Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso) in front of thousands at Auditorium Shores in Austin on Sept. 29, 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Call it the Beto Effect.

Of course President Trump gets some credit. He riles up Democrats before breakfast. Then he riles up Republicans after dinner. Voter participation was heavy across the nation. But in Texas part of it was Beto’s coattails.

Beto broke some hearts Tuesday night by coming teasingly close to victory, but Democrats ought to wipe their eyes so they can see clearly. Beto helped their party take a substantial step toward turning Texas purple. They can mope, or they can mobilize.

Let’s start at the local level, right here in Bexar County. Four years ago in the last gubernatorial election, 304,092 voters cast ballots here (31.7 percent turnout). Democratic participation was so anemic that of 15 district judge races, only one Democrat won. Judge Peter Sakai was lucky enough (or perhaps respected enough) not to draw an opponent.

Only one of the other district judge races was competitive.

This year, 415,292 citizens voted, a whopping 36 percent increase. And you can measure the increase in Democratic participation by the fact that every one of those district court benches that was contested went to a Democrat by more than 10 points.

Obviously Democrats had no faith in Beto back in March when the primary was held. Democrats were so used to getting creamed in off-year elections that nobody filed against the Republicans who held seven of the judicial seats.

Any lawyer who barely passed the bar exam and had been handling traffic tickets for four years could have paid a filing fee and found himself or herself pulling down $158,000 a year and being obsequiously called “Your honor.” (We need to have a conversation about the idiocy of electing judges in large counties.)

This year, which would normally be a Republican year, Democrats virtually took over the courthouse, winning every contested countywide race, including county and district clerkships long held by competent Republicans.

Beto’s coattails stretched to the Legislature as well. Philip Cortez became the first incumbent in 10 years to hold onto his seat in Bexar County’s Westside House District 117. It had flipped back and forth between Dems in presidential years and Republicans in gubernatorial years.

Statewide, Democrats picked up 12 seats in the state House of Representatives,
going from a 95-55 minority to a more respectable 83-67 minority. It will be
interesting see if they have more juice, especially with the return of San Antonian
Trey Martinez Fischer, a master parliamentary obstructionist known for his ability
to find obscure ways to kill legislation.

Democrats picked up two seats in the state Senate, leaving Republicans with more than the 60 percent necessary to control legislation. And Democrats shared in the flipping of the U.S. House of Representatives by defeating one incumbent Republican in Houston and another from Dallas.

They came close to getting two more districts partly in Bexar County. U.S. Rep. Will Hurd appears to have defeated newcomer Gina Ortiz Jones by all of 689 votes in the state’s most competitive district. And in Lamar Smith’s old district, which Trump carried by 10 points two years ago, Republican Chip Roy garnered just over 50 percent of the vote to beat out Joseph Kopser by 2.8 points.

Once again Democrats failed to win a single statewide office. But the light at the end of the tunnel got much brighter. Not only did Beto hold Ted Cruz to 51 percent, he dragged along a train of statewide candidates, relatively underfunded and little known, to similar effect. Consider:

  • Four years ago, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick got 58 percent of the vote. This year, he won 51 percent.
  • Four years ago, Attorney General Ken Paxton cruised with 59 percent. This year, 51 percent.
  • Four years ago, Land Commissioner George P. Bush won 61 percent. This year, 54 percent.
  • Four years ago, Comptroller Glenn Hegar got 58 percent. This year, 53 percent.
  • Four years ago, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller received 59 percent. This year, 51 percent.

You get the point. If these fellows aren’t hearing footsteps, they should take the
earbuds out.

Of course, it could be that Beto was a fleeting flash with magical fundraising powers. And who knows if Trump will be in office in four years? But even in his loss, Beto showed what is possible.

I’ll bet four years from now, none of the Bexar County Republican district judges will run unopposed. And Democrats will know what to look for in statewide candidates.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.