Texas senator Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke will have the first of three debates on Friday night.
Both men face something of a catch-22 from the relatively recent close poll results. On paper, Cruz should be a solid favorite. He’s led all of the polls since the race began except one. This week Quinnipiac put him ahead by nine points. No Democrat has won a statewide race in Texas since 1994, and four years ago, no Democratic statewide candidate surpassed 40 percent. The last heavily hyped Democratic candidate running statewide, gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, finished with 38.9 percent. All of the polling shows the current Republican governor, Greg Abbott, winning reelection by a wide margin.
The one factor that could seriously endanger Cruz would be complacency among Texas Republicans; if enough GOP-leaning voters think, “Cruz will be fine, this is a deep-red state . . .” then O’Rourke could actually pull off the upset. (Just ask Massachusetts Democrat Martha Coakley how much a candidate can rely on her state’s traditional partisan lean.) In fact, both of O’Rourke’s big political victories in his career, in Democratic primaries for the El Paso City Council and Congress, came in large part from him out-hustling a comfortable incumbent.
Polls showing a close race are good for O’Rourke, energizing his supporters . . . but they also probably get Republicans more motivated to vote, too, because it reminds them that their vote could actually matter in a competitive race this year. In Texas, voters don’t register by party, but the Lone Star State has lots more self-identified Republicans than self-identified Democrats. On primary day, Democrats were boasting that their turnout had doubled since 2014, from about a half-million to a million. But Republicans had about 1.5 million votes. Progressive groups in Texas estimate that about 850,000 more Republicans vote in statewide elections than Democrats. That’s a big structural advantage for O’Rourke to overcome.
O’Rourke’s taken some bold liberal stands that stand out in the Texas political landscape: support for NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem, calling the current criminal-justice system and police behavior “the new Jim Crow,” support for impeaching Trump, banning AR-15 rifles, and expanding Medicaid. Don’t let anyone spin you that O’Rourke is running as a centrist. If he wins, progressives will be able to argue that their agenda can win in some of the most reliably Republican places in the country, and the longtime argument that Texas is slowly turning from red to purple will be given new life. (Some might argue the first sign came in last year’s presidential election. Trump’s margin in Texas in 2016: 52.2 percent to 43.2 percent. Trump’s margin in Ohio in 2016: 51.6 percent to 43.5 percent.)
It is extremely likely that the media analysis of Friday’s debate follows the trend of gushing praise for O’Rourke. FiveThirtyEIght summarized the tone of most of the media’s coverage succinctly: “The high school cool kid is running against the Latin Club’s uber nerd for U.S. Senate in Texas.” If Ted Cruz does not verbally disembowel his opponent, most media voices will probably declare O’Rourke the winner.
But judging from Cruz’s campaign schedule and spending, O’Rourke doesn’t the advantage of a sleepwalking incumbent this time, and grassroots Republicans show few signs of lethargy — the GOP just won a special election for a state senate seat that Democrats had held for 139 years. Because of the sheer partisan imbalance in the state, O’Rourke needs his party’s get-out-the-vote operation to work just about perfectly and for the Texas Republicans’ operation to sputter. And the Cruz campaign is pulling out all the stops to ensure the second half of that equation doesn’t happen.