WATAUGA, Texas — Each candidate hit applause lines as the Democratic debate beamed into the cramped Texas dining room filled with soupy bowls of Vietnamese pho.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund manager, scored for calling President Trump a “criminal.” Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator, won applause for talking up the right to legalized abortion. Elizabeth Warren drew in support for proposing to tax “wealth, not income.”
But it was not until 45 minutes that the Democratic watch party came alive. It was the moment Beto O’Rourke answered his second question.
“Americans don’t want a handout, they want a shot,” said the former Democratic congressman from El Paso, Texas, delivering a passionate call for fair treatment of workers. “They want a guarantee that if they work hard they can find success in our country.”
It brought the biggest cheers of the night. “Go Beto,” shouted one man looking up from a steaming bowl of noodles.
“Everyone in this room was a Beto person,” explained Maryellen Hicks, 70, a retired district court judge, during a commercial break. But Betomania is a distant memory in Texas a year after his spectacular Senate race came so close to victory. He may not qualify for the next debate.
“I’ll take anyone who can win now,” Hicks said.
Almost all the candidates had a supporter or two among the 40-plus Democrats crammed into the Pho A and A restaurant just outside Fort Worth.
Their chat was punctuated at regular intervals by shouts of “chicken crispy rolls” as the owner passed among the tables. The vegetable rolls were sold out within the first 20 minutes.
One man arrived in a Yang Gang T-shirt. Another quietly confessed to liking former Vice President Joe Biden, 76, but was worried about how old he was looking. One woman talked up Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, 58, then admitted she had little chance of winning.
When you live in a traditionally red corner of Texas, a certain degree of pragmatism comes with the territory. Turning Texas blue and diverting its 38 electoral college votes over to the Democratic candidate would change American politics for a generation.
It is a tall order, but the members of the Tarrant Country Democratic Party and its new Asian American and Pacific Islanders committee, which hosted the watch party, see things changing.
“This is the fastest growing community in the county and the fastest growing in the state,” said Kazi Chowdhury, its chairman.
The state remains red. But for how long?
Mitt Romney won by 16 percentage points in 2012 and Trump by nine points in 2016, while Sen. Ted Cruz won by just three points over O’Rourke in last year’s hard-fought Senate race.
The midterm elections brought successes for Democrats and a wake-up call for Republicans, as a high turnout saw two congressional districts turn from red to blue.
Tarrant County is a particular focus for strategists. Not only does the city of Fort Worth make it a major population center, but its rapid growth and changing demographics position it as the sort of bellwether county that could reflect the national result.
It has not backed a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson won his home state in 1964, yet O’Rourke triumphed in this county over Cruz.
On screen, Biden was stuttering as he tried to attack Warren and Bernie Sanders for being vague on how they would fund their healthcare plans. The room echoed with hoots.
Alexis Kern, 51, said, “You see, Beto is still a better alternative.”
She had the facts and figures to suggest he was in a similar position to Barack Obama at the same stage of the election cycle. Left-ish enough to offer an alternative to the centrists, but not so Left-ish as to turn off independents.
“He would be more electable in that one-on-one fight with Trump,” said the attorney.
Not everyone shared her optimism.
“We loved him when he was running for Senate,” said Nova Wall, 66, a retired nurse. “But it breaks my heart to see him now. I heard about the video he did at the dentist’s … the thing he did standing on the table.”
She trailed off looking confused before regaining her train of thought. Beating Trump meant backing a Biden, a Booker, or a Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor, she said.
“They have a chance to win. The others don’t have a chance,” she added.
“We hear it everywhere, the doctor’s office, the dentist’s … people saying I just can’t vote for a socialist.”
The post Texas Democrats look for a candidate as Betomania nostalgia fades appeared first on Washington Examiner.