Former El Paso City Councilman Robert “Beto” O’Rourke defeated eight-term veteran congressman Silvestre Reyes in the Texas Democratic primary on Tuesday night, yet he had only one-third of the incumbent’s campaign budget and spent a comparative fraction of his funds on electronic media.
While Reyes was running ads touting how much money he was bringing back to El Paso for various local projects and detailing negative attacks about O’Rourke that made him appear to be a Republican, the challenger emphasized more positive themes such as the economic opportunity that exists in the local US-Mexico border community. Driving home his optimistic themes, he simultaneously brought inconsistencies in Reyes’ record to light. While the incumbent was running a traditional media campaign, O’Rourke heavily targeted past primary voters and adeptly used the state’s early voting system. O’Rourke led the congressman 51-43 percent in votes cast prior to the May 29 Election Day. When the traditional ballots were added to these totals, O’Rourke’s victory percentage fell to 50-44 percent. This, in an election that featured a voter participation rate of well under 20 percent.
Considering that Reyes had four primary opponents, the worst projection for the incumbent assumed a resulting run-off election. The fact that O’Rourke not only exceeded Reyes’ vote total but still claimed an outright majority is quite a political feat, and his insurgent political tactics should be studied in greater detail.
Reyes becomes the third non-paired incumbent to lose in this primary season; representatives Jean Schmidt (R-OH-2) and Tim Holden (D-PA-17) are the other two. The 527 organization, Campaign for Primary Accountability, was active in all three of these races. Though O’Rourke advertised little in the media, the CPA spent about $100,000 on hard-hitting anti-Reyes television ads that clearly helped influence the outcome of the race. The Reyes defeat means there are now 59 open House seats in the current election cycle.