweeping immigration reform. He grew up in El Paso and returned in 2005 to serve on the City Council. In 2012, he ran for Congress in the majority-Hispanic or Latino 16th district, easily winning with over 65 percent of the vote. His nickname — a Spanglish title, short for Robert — reflects the resonance of his experience growing up along the border. Indeed, Texas is an ideal state for his ambitious immigration platform. The Hispanic or Latino population, as identified by the U.S. Census, constitutes 39 percent of Texas, almost equivalent to the 42 percent mark of non-Hispanic whites. Historically, these populations have been disproportionately represented in Texas’ electorate — white voters contributed 62 percent of votes in the 2016 presidential election. But for Beto optimists, there is a sense that the 2018 electorate will more closely resemble the actual population — by staking an admirable position of inclusion, O’Rourke will energize turnout among these underrepresented voters.

The stakes of the Texas race, then, are not merely a vital seat in a closely contested Senate. Rather, it could mark an inflection point in national politics. As Republicans solidify their hold in the heartland, Democrats can run on immigration to unseat the GOP in Sun Belt states — the region where Barry Goldwater birthed modern conservatism in the 1960s. There is certainly an impetus to push for success in these states. “If Texas went blue,” Lawrence Wright espouses in his recent book God Save Texas, “there would be a Democratic electoral lock on the presidency.”

But reasons for a Democratic expansion into the Southwest extend beyond the political realm. While much of the country shares O’Rourke’s warm view of immigration, the Trumpified GOP has widened its attacks on immigrants and the very idea that the United States should embrace ethnic diversity. In August, Fox News host Laura Ingraham delimited the stakes for Trump supporters. “The America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore,” she opined in a nakedly white nationalist monologue. “Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people … related to both illegal and legal immigration.” In the face of virulently nativist rhetoric, an O’Rourke victory would not only portend future success for Democrats in traditionally conservative states. It would — more importantly — signal that even in what is ostensibly “Trump country,” voters do not agree with the President’s hardline policies against immigration.

Derek Simshauser ’20 can be reached at derek_simshauser@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com

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