MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Now let's take a look at a U.S. Senate race, this one in Texas. El Paso Congressman Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat, is running against the incumbent Republican Ted Cruz. O'Rourke has fired up liberals by running on a platform of clear, progressive positions. The question is whether that can get him elected in a state as Republican as Texas. From San Antonio, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: If you arrived at Beto O'Rourke's town hall meeting 40 minutes ahead of time, you were out of luck - all 650 seats already taken.
GOODWYN: So when O'Rourke takes the stage, first thing he does is express his sympathy for those who can hear him but can't see him.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BETO O'ROURKE: So let's make a lot of noise so the folks in the overflow room know that we're here, that we care about them. We're going to say San Antonio on three - one, two, three. San Antonio. Yeah, I think I heard them.
GOODWYN: Texas Democrats who've been wandering in the electoral wilderness for decades have been showing up in droves. Beto O'Rourke is an unapologetic, unabashed liberal. So how can it be that two recent polls have him just two and six points behind Republican Senator Ted Cruz? This is Texas, after all, where the last great Democratic hope, state Senator Wendy Davis, got walloped by 20 points by Republican Governor Greg Abbott. Former Texas agricultural commissioner and Democratic populist Jim Hightower explains why O'Rourke's campaign seems to be different.
JIM HIGHTOWER: You've got a Democratic constituency that are fed up not just with Trump but with the centrist, mealy-mouthed, knew-nothing Democratic establishment. And they're looking for some real change. And Beto is representing that.
GOODWYN: Universal health care, assault weapons ban, abortion rights, raise the minimum wage - O'Rourke even raised the specter of impeachment after President Trump's Helsinki press conference with Vladimir Putin, although O'Rourke has since walked back that position. His opponent Ted Cruz is taking O'Rourke's candidacy very seriously.
TED CRUZ: I think the decision he's made is run hard left and find every liberal in the state of Texas and energize them enough that they show up and vote. And I think he's gambling on there are enough people on the left for whom defeating and destroying Donald Trump is their No. 1 issue that he's hoping that's his path to victory. I don't see that in the state of Texas. There are a whole lot more conservatives than liberals.
GOODWYN: When it comes to the critical issue of immigration, the two Texas candidates for Senate couldn't be further apart. Last week in Temple, Texas, Cruz indicated he supports ending birthright citizenship, telling the crowd, quote, "it doesn't make a lot of sense." O'Rourke, on the other hand, is against building a wall along the border and favors a gradual path to legal status for undocumented immigrants.
At a cafe in San Antonio where he's come for an interview, O'Rourke can't make it to the table because he's mobbed by customers who recognize him and want a picture together. Much to the reporter's annoyance, O'Rourke chats every one of them up, which takes quite a while.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There we go (laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you so much. So nice meeting you.
O'ROURKE: Thank you for saying hello, and best of luck.
GOODWYN: Once he finally gets to the table, O'Rourke gets down to business.
O'ROURKE: I think that this state, the most diverse state in the country, should lead on immigration. Free DREAMers from the fear of deportation, but make them citizens today so that they can contribute to their full potential. That is not a partisan value. That's our Texan identity. And we should lead with it.
GOODWYN: O'Rourke seems to have no fear of sounding too progressive for Texas. He borrows an old line from Jim Hightower as way of explanation.
O'ROURKE: The only thing that you're going to find in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos. You have to tell the people that you want to serve what it is you believe and what you are going to do on their behalf.
GOODWYN: Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Senator Ted Cruz have agreed to hold five televised debates. Despite their political differences, both are whip smart, extremely articulate and completely unafraid. It promises to be quite a show. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.