The great state of Texas is Republican country, home to GOP luminaries like George W. Bush, Phil Gramm, John Tower, John Corbyn, and Rick Perry. Texans are fiercely independent and proud of their traditions. A good many of them are both social and fiscal conservatives.
The last Democrat in Texas who won the governor’s mansion was Ann Richards in 1990. The last Democrat to have represented Texas in the U.S. Senate was Lloyd Bentsen who was re-elected for the final time in 1988. Today, the Texas Democratic Party is relegated to the big cities of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin. It’s as strong in urban areas as it is weak in the rural areas and towns where cattle roam free and church-organized events are a fact of life. In Texas’s 36-member House of Representatives delegation, Democrats are a small minority of 11.
Beto O’Rourke is one of the 11, representing El Paso. The tall, lanky Democrat who has lately been barnstorming through the state could be his party’s new white whale. For a three-term congressman who was an obscure figure less than a year ago to unseat Ted Cruz, a former Republican presidential candidate with nationwide name recognition, would be a coup de grace. And yet O’Rourke is only four points behind Cruz in the most recent NBC News poll, released last week.
In any other election year, a Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas would be trailing by double digits at this point in the campaign. But O’Rourke has the benefit of running in a cycle that is expected to be a referendum on Donald Trump, the most deeply divisive president in modern times. Trump’s conduct in office and the scandals circling the White House have galvanized Democrats across the country. The Democratic Party hasn’t been this fired up since 2006, when it recaptured both chambers of Congress on the back of Republican corruption and a war in Iraq that was claiming the lives of dozens of U.S. troops every month.
O’Rourke and Cruz couldn’t be any more different. Though only a few years apart in age, O’Rourke is the cool, hip, inspirational guy who jams with Willie Nelson on stage and talks about how Americans of different political persuasions need to remember how to get along. He’s the rare congressman who gets features in the New York Times, Time, and The Guardian, which treat him as a cross between Barack Obama and Bobby Kennedy. He’s traveled to all 254 Texas counties, treating his campaign as a months-long road trip. And for a challenger who came into the race looking like a certain loser, his fundraising prowess is off the charts. As of July 31, O’Rourke had taken in $23.6 million to Cruz’s $15.6 million—not a single penny is from a political action committee.
Cruz is the stiff lawyer who tries a little too hard to be relatable. He isn’t a retail politician; rather he’s more comfortable discussing conservative jurisprudence or philosophy. O’Rourke’s message is beaming with positivity; not so with Cruz, who has gone negative quickly in an attempt to coalesce the Texas Republican juggernaut behind him. He has called his Democratic opponent a left-wing crazy, a liberal extremist out to bring down the Republican president, and a wannabe Californian. “Look, elections are about choices,” Cruz tells voters on the stump. “If you want a big government, gun-grabbing liberal, well, the Democrats are giving you one.”
The race shouldn’t be this close, but O’Rourke has proven to be a formidable candidate. The Republican Party—and the White House—see the danger, which is why GOP PACs are emptying their wallets for the Texas firebrand. And the reaction is justified: if a Republican can lose in Texas, the GOP is almost certain to lose the Senate.
Yet there’s still reason for Cruz to breathe easy. Texas is still Texas, the ultimate red state. While Democratic excitement is through the roof this year, it may not matter so long as reliable Republicans get off their couches on Election Day. Nearly half a million more Republicans voted in their gubernatorial primaries than Democrats in theirs. Despite his strengths, O’Rourke will need a miracle to flip Cruz’s seat. Latinos will need to turn out in very high numbers, disaffected Republicans in small- and medium-sized cities will need to stay home, and conservative loyalists will need to be convinced that voting is a waste of time because Cruz is likely to win anyway.
That’s good news for Cruz, because he’s as ambitious as any politician can be. It’s virtually inconceivable that he won’t run for president again. And coming up short against a Democrat and becoming the butt of late-night television jokes won’t exactly convince the GOP’s rich donors to open their pockets for another presidential primary.
Unless Cruz wants to explore whether he has the tenacity to pull off a Richard Nixon-style political comeback, he’ll need to scare the conservative faithful to the polls in November. He’ll also need to make nice with the very GOP establishment that he used as a punching bag at the beginning of his Senate career. He seems to be pulling off just that.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.