Politics & Policy

Beto O’Rourke and the Democrats’ Turnout Dilemma

Beto O’Rourke campaigns in Houston, Texas, November 12, 2017. (William Philpott/Reuters)
The Texas Senate candidate will have to prove he can mobilize minority voters before he is anointed as the new Obama.

As far as Texas Democrats are concerned, the future has arrived in the person of Representative Beto O’Rourke. Though Democrats have been predicting for years that Texas would eventually be transformed from red to blue through the magic of the Lone Star State’s changing ethnic demography, few even on the left had been willing to claim that this would happen as soon as 2018.

But with the latest polls showing O’Rourke in a virtual dead heat with Senator Ted Cruz in the latter’s attempt to be reelected, it’s hard to blame Democrats for being giddy about his prospects, as well as those of their party, in a state that is the GOP’s largest electoral stronghold. The Emerson poll that gave Cruz only a one percentage point lead over O’Rourke was a stunner but it is actually consistent with other surveys that have shown the race to be competitive with the RealClearPolitics average of polls giving the incumbent only a 5.5 percent advantage. But before Democrats start celebrating, there are two key questions that need to be answered about the Texas Senate race.

The first is whether this election is more of a referendum on O’Rourke’s popularity and Cruz’s unpopularity than a measure of the two parties’ respective strengths. The second is whether optimism about O’Rourke and the prospects of the Democrats in Texas can be backed up by the kind of minority voter turnout that could bring them victory. If the answer to the second question turns out to be negative, then despite the scare O’Rourke is giving Cruz in particular and Republicans in general, their enthusiasm will turn out to be political fool’s gold.

The stakes in the Texas Senate race shouldn’t be underestimated.

The mere fact that O’Rourke has put the seat into play is significant. Cruz is clearly fighting for his political life, and if the national party responds to his appeals for help by pouring money into Texas, then that will be less money spent on defeating endangered red-state Democratic incumbents where GOP challengers are going to need an all-out push from both President Trump and out-of-state Republican money in order to succeed. It will also divert resources that might have been expended on defending Nevada Republican Dean Heller, who had widely been considered the only GOP senator in danger of losing his seat in November.

Texas is also crucial because if demography really has altered the balance of political power there, it won’t be just a matter of retaining a majority in the Senate. A blue Texas would be a virtual death knell for Republican presidential hopes for the foreseeable future. Without Texas’s 38 Electoral College votes (a total that has increased with each new census in recent decades), there is no way Donald Trump can repeat his 2016 upset in 2020. Nor can any future Republican candidate be confident of winning an Electoral College majority.

But the problem with such assumptions is that the O’Rourke–Cruz race may be more a matter of personalities than of long-term demographic trends.

Texas Democrats may have briefly believed that Wendy Davis’s national celebrity that stemmed from her pro-abortion filibuster in the state legislature gave them a chance to win the gubernatorial race in 2014. But Davis was a disaster as a statewide candidate despite the liberal money that poured into the state on her behalf. By contrast, O’Rourke’s stock has risen slowly, largely on the basis of his personal appeal and ability to run a focused campaign. The problem he poses for Republicans is the opposite of the one they faced in Davis. The more the public learned about Davis, the less they liked her, and her chances were already being written off by Labor Day in 2014. But the more people see of O’Rourke, the more they seem to like him, even if he wishes to avoid scrutiny of his past — including a drunk-driving arrest — as well as seeking to avoid the perils of a confrontation with a skilled debater like Cruz.

The idea that the O’Rourke–Cruz race is more a matter of personal appeal than of changing demographics is borne out by what is happening in the Texas gubernatorial race. Texas governor Greg Abbott’s double-digit lead over a Hispanic Democratic challenger in Lupe Valdez seems to be more in keeping with the notion that demographic change in Texas is still a long way off.

As for Cruz, though most Republicans may have assumed that he would have little trouble being reelected, they may have underestimated how his 2016 presidential campaign as well as the shift in his approach to the Senate since then has affected Texas voters. Cruz began running for president almost from the moment he reached the Senate in January 2013 and, as O’Rourke never tires of pointing out, spent a lot of time in Iowa and other key presidential primary and caucus states when he might have been in Texas. Yet if his 2016 campaign has impacted his 2018 hopes, it may stem as much from how it ended as from the way it distracted him from Texas concerns.

Cruz and Ohio governor John Kasich were the last men standing in opposition to Trump in the spring and early summer of 2016. The bitter nature of Cruz’s rivalry with Trump was illustrated by the way the eventual nominee slandered Cruz’s father and his wife. But unlike other victims of Trump’s juggernaut, Cruz didn’t take these insults lying down. Even at the GOP convention in Cleveland, Cruz refused to endorse Trump. The spectacle of the Texas senator being booed off the stage at the convention was unlike anything in recent political history. Though by September Cruz had cooled down and made the endorsement that had been expected earlier, it’s likely that a lot of Trump supporters haven’t forgotten what they perceived as his disloyalty. In a party where fealty to the president is now nearly universal and a difference maker in primaries, Cruz’s status as a latecomer to the Trump train may well be hurting him among the Republican voters he desperately needs.

It’s also unclear what even Cruz’s fans think of the senator’s transformation since his failed presidential run. In his first years in office, Cruz was a political bomb thrower who defied his own party’s establishment as much as he opposed President Obama and the Democrats. That made him the least popular member of the GOP Senate caucus among its members but endeared him to a GOP base that would eventually embrace Trump. Cruz had rightly understood the mood of the party faithful, but he lost the race for the presidential nomination because even a sitting senator determined to shut down the government couldn’t compete with a man who was even more of an outsider.

Just as problematic is that Cruz’s post-presidential-candidacy career has been as conventional as his opening salvos were revolutionary. In the past two years, Cruz has worked hard to be a good partner for Trump and his Senate colleagues. But while that has helped the GOP achieve some of its legislative goals, it has cost him his reputation as a fearless opponent of the D.C. swamp, and along with it, the enthusiasm of the party base that was once his to command.

But the problem for O’Rourke is that the gap between good polling numbers and victory in November requires the kind of voter mobilization that Texas Democrats have proven unable to accomplish in the recent past.

The failure to generate the sort of massive minority-voter turnout that elected Obama in 2008 and 2012 cost the Democrats the midterms in 2010 and 2014, as well as the presidential contest in 2016. It may be that a rising tide of anti-Trump sentiment and the personal appeal of O’Rourke will make the difference this year in Texas. If so, then perhaps not even an all-out effort by Trump in Texas — assuming, of course, that the president isn’t as willing to hold a grudge as his loyalists — would save Cruz. In that case, Democrats may have found their new Obama, and O’Rourke will — as Cruz was six years ago — be catapulted straight into the next presidential contest.

Yet Cruz held his own among Hispanics in 2012 and will have to do far worse this year in order for his opponent to win. After two decades of virtually unbroken GOP success in Texas, the tide may be about to turn due to a uniquely appealing Democratic candidate and an incumbent with more problems than his supporters anticipated. But until Democrats demonstrate that black and Hispanic voters will turn out in the sort of massive numbers needed to pull off such an upset for someone other than Obama, and for a white liberal who bears more resemblance to Hillary Clinton and Wendy Davis than to the 44th president at that, a degree of skepticism about the O’Rourke boomlet is justified.

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