Beto O'Rourke Is Doing Well, But Don't Count Ted Cruz Out

Can a Texas Democrat unseat one of the state's most gifted GOP politicians? Probably not.

By Dianna Wray January 30, 2018

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Anyone with a penchant for watching Texas politics like it's baseball has been keeping a sharp eye on the upcoming race between Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the former punk rocker turned Democratic congressman from El Paso that some believe may actually give Cruz a run for his money in the 2018 midterm elections.

O’Rourke is admittedly an intriguing candidate, partly because he is being taken somewhat seriously despite this being Texas. In fact, O’Rourke raised more money than Cruz in the last three months of 2017, closing out the year having pulled in $2.4 million to Cruz’s $1.9 million in campaign contributions, as the Texas Tribune is reporting. But despite numerous recent stories recounting Texas Democrats and liberal-leaning pundits fantasizing about O’Rourke riding a “blue wave” in the 2018 midterms to unseat Cruz and other Republican opponents, there are a number of reasons not to count Cruz, or the Texas GOP, out yet.

For one thing, money talks in elections, and Cruz still has more than $7 million in his campaign war chest, way more money than O’Rourke has at his disposal. So when it comes campaigning, whether it's yard signs or buying airtime, the money backing a candidate is still one of the most reliable factors in determining who will come out ahead on election day.

On top of that, there’s the simple fact that Texas has not elected a Democrat in a statewide race in more than 20 years. And don’t look to dissatisfaction with Washington to lead to enough of a shift in voting to turn Texas blue, or even some shade of purple. Sure, the cities in the Lone Star State have been leaning that way in recent elections, but it seems highly unlikely that Texas as a whole is going to lurch to the left this November, whether the polls indicate that Texans still approve of President Donald Trump or not. And this is particularly true when it comes to Cruz.

Now, those who saw Cruz’s performance during the 2016 presidential election—particularly how he first stood on principle at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia only to swiftly change course and back Trump with the fervor of the newly converted for the rest of the campaign—may have thought Cruz was vulnerable going into the midterms. But that’s really not the case.

Why? Well, because of how the junior senator from Texas has played the game with remarkable skill ever since he burst onto the stage of national politics with his surprise Senate win in 2012. From the moment Cruz hit Washington D.C., he had his banners unfurled and was clearly ready and willing to do anything to make himself stand out from the crowd of Tea Party-rooted Republicans. After all, Cruz, the famed legal mind, Constitutional scholar and Houston-based lawyer ready to use any and every opportunity to get himself in the news, seemed determined from the get-go that the Senate wasn’t going to be the end of his rise. 

And once he was sworn in, Cruz quickly began to demonstrate how he was going to grab the public’s attention and hold it by the shorthairs—by bucking and opposing anything and everything the Obama administration and the Democrats attempted to do.

What’s remarkable is that his approach worked. Who can forget the way Cruz used his accident of Canadian birth to keep himself in the headlines and get people talking about a presidential run before he’d been in the Senate for five minutes? And the way he managed his non-filibustering filibuster against the Affordable Care Act, reading Green Eggs and Ham from the Senate floor while exasperated colleagues from both sides looked on and waited for him to finish, was pure performance art. Cruz has pulled countless similar tricks from his carefully tailored sleeves over the years.

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Beto O'Bourke at a "Beers with Beto" event in Houston.

Image: Marco Torres

While his antics have garnered few friends and even fewer allies in Congress, along with a failed presidential bid and a fairly short list of legislative achievements, he has somehow angled his stances so that those who first voted him into office are still backing him today, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor specializing in Texas politics. Despite the fundraising side of things, some of the O’Rourke true believers are pointing to a recent poll released by the left-leaning group, Public Policy Polling, which found that Cruz is only leading O’Rourke by eight points, 45 to 37 percent.

However, a poll released by Cruz’s campaign recently in December shows O’Rourke, a three-term congressman who was relatively unknown in D.C. before he jumped into the Senate race last year, 18 points behind Cruz, with only a 32 percent name recognition compared to 99 percent for Cruz. That may be a better indicator of where things really stand for Cruz, because it turns out all of his fancy footwork during his years in office has paid off.

In fact, as Cruz has morphed from an opposing-everything Obama-era senator to a presidential wanna-be to the guy now dancing the intricate Trump tango along with most of the rest of the GOP, he has somehow proved to be more deft at keeping on the good side of his constituents than one would expect. Despite all of the zigging and zagging, Cruz is actually well-liked among Texas Republicans, and he has carefully tended his ties with the various sections of the Texas GOP so that he still has the support of the Tea Party, the Trump Republicans, the fiscally conservative set and even some of the old-school establishment party members.

“He’s done a good job of threading the needle on policy making, playing the part of the outsider and as a member of the GOP establishment system,” Rottinghaus says. “People who don’t like Trump can point to things Cruz has done and say Cruz stood up to Trump, and people who do like the president can say he’s worked with Trump, and both are right.”

Meanwhile, O’Rourke has certainly upped his national profile. Democrat operatives had never heard of him a few months ago, according to Texas Monthly, but since then he’s been featured in stories by Vanity Fair, the Texas Observer, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone and, well, Texas Monthly. Plus, his events across the state—he aims to visit all 254 counties before the midterms—are pulling in fairly large, enthusiastic crowds. In other words, he’s already doing a lot better than former State Sen. Wendy Davis, the last big political star to rise out of the Texas Dems, did in her lackluster bid to become governor in 2014, so that’s something. 

But in the end, it’s going to take a lot more money and a serious miscalculation (like a kicks-a-puppy-on-national-TV-while-swearing-allegiance-to-the-New-York-Yankees level gaffe) on Cruz’s part to see such a thing play out in real life.   

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