If you’ve read a single piece of political journalism between January 2017 and April 2018, then you’ll probably be at least somewhat familiar with what is being called the ‘Blue Wave.’ This is the moniker given to the massive trend that we’ve been seeing in races up and down the ballot during the Trump Presidency in which Democrats have greatly outperformed their expectations, often by double-digit margins. The best example of this came in Alabama, where now-Senator Doug Jones became the first Democrat elected statewide in Alabama since 1994. While some blame Republican Roy Moore’s pervasive scandals for the upset, Jones was outperforming his polls well before the sexual misconduct allegations emerged. More recently, Democrat Conor Lamb defeated his scandal-free Republican opponent Rick Saccone in a solidly red Pennsylvania district that voted for Trump by a 20 point margin. Even Republicans are acknowledging they’re in trouble in 2018.
Now, that same phenomenon could be occurring down south in Texas where incumbent Senator Republican Ted Cruz will be facing off against Democratic challenger Rep. Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 election.
What can I say about Ted Cruz that isn’t already perfectly emphasized by his striking resemblance to the zodiac killer? Besides the fact that his politics are far to the right of the average American voter, most people agree he lacks charisma, gravitas or really any endearing personality traits to speak of. He’s smart, having been educated at Princeton and Harvard law school, but nobody disputes that. People generally feel the way he smugly pushes his hardline brand of Tea party politics onto an unwilling country and Senate made him an impossible choice for President.
But he’s not an impossible choice to keep his seat, and as things stand at the moment he’s still the favorite. However, many analysts agree that that Cruz could be in big trouble.
Early polling showed Cruz and O’Rourke tied, and what scant polling we’ve received since has offered us an unfamiliar story for Texas politics–the Democrat is on the Republican’s heels. According to the most recent poll of this race, taken by Quinnipiac in mid-April Cruz was shown to be leading O’Rourke by a paltry 3 points, edging him out by 47 to 44. This result should send shockwaves through the Cruz campaign which knows that these are not the kind of numbers you want as a Republican in Texas, and with the momentum firmly in O’Rourke’s camp, there’s no reason to suspect they’ll improve for Cruz. The only respite for Cruz is that this is but one poll of what will likely be many, but he’s going to have to pull out all the stops to protect his incumbency.
Cruz swept into office in 2012 with a healthy 16 point margin thanks in part to the backing of the Tea Party and the hard-right factions of the GOP. Cruz has since racked up a solidly conservative voting record, often making himself among the most far-right senators according to GovTrack. He has made big waves during his first term in the Senate as an obstructionist and an ideological zealot, uncompromising to the point of infuriating his colleagues and even his close allies. This was best summed up in the words of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham who said in 2016, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.” Cruz’s most notable moment as a US Senator came in 2013 when he filibustered a spending bill for 21 hours, speaking about the need to defund Obamacare and occasionally reading Doctor Seuss. He has a tendency to bite the hand that feeds him, once calling Senate Republican Leader Mitch Mcconnell a “liar” on the Senate floor and often voting against his party–sometimes on key pieces of legislation–to maintain ideological consistency. All this damaged his national reputation, but it didn’t stop him from seeking higher office.
In 2016 Cruz ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for President, becoming the second-place finisher, but with far fewer delegates than Donald Trump by the time Cruz dropped out in May. He furthered this uncompromising legacy by refusing to endorse Trump during his floor speech at the Republican National Convention, telling delegates to “vote your conscience.” This drew the ire of many in his party, most of whom now stand firmly behind Trump. That tendency to spurn members of his own party, combined with his lack of charisma and his hard-right views, has made him widely unfavorable to Americans on both sides. The last national poll of Cruz, taken by the Economist in May 2016 showed that just 29% of respondents viewed him favorably, while a staggering 58% viewed him unfavorably.
Of course, in order to accurately assess Cruz’s chances at winning re-election, we must look at his popularity in Texas itself. While Americans as a whole have soured on him, the plurality of Texans and the majority of Texas Republicans are still backing him. The most recent Morning Consult poll, conducted in April 2018 has Cruz at 49% approval, 34% disapproval. These numbers are what you would want coming into reelection, but they’re down from 52% a couple months earlier. While this is a statistically marginal trend, 3 points can make a big difference in such a close race.
Meanwhile, Cruz’s numbers among Republicans are fairly strong but they could be stronger. In a race where turnout will be key, being popular in his own party will be essential in order for Cruz to pull off a win. During the Texas primary, at a time when Donald Trump had already built a large delegate lead and Cruz was generally seen as an underdog, Cruz won his home state with 43.8%. While he defeated Trump by a respectable 17% margin, this result still shows that the majority of Texas Republican voters wanted someone else. In 2018, Cruz won his primary in a landslide with 85.3% of GOP primary voters favoring his renomination. This result may not be a great indicator of turnout or intraparty support as Cruz faced no serious challengers in that contest. The general election will be a different story.
Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke has gained a lot of steam in his bid to unseat the much-maligned Cruz. After his popular fellow Representative Joaquin Castro announced he would not run for the seat (likely to make way for his brother Julian’s desires for higher office), O’Rourke became the Democratic frontrunner and presumptive nominee. First elected to Congress in 2012, the 45-year-old Representative of a district that is 80 percent Hispanic has racked up a solid center-left record in his 5 years in Congress. He sits on the House Veterans’ Affairs and Armed Services committees and typically sponsors bills in that realm. He gets a 100% rating from planned parenthood, 88% from the ACLU, 85% from the Human Rights Campaign, 10% from the Koch-backed, conservative-leaning Americans for Prosperity and 0% from the more conservative Club for Growth. He’s your average Democrat, albeit with added charisma to boot.
Despite his boilerplate record in Congress, O’Rourke has proved to be an extraordinarily strong candidate. He has created an energized, grassroots campaign that has consistently made headlines for raising enormous sums of cash, often outraising Cruz by millions. In the first few months of 2018 alone he raised a mind-boggling $6.7 million dollars to Cruz’s meager $711,000 raised in the same timeframe. Meanwhile, he’s done all this while often resisting help from outside donors and campaigners unlike failed Democratic candidates in southern red states such as Jon Ossoff and Wendy Davis.
Despite his ability to raise enormous sums, O’Rourke is not a perfect candidate. One weakness is his status as a relative moderate in a year where much of the energy in the Democratic party is derived from the progressive, Bernie Sanders-aligned wing of the party. Many point to this as the reason he only got about 62% of the Democratic primary vote in March even though he was basically considered the presumptive nominee. It’s unclear whether he’ll be able to rally those progressive elements to pull off an upset. Many, however, view this weakness as an asset, arguing that a moderate is needed to win in a state like Texas. In the end, the latter theory seems to be holding true in the polls.
The biggest challenge facing O’Rourke is that Texas is still a pretty red state, despite recent demographic changes and ideological realignments that have shifted it leftward. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney won Texas by 16 points while he lost the national popular vote by 3 points. In 2016, however, Donald Trump won Texas by a slimmer 9 point margin, despite gaining on Romney’s national popular vote deficit by one point. Some credit the ever-growing Hispanic population of the state for this trend, as Hispanics tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Another possible cause is the rise of Donald Trump, whose realignment of the Republican party caused some younger, more educated, wealthier and suburban voters to migrate leftward in his appeal to rural and blue-collar voters. Texas tends to have a larger share of those populations than other similarly red states, and so it’s understandable why they might shift towards the Democratic party this time around.
However, that shift has not become apparent quite yet. Democrats doubled their 2014 turnout in the 2018 primary–compared to a much more modest gain for Republicans. But Republicans still outvoted Democrats, with about 1.5 million votes cast in the GOP contest compared to just over a million for Democrats. Still, that’s Democrats’ highest number ever in the state and could forecast good fortunes for them on the horizon, especially if the White House keeps churning out scandals at such a massive rate.
It’s been a common trope in American politics that, due to shifting demographics every election year is going to finally be the year that Democrats “turn Texas blue.” So far, it hasn’t happened, with once great hopes for the statewide office being trounced in all general elections since 1996 and all Republican candidates for President in the last 40 years carrying Texas’s plethora of electoral votes. However, most pundits and analysts agree that if Texas were to finally turn blue, this would be the year.
Prediction: O’Rourke (D) wins by a margin between 0 and 4 points.
Andrew Solender ’20 is a political science major, the co-Editor-in-Chief of the VPR, a former columnist for the Miscellany News, a writer for Chronogram Magazine and a contributor to the Poughkeepsie Journal and Psychology Today. He also plays varsity squash.