Cruz calls out likely challenger Beto O’Rourke in a sign of a tough fight to come in Texas

  • Ed O'Keefe
  • The Washington Post
7:30 a.m. Wednesday, March 7, 2018 Politics
Carolyn Kaster/AP
In this Dec. 6, 2017, file photo, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Texas Democrats have turned out in force ahead of their state's first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday, March 6 2018, even though their party remains a longshot to win much. Democratic early voting across Texas most-populous counties more than doubled the last non-presidential cycle in 2014. But the party hasn't won Texas statewide office since 1994.

Even before the primary votes were counted Tuesday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, R, went on the attack against his November opponent. 

The Republican called out Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, by name in a conference call with reporters. "Congressman O'Rourke is a left-wing liberal Democrat," Cruz said, according to a Texas Tribune reporter on the call. "He is running like Bernie Sanders across the state." 

It was as clear a sign as any that the 2018 elections in Texas, a state that has not elected a statewide Democrat since 1994, would be a drawn-out fight to the finish. 

O'Rourke, 45, a three-term congressman, still faces an uphill battle. But there are signs he could at least keep November's election close, including an impressive early-vote turnout among Democrats for Tuesday's primaries, robust fundraising reports and polls showing declines in popularity for Cruz and President Donald Trump. 

"It's been true that the only thing you've had to do to take office in Texas is to get the Republican nomination and avoid getting hit by a bus before Election Day," said Harold Cook, an Austin-based Democratic operative. "But this is going to be different — Ted Cruz is going to have to run a real race." 

On Tuesday, soon after all the polls closed, the Associated Press called the Republican primary for Cruz and the Democratic primary for O'Rourke. 

Elected in 2012, Cruz, now 47, earned national attention early on when he launched an overnight filibuster-style takeover of the Senate floor ahead of a government shutdown. He parlayed the acclaim from conservatives into a 2016 presidential bid and unsuccessfully challenged support for then-candidate Donald Trump among delegates to the Republican National Convention. 

In the past year, Cruz has mostly settled into the background, working with Trump on policy issues and making nice with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other party leaders. 

The Cruz-O'Rourke race is set to be a clash of ideology and style. Cruz, the buttoned-up incumbent, was the only senator to vote against even launching a formal debate over immigration policy last month, declaring that Trump's call to grant legal status to roughly 1.3 million young immigrants amounted to amnesty. O'Rourke, the mop-topped challenger, is a strong supporter of a comprehensive immigration overhaul. Cruz has been a strong proponent of gun rights, while O'Rourke has signed on to a new bill that would restore and build on the expired ban on military-style weapons. 

O'Rourke was born and raised in El Paso and won his congressional seat in 2012. He represents a congressional district just across the border from Mexico that is overwhelmingly Latino. Although his childhood nickname, which he's used his entire political career, is a diminutive of "Roberto," he was born Robert Francis O'Rourke. 

When he launched his Senate campaign last year, he vowed not to accept any money from super PACs and said he knew that national Democrats would not be able to help bankroll his campaign. The party is defending 25 incumbent senators, including 10 in states that Trump won in 2016. 

Shortly after Trump's election, O'Rourke began touring Texas, often traveling alone to political rallies or meetings with local party leaders. He said his travels convinced him that "the conventional wisdom" about Texas politics was off the mark. 

"I'd go to Lubbock or Midland or College Station, and I'd see folks coming to events saying, 'I voted for Trump, but I think we need something better in our government,' " O'Rourke said in an interview with The Washington Post last year as he launched his campaign. 

"I don't think Ted Cruz is a bad person, but we all know he spent four years running for president," he said in the interview. "And he did a really good job at it. That's good for him — it's just not great for Texas." 

There may be signs that Cruz is vulnerable to a strong challenge, but he is expressing confidence. 

"There's no doubt that the extreme left is energized and angry and they hate President Trump. That is resulting in record fundraising on the left and record turnout," Cruz said Tuesday. "At the end of the day, Texas is a conservative state. I do not believe Texans want to be represented by a far-left liberal." 

Gallup's 2017 year-long average found Trump's job approval rating at 39 percent among Texas adults, with 54 percent disapproving. A Texas Tribune-University of Texas poll of registered state voters last month found the same shares, 46 percent, approve and disapprove of Trump. Cruz also got split reviews, with 40 percent approving and 41 percent disapproving. Strong disapproval of Cruz was 10 points higher than strong approval (32 percent vs. 22 percent), according to the survey, which was conducted online by YouGov. 

In recent years, Texas' adult population has been much less Republican than those who actually register to vote and go to the polls. But trends have shifted so much in the state that Gallup has moved it to "competitive" from a rating of leaning Republican. 

Another sign of Cruz's growing vulnerability is money. Over the first few weeks of 2018, O'Rourke raised $2.3 million, compared with $803,000 for Cruz, according to federal fundraising reports. The latest hauls signaled a narrowing cash-on-hand gap between the two: O'Rourke reported $4.9 million saved up, while Cruz had $6 million. 

But even with all those signs of a potential shift in Texas, political handicappers still show Cruz as the front-runner. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report and Inside Elections classify the likely race between Cruz and O'Rourke as "Likely Republican" and "Solid Republican," respectively. 

Even if O'Rourke comes up short, state Democratic leaders say his campaign will be helpful for rebuilding the party. Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, noted that his party is fielding candidates in all 36 congressional districts and in 90 percent of state legislative races — both firsts in the past decade. 

"Then we have Beto O'Rourke barnstorming the state and meeting with hundreds of Democrats in every corner of the state," Garcia said. "There's tremendous enthusiasm and a realization that you can vote in the primary and vote against the administration and vote for candidates who you want representing your community."