Bud Kennedy

For Tarrant Democrats, a big state Senate win and a lot of oh-so-close calls

Beto O’Rourke thanks supporters after losing Senate race to Ted Cruz

Democrat Beto O'Rourke thanks supporters in El Paso, Texas after losing Senate race to Ted Cruz.
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Democrat Beto O'Rourke thanks supporters in El Paso, Texas after losing Senate race to Ted Cruz.

On a night when Texas Democrats won plenty of upset victories but not the one they wanted most, Fort Worth Democrat Beverly Powell went from grand prize to consolation prize.

Back in 2016, when most Texas Democrats had never heard of obscure El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke, one of their big goals for this election was winning back the Texas state Senate seat in Fort Worth and Arlington.

It’s the only natural swing seat in Texas — or was until Tuesday. In the last 15 years, it’s flipped four times.

Once, Texas Democrats would have been happy just to beat Colleyville Republican state Sen. Konni Burton.

They did, but it took help from countless O’Rourke ads and volunteers, indivisible and Texas Blue groups, young voters and women voters, and the most ferocious Democratic campaign the party has shown in 30 years.

By night’s end, Powell thanked everyone who helped lift her across the finish line.

“We depended on Beto to pull his [voting] base,” she said by phone.

“But everybody helped, and it was one time the Tarrant County Democratic Party really pulled together. … We weren’t divided. We weren’t fighting among ourselves.”

Powell’s campaign had the support of business and hospitality leaders upset at Burton’s support for the so-called “bathroom bill.” She emerged with the backing of the Lone Star Project and a coalition led by U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey and state Rep. Chris Turner.

Her strongest opponent turned into her strongest ally. Euless Democrat Allison Campolo, a young progressive half her age, ran a tough primary race and then instead of going home, helped organize the county get-out-the-vote campaign.

It was often odd to see Powell at Democratic rallies full of younger voters. She’s an old-guard business Democrat, not a new-wave progressive. I can’t imagine her on a skateboard.

“You might be surprised,” she said.

As a former Burleson school board president and Texas Wesleyan University board president, she said, “I have always embraced young people. I want them to have the best education they can and the best opportunity. That’s what made the difference.”

She also credited educators, parents and teachers with supporting her campaign against Burton, a Tea Party Republican who grew up as the daughter of a former Glen Rose superintendent but rarely seemed to embrace modern-day Texas public schools.

Burton campaigned hard and ran effective advertising. Her ads described her homespun, off-the-cuff speaking style as “authentic” and said her maverick defiance of Republican business conservatives made her “independent.”

But her $500,000 in donations from West Texas oil investors made her look less independent, and she may have kept too much distance from business and government leaders in Fort Worth and Arlington.

Burton campaigned against “cronyism” and said she was a true voice of the people. But getting things done for Tarrant County takes allies and friends.

Powell said that mattered more than Burton’s voting record.

“I think what I heard over and over was that she had a closed-door policy,” Powell said. (For example, Burton refused to meet with outside lobbyists paid to represent local governments.)

“Our district wanted that open door in Austin,” Powell said.

Democrats pushed Republicans but didn’t flip any Texas House races, with Rep. Jonathan Stickland’s win the closest.

Arlington Democrat Devan Allen upset victory over County Commissioner Andy Nguyen, a Grand Prairie Republican, and Democrat Kenneth Sanders won the peace justice seat in Mansfield.

For local Democrats, they were rare and somewhat unexpected victories. But they wanted so much more.

Bud Kennedy, 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke greeted voters on Election Day in his hometown of El Paso. He is challenging Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.