Willie Nelson, left, performed at the "Turn Out for Texas" concert on Saturday in Austin, Tex., in support of Beto O'Rourke, right. (Laura Roberts/Laura Roberts/Invision/AP)
Ruth Pennebaker, a former columnist for the Texas Observer and the Dallas Morning News, is an Austin author and public radio commentator.

On June 25, 2013, I was at Wendy Davis’s legendary filibuster of new abortion restrictions in Texas (a fact I would like prominently mentioned in my obituary). I was crammed into a gallery at the state capitol, along with hundreds of other sweaty, raucous liberals. We were loud, we were wild, we were jubilant, and even after the filibuster ended, we didn’t want to go home. After midnight, public safety officers began to escort us out. “Don’t touch me! I’ve got a bad shoulder!” I howled at the red-faced officer who was herding me downstairs.

“I don’t think you get it,” I told my maddeningly calm husband the next day, trying to make him understand. “Wendy’s filibuster was transformative. It was exhilarating. I could feel the wind change at the capitol.”

Well, rats. I guess you know how that played out. The abortion legislation passed anyway. Davis ran for governor in 2014 and got stomped big time. And Texas Democrats continued their two-decade statewide losing streak. I quit talking about changes in the wind and started contemplating being reincarnated as a land tortoise. Liberals need a thick hide in a state like this — with its hurricanes, droughts, dust storms, poisonous snakes, cactus, swarming highways and Republican hordes. This is no country for old neurotics. So be careful when you talk to me about Beto O’Rourke, the great hope of a nation starved for new blue saviors.

For decades, we’ve listened to demographers and pundits predict that Texas, with its growing Hispanic population, will turn blue . (Soon! Any year now! Be patient!) “I’ve been hearing that just about my whole adult life,” says Mimi Swartz, an executive editor at Texas Monthly. “I’m a little tired of it.”

The truth is, we’re all tired. We’ve marched and held rallies, filibustered and given money, volunteered and voted — and for what? Our cities might have morphed blue, but the rest of the state still looks like an overripe tomato. Listen, when your heart gets cracked open one too many times, you’re pretty sure you’ll never trust again. Who needs the heartache?

So that’s how we were in the spring of 2017 — demoralized and listless and a little bitter — when we heard about some guy with a funny name who was running for the U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz. His name was Robert Francis O’Rourke, but he’d been called Beto since childhood. Beto was from El Paso, in a corner of Texas so remote it’s in another time zone. He was driving around the state, determined to visit all 254 of its counties. He wasn’t taking PAC money. He wanted to run a positive campaign, work across the aisle. He sounded great, but so what? In a state with 80,000 windmills, you can drive lots of miles tilting at them. Cruz had a vast Republican base, money, incumbency, name recognition. Beto, unknown and unfunded, didn’t have a chance. Even the people who supported him were mispronouncing his nickname. (It’s Beto with a short e.)

The months passed. Beto stayed on the road. Visited small towns and big cities. Showed up to help victims of Hurricane Harvey last August. Kept talking, driving, playing a smart game of social media through live-streaming and tweets. It didn’t hurt that he was charismatic and eloquent. His crowds grew, even in small towns and rural areas. (“Places where people hadn’t seen a Democrat in 25 years,” said veteran Democratic consultant Leland Beatty.)

The buzz got louder, more insistent. Cruz held a slight lead in fundraising throughout 2017. But this year, Beto pulled ahead, raising $23.6 million to the incumbent’s $15.6 million as of July 31. A video of his answer to a question about Colin Kaepernick’s NFL protests went viral, gaining him national exposure. He appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher shows. He began to close the gap in the polls. Then Willie Nelson — the closest thing to a saint in Texas — played a concert for Beto last weekend with a crowd estimated at more than 50,000 people, according to the Austin American-Statesman. (According to the Dallas Morning News, “Thousands of audience members screamed for O’Rourke as if he were the most famous celebrity on the stage Saturday night.”)

“Beto is the most talented political figure I’ve ever seen in Texas,” the New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright told me in an email. Wright’s recent bestseller, “God Save Texas,” chronicles his affection and disaffection for this state he calls home. “I think he’s got a good shot. If he wins, it will be part of Texas political history, standing beside Lyndon Johnson’s 1937 congressional race in terms of personal effort, and perhaps besides John Tower’s 1960 election to the U.S. Senate, in terms of consequence.”

Still. After a long history of Democratic dominance — with outsize personalities like Lyndon Johnson and Ann Richards looming from the prairies to the Gulf of Mexico — Texas has turned stubbornly, indelibly red since Richards’s 1994 gubernatorial loss to George W. Bush. Davis could not maintain the star power she’d briefly held with her dramatic filibuster. Texas Democrats have squabbled and fallen apart and waited for a miracle, and Texas voters have continued to stay home, with one of the lowest voting rates in the country. In the meantime, the Republicans command a powerful infrastructure that will take more than demography to dismantle.

There’s no question that Texas is a national prize. With its 38 electoral votes, second only to California’s 55, the state promises to be a force in the 2020 election. According to Forbes, Texas has grown 12.6 percent (twice California’s growth rate) since 2010, with a current population of 28.3 million. Another Democratic senator in a thinly divided Senate would be a blow to the Republican Party.

Beto — campaigning without the clamor of political consultants, stubbornly running an upbeat, offbeat race in a bleak and hostile climate — could be a new model of Democratic success in Texas and nationwide. When is the last time you heard of a fresh-faced, appealing young Democrat coming out of nowhere with an inspiring message and a funny name?

Right now, the polls are volatile, and even bruised Texas Democrats are hopeful. A little over a week ago the Cook Political Report moved the Senate race from “leans Republican” to “toss-up.” President Trump’s offer to campaign for Cruz may backfire, Beatty says: “Texans are used to a better class of billionaire.” Most of the Texas women I know, though — still smarting from the one-two punch of Davis’s and Hillary Clinton’s defeats in 2014 and 2016 — seem a bit more cautious.

But what the hell. After all these years, all these heartbreaks, most of us are optimistic again, in a skittish kind of way. We’re ready to believe that Beto can deliver us. I can feel the wind change. I swear I can feel it. I don’t think it’s the air conditioner.

ruthpennebaker@gmail.com

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