EL PASO—Beto O’Rourke’s first fan, his mother Melissa, walked through the door of his campaign headquarters on Monday after another long day of get-out-the-vote efforts. She echoed the cautious optimism that the Democratic senate candidate’s supporters have uttered in recent days as Election Day approached: he has a chance.
“Almost everyone we saw today had already early voted or planned to vote for Beto tomorrow,” she told The Daily Beast in an outfit suitable for knocking on doors in the bright Texas sun: bandana around her neck, hat and sunglasses.
As polls closed, more than 7 million people had voted, surpassing total turnout in Texas for the entire 2014 election. As Election Day dawned, polls put Republican Sen. Ted Cruz ahead of O’Rourke, a Democratic congressman from El Paso by an average of eight points.
For O’Rourke’s supporters, it all amounts to four words: “he has a chance.” Talk to nearly anyone with a Beto shirt, sticker or button and they’ll repeat the line. The reason that the optimism is guarded is because Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.
“This is the most important time of our lives,” O’Rourke told an auditorium packed with more than 1,000 people at the University of El Paso on Monday night.
For Cruz, that statement is certainly true. A loss on Election Day might mark the end of the a political career that had him as a presidential hopeful just two years ago. O’Rourke would also be out of a job if he loses: he had to forego reelection to the House to run for the Senate.
Thousands are expected to watch the results at a minor-league baseball stadium where O’Rourke is expected to arrive Tuesday night from campaign headquarters.
If O’Rourke somehow wins, it will be a testament to his likability: many of O’Rourke’s supporters tout his quite liberal policy positions only after gushing about him as a person.
“I just believe in him,” said Claudia Martinez, a campaign volunteer and friend of the O’Rourke family.
“He actually cares about people, and you can tell that he cares,” said Alessandra Merino, a 19-year-old UTEP student, outside O’Rourke’s Monday night rally.
“I feel like Beto is listening to us. I feel like he represents us,” Ana Rico, Merino’s friend, chimed in. “I’m nervous, though. Some polls are dead even.”
This personal connection to O’Rourke drives his supporters—much like the millions who voted for Trump or Barack Obama years earlier. O’Rourke speaking fluent Spanish doesn’t hurt, either. Whenever O’Rourke dives into a run in Spanish during his rallies, the crowd goes wild.
It’s not just style: it’s a campaign strategy. O’Rourke has he visited all 254 Texas counties—a fact that has become meme-like thanks to his repeating it at every campaign stop—but he’s made himself accessible in ways that Cruz just isn’t. O’Rourke and a skeleton crew of campaign staffers were rolling around Texas in an SUV, filming Facebook live videos of them talking, eating, and answering questions. Then came the viral video of O’Rourke supporting NFL players who protested racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem.
In October, Cruz the senator called for help in the form of a presidential rally. In Houston, the senator grinned and thanked the president who two years prior he had called a “coward” for making an obscure threat about digging up dirt on Cruz’s wife, Heidi.
O’Rourke kept traveling Texas, writing updates to supporters from the seat of his plane on a recent flight from Dallas to Houston, and holding several events a day for weeks on end, before heading back to El Paso to be home for Election Day.
The question remains whether voters, especially Hispanic ones, will show up on Tuesday in the numbers similar to early voting, or whether the apathy of elections past will remain in place.
Felipe Castenada, a chemist and second-generation American whose parents were seasonal farm workers from Mexico before becoming citizens, said his mother has never voted, and even O’Rourke won’t change that.
“She just doesn’t think it matters, that it affects her, and I won’t try to convince her otherwise,” he said. “She’s too stubborn.”
Outside the county building on Tuesday morning, two O’Rourke campaign volunteers secured an Uber ride for Fidel Ontiveros to take him to a polling place about 15 minutes from his home. Ontiveros said he was voting for the first time in his 18 years as an American citizen.
“I’m voting for Beto because I don’t like the kind of people like Trump,” said Ontiveros, who was born just across the border in Juarez and has worked as a laborer in the U.S. for 35 years. “He and a lot of other people are talking shit about Mexicans. Republicans aren’t very popular [among] Mexicans right now.”
Unable to afford the Uber, O’Rourke campaign volunteer Virginia Carrasco paid for Ontiveros’ ride. “That’s how important this vote is,” she said.
Republican officials in El Paso said Tuesday night they areconfident that Cruz will survive based on what they said are low voting numbers in heavily Democratic districts throughout the city. GOP poll watchers have been reporting back to headquarters all day with numbers from El Paso’s lower valley, which includes the heavily Hispanic neighborhoods of Chihuahuita and Segundo Barrio, with low turnout numbers. On Tuesday afternoon, the main polling location in Segundo Barrio had no line with only about 20 voters trickling in and out over the course of an hour.
“We’re feeling very good because the sectors of El Paso that are mostly Democrats, hardly anyone is voting there,” said Lisa Sprinkel at the El Paso County Republican Party headquarters Tuesday night. “And the Republican districts are reporting big turnout.”
At the Barrio Segundo polling location, Carmen Silva cast her vote for Cruz. The 62-year-old said her main concern was safety, specifically from the caravans of migrants that remain thousands of miles away.
“I feel more comfortable with what he says about the caravans,” she said of Cruz. “They just want to come in illegally. I’m not prejudice but they should have to do it legally. I just think we have enough people here already.”
A few hours before, Customs and Border Protection announced it would not hold a planned exercise on the Paso Del Norte bridge between El Paso and Juarez after drawing criticism it may intimidate Hispanic voters in the Chihuahuita neighborhood.
“Today is not a good day to be here,” said one Border Patrol officer. “We’re short-staffed and I don’t know why but it’s really busy. I do know this: Beto is gonna get wiped out today. We hate him.”
GOP officials and loyalists here believe their poll watchers, and further believe that their reports mean low Democratic turnout in the reliably blue city of El Paso is good news for Cruz.
“I’ll be extremely disappointed if he [Cruz] doesn’t win,” said Adolpho Telles, chairman of the El Paso County GOP, “but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’m not a betting man but if I was I’d put $1,000 down on Cruz in Vegas right now.”