Elizabeth Warren would win. Beto O’Rourke would lose. She by a lot, he by a little. On Tuesday, out here in their respective corner pockets of the American pool table, the results seemed preordained yet somehow beside the point. In the desert chill of El Paso, there would be destiny in defeat. In rain-soaked Boston, there would be prologue in victory. Tuesday may not have been a massive wave, but for Democrats, it felt like a preview.
“I’m as hopeful as I’ve ever been in my life,” O’Rourke said, after coming within 2.6 points of slaying Sen. Ted Cruz, perhaps the most reviled man in Congress. O’Rourke’s undaunted supporters chanted “2020! 2020!” in El Paso’s minor-league baseball stadium.
“Tomorrow we get right back in the fight,” Warren said near the end of her reelection speech in downtown Boston, after defeating a senatorial candidate no one’s heard of en route to a possible campaign against the man no one can stop thinking about.
At long last, the first temperature check since President Trump’s victory. Everyone had been running hot. The red hats showed up at MAGA rallies. The Women’s March, the travel ban, Charlottesville, family separations at the border, the Kavanaugh hearings — all in the past 22 months, each a flame underneath a simmering resistance. And then people voted, in record numbers for a midterm election.
For Democrats, it felt like a countrywide casting call for a 2020 hero, for someone (anyone) who might have the guts and skills to take on an incumbent armed with a good economy. It was the last day of the 2018 election, the 1,240th day of the 2016 campaign America just can’t seem to shake and day zero for 2020.
In Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown declared that his reelection victory was “the blueprint for our nation in 2020.” Pundits brazenly admired Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s healthy margins in Minnesota, a state Democrats nearly lost two years ago — might she bury Trump in a head-to-head? Sen. Bernie Sanders used the occasion of his easy victory to polish a new stump speech (“This is a pivotal moment in American history. . . . The American people, led by the state of Vermont, are going to stand up and fight back”), as did Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (“we refuse to let what’s wrong win”). Sen. Kamala D. Harris spent the day in her home state of California, a break from campaigning for candidates in places such as Iowa and South Carolina. Sen. Cory Booker spent the day on his home state of Twitter, cheering on Democratic colleagues with races and doing his best to stay on your radar.
Which brings us to the corner pockets. Massachusetts, Yankee incubator of John Adams and John F. Kennedy, sole dissenter against Richard Nixon in 1972 ("Don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts" went the bumper stickers). And Texas. Well, El Paso, anyway. El Paso is not quite Texas, and two years ago El Paso was not quite anything, in national politics.
In February 2017, just before he announced his long-shot bid for the Senate, Beto O’Rourke was a third-term minority-party congressman sitting on a West Texas hilltop after an early morning hike, saying this about his hometown: “It’s had a chip on its shoulder. For a long time it was a place that people passed over.”
Not anymore. This week there were no rental cars left at the El Paso airport. Hotels were booked solid. Media crews descended from around the country and the world, from Paris and Tokyo and Berlin, just in case the Gen Xer in the blue dress shirt with the rolled-up sleeves did the impossible.
At 8:53 a.m. Tuesday on the East Coast, as fog gave way to rain, Warren entered a rickety elementary school gymnasium in Cambridge, her regular polling location for years. Outside, children clung to a chain-link fence and chanted “Thank you for vo-ting, thank you for vo-ting, thank you for vo-ting.” Kate Leach, a grad student at Harvard, held a Warren sign. “I would like to see her run for president,” she said.
Seventeen minutes later, and two time zones to the west, O’Rourke arrived with his family at their polling station in the Sunset Heights neighborhood of El Paso. Supporters had already unfolded banners along overpasses above Interstate 10. The sunrise was golden in a pale-blue sky.
Did he expect to win?
“Yes,” O’Rourke said, holding a mug of coffee in the middle of El Paso Street.
“I can feel it,” he said.
The border town held its breath, buckled down, did the work. Over in northeast El Paso, Ann Singer was smoking a Marlboro at her dining table and plotting the final hours of her pop-up operation to get out the vote. Women were coming through to phone bank and going out to knock doors. Regardless of the outcome, Singer, 72, thought the rest of the country has something to learn from El Paso, which has a deep financial and emotional relationship with Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city just across the Rio Grande.
"Do you think we're afraid of a caravan?" Singer said. "If immigrants get here, they work hard, they stay at periscope depth. They clean our homes, they take care of our old people, they build our roads. These are honorable people."
Warren’s offices in Lynn, Mass., were run by women and staffed by women — older women with brooches, younger women with pens behind their ears. Bambi Snodgrass, 58, had been knocking on doors since May. She hit 167 homes over the weekend.
“I’ve been to Washington for Kavanaugh. I’ve been arrested five times. I went for family separations as well,” she said. “I’m here because I’m putting my money where my mouth is. . . . Every day I am outraged, and I used that outrage to fuel change.”
Hers wasn’t a close race, so much of Warren’s time had been spent calling candidates across the country to offer support and advice. Her staff was spread out, too, working in key presidential primary states such as South Carolina and Nevada. Warren’s Republican opponent, Geoff Diehl, is a representative in the Massachusetts statehouse, and her independent challenger, Shiva Ayyadurai, had yard signs that said, “It will take a real Indian to defeat a Fake Indian.”
In El Paso, the Beto signs — four stark white letters on black — were everywhere. Yards. Cars. Stickers on people’s cheeks. There were at least two small signs for Ted Cruz, both near the entrance to the headquarters of the El Paso County Republican Party, on the back side of a business park. But there was quiet confidence in Cruz, because Texas is Texas. O’Rourke “makes a lot of promises,” said GOP county chairman Adolpho Telles, sitting in his office at lunchtime, “but he doesn’t talk about how he’s going to get it done.”
Just after 3 p.m. local time, Houston native Beyoncé posted an endorsement of O’Rourke on Instagram. It wouldn’t be enough.
Warren's race was called when polls closed at 8 p.m. Eastern time, so hundreds of Democrats gathered in a hotel ballroom in downtown Boston to fret about other parts of the country. They nursed $11 glasses of white wine and stared at their phones.
“I’m optimistic but terrified.”
“I’m nervous but excited.”
“I need a Xanax.”
“These white wines need to be a lot cheaper for the amount I plan to drink.”
Meanwhile, in downtown El Paso, Karis and Ed Stansbury were in line to get into O’Rourke’s stadium rally. It seemed like everyone in El Paso had a personal connection to the O’Rourke family — the Stansburys’ son played on the same baseball team as the candidate’s daughter — and so by Tuesday night the race seemed like a family matter.
“We’ve been consumed by it,” said Ed, 39, as “Beto” chants broke out in the queue. The stadium was mostly full by 7:30 p.m., as Fox News projected that the Democrats would take control of the House. There were no TVs in the stadium, so attendees huddled over their phones, thumbing refresh, as cell service got more sluggish.
The news spread like a fog just after 8 p.m.: Cruz appeared to have beaten O’Rourke, but not by much. People stayed anyway. They smiled and danced anyway. The result was not the end.
At 11:11 p.m. Eastern time, Warren bounded onto the stage in Boston and held her arms out wide, letting the cheers wash over her.
“Thank you! And thank you to the women who are leading Massachusetts!” she shouted. “And let’s make sure nobody rewrites history: This resistance began with women, and it’s being led by women tonight.” Up near the front, a woman clapped a pair of black high-heel shoes together in applause.
She spoke for 20 minutes, using the word “fight” 26 times, and closed with a promise: “Tonight, we send a message to the world: We’re just getting started.”
“2020!” a man from the back shouted.
In less than a half-hour, it would be a new day.
“Well, that was an absolutely presidential speech,” said Lindsay Crudele, 36. “She’s got the kind of fight that we need right now.”
About an hour later, in El Paso, O’Rourke took the stage with no introduction. The infield was mobbed with cheering fans. Chants of “2020” broke out.
“We will see you out there, down the road,” he promised, then left the stage and headed for an exit in left field as John Lennon’s “Imagine” echoed through the stadium. Javier Paz ran after O’Rourke until a gate stopped him, and then he called out: “You’ll win! You’ll win!”
He was talking about what everyone else was thinking about.
“Beto’s the next president of the United States,” said Paz, 41, an El Paso teacher, after O’Rourke disappeared. “Because he almost won Texas. He just needs Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, and he can win those if he can almost win Texas. It’s his if he wants it.”
Tuesday wasn’t yet over. But a new Day One was just over the horizon.
Zak reported from El Paso. Terris reported from Boston.