EL PASO, Texas—The race was over. Irma Zambrano cried as she listened to Beto O’Rourke, his voice mostly gone, conceding victory to Senator Ted Cruz late Tuesday night. Zambrano was thinking about her father.
“He went through a lot coming up in this country,” Zambrano said, recounting his journey from his childhood in Mexico to El Paso, where he worked as a Border Patrol agent before becoming a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official. “But he always told us you can’t change this country unless you vote.”
Zambrano and millions of her fellow Texans did just that, even as they fell short of ousting the incumbent Republican in a loss that was painful, but expected, by many. Zambrano was among a crowd of O’Rourke’s supporters who packed into a minor league baseball stadium Tuesday night. As the candidate conceded the crowd thinned, just barely, by the time O’Rourke took the stage and told the assembled, “I’m so fucking proud of you.”
“It hurts, it sucks, but I just hope for the best for the future,” said Brianna Acosta, a first-generation American whose father was born in Chihuahua, Mexico. “I’m disappointed about tonight, but honestly it was what I expected.”
Cruz prevailed against O’Rourke, but not by much. Losing by less than a quarter of a million votes, with 48.3 percent of some 8.3 million votes cast, his campaign proved that a Democrat could come close here—if not yet go all the way.
“After this, whether or not Texas is conservative, I think not so much,” Acosta said. “It’s pretty impressive what happened tonight.”
Millions of Texans voted a straight Democratic ticket line, a shortcut the state is eliminating in 2020, and even as O’Rourke fell short his campaign helped Democrats at the local level prevail in their own contests in the increasingly purple state. Those votes likely cost the county its lone Republican county commissioner, said Bob Pena of the El Paso County Republican Party.
“El Paso’s always been a straight-party-ticket city but we’ve never seen turnout like this,” Pena said from his office at GOP headquarters as election results just started to roll in. “These numbers could mean we’ll lose our commissioner and some state legislators. It will be a problem.”
There were problems at the national level for Republicans, too. The GOP lost governorships in five states and Democrats took back the House.
“I’m looking at Democrats taking the House as a point of hope,” Acosta said.
Spirits had been cautiously high earlier in the day, when results were still coming in and Texas and other states were absorbing record early voting numbers.
“I want Beto to win but I don’t think he’s going to,” Jesus Almada, a 54-year-old street worker for the city of El Paso, had said earlier in the night, before O’Rourke conceded. “A lot of Democratic people are lazy and don’t come out to vote. That’s why I have to give credit to Republicans, they really do get out and vote.”
Some Republicans, including Trump himself, pointed to the president’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric about immigrants in the final weeks of the campaign as the reason why Cruz and others prevailed.
“When he [Trump] won I was neutral, but now after the stupidity of the way he talks, I just don’t like him,” Almada said. “I think he’s a racist deep inside,”
The crowd in El Paso booed when a TV pundit announced this bit of insider Beltway reporting.
“I hate to say it, but maybe it worked,” Zambrano conceded.
Still, there was hope in El Paso despite Beto’s loss.
“When Trump was elected, I think a lot of young people said, we’re going to do something about this,” Acosta told The Daily Beast as she and thousands of others waited for the candidate himself to confirm his defeat. “Because my father is going through the immigration process, I’m thinking about all the people who are also going through it. But it’s also about my friends who are part of marginalized communities who are quite literally afraid for their lives.”
O’Rourke lost Tuesday night after a 22-month barnstorming tour of the state that put countless miles of Texas asphalt on the SUVs of his campaign. He noted, constantly, that while Ted Cruz visited all 99 counties in Iowa during his failed 2016 presidential run, O’Rourke hit up every one of the 254 Texas counties.
Not long after the Associated Press announced that Cruz had won, the jumbotron in the outfield continued to show footage of the empty stage. Then, huge cheers when the screen went to MSNBC, followed by boos when the devastating results appeared. Then, beers and drinks and hopeful songs: Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up; The Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends; Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
Many cried as O’Rourke thanked his wife, family, friends and supporters—and invoked, as many politicians would not dare to do, an American city’s undeniable relationship with its Mexican counterpart just across the border.
“As one half of the largest bi-national community anywhere in the Americas, (we) joined with Ciudad Juarez to form something powerful, magical, and nothing to be afraid of or walled off or to apologize for, “O’Rourke said.
Many in the crowd, with family and friends from or still living in Juarez and elsewhere in Chihuahua, cried. Zambrano was among them.
“We cannot get down about this,” she said. “We are a nation of immigrants. We have to keep believing each other and not whatever is coming out of Trump’s mouth.”