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In Texas, a Democratic congressman is gaining momentum in his longshot effort to unseat Senator Ted Cruz. NPR's Wade Goodwyn traveled to East Texas to learn why El Paso Representative Beto O'Rourke thinks he can beat the odds.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: The rain's coming in sheets as folks file into the Douglass Community Center in Pittsburg, Texas, population 4,707.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'll tell you. It's almost like you had to swim in, huh?
GOODWYN: The organizers of this Beto O'Rourke event have set out 50 chairs, but they're worried now that's going to be too many. But by the time the candidate bounces through the door, they're unfolding dozens more chairs as the crowd zooms past 100.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BETO O'ROURKE: Hey, everybody.
O'ROURKE: Yo, thanks for coming out. Thank you.
GOODWYN: O'Rourke has his work cut out for him. A recent Texas Politics Project poll showed nearly 40 percent of Texas voters had no idea who Beto O'Rourke is. But county by county, O'Rourke is slowly changing that.
O'ROURKE: Of the 254 counties, we've visited 226 so far. This is 226 today.
GOODWYN: A few minutes earlier at a Pittsburg restaurant called Hot Links, the candidate has a few minutes for lunch. It's not O'Rourke's tirelessness that's drawn media attention; it's the turnouts for his campaign events and prolific fundraising.
O'ROURKE: In the first 45 days of this year, we raised $2.3 million with an average online contribution of 25 bucks. In that same time, the sitting junior U.S. senator who does take PAC money and has a national fundraising base raised $1.5 million less. I just haven't seen this kind of excitement and energy and willingness to do what it takes in Texas in my life.
GOODWYN: O'Rourke is capitalizing on an extremely hungry Democratic electorate. While it's true that Texas Democrats haven't elected a candidate for statewide office in nearly 25 years, they're getting closer. In 2016, Hillary Clinton got 600,000 more votes in Texas than Barack Obama did just four years before. That was an eye-opener. And O'Rourke says President Trump has been throwing fuel on this fire.
O'ROURKE: They're coming out because they don't want a wall. People are coming out because they don't want to hear the president refer to the countries of Africa as [expletive] nations. People are coming out because they don't think the press are the enemy the people; they think they're the best defense against tyranny. People are coming out because they want to make sure that women are treated with respect and dignity.
GOODWYN: The tall, thin, 45-year-old O'Rourke sometimes gets described as a West Texas version of Jack Kennedy, but it's O'Rourke's unabashed liberalism and earnest delivery that makes Democrats swoon.
O'ROURKE: Texas now leads the developed world in the rate of maternal mortality, as we have closed down so many family planning clinics, made it so hard for women to get a cervical cancer screening, see a family planning provider. We're losing them at an alarming rate. When it comes to gun safety - universal background checks without exception for every American who wants to purchase or own a gun, and let's stop selling military-grade weapons to members of the public.
GOODWYN: O'Rourke has two Democratic primary challengers, but the closest is more than 50 points back in the latest polling. It may end up being Beto O'Rourke against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. Although Cruz was damaged a bit when he refused to endorse Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention, he's a smart campaigner, accomplished fundraiser and formidable opponent. His campaign did not respond to requests for comment, but Cruz is taking this race very seriously, recently warning Houston Republicans the left is going to show up. They'll crawl over broken glass in November to vote. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Pittsburg, Texas.
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