GALVESTON, Texas — One of the most closely watched races in Tuesday’s midterms is the Senate race in Texas, where incumbent Republican Ted Cruz is fighting to keep his seat from challenger Beto O’Rourke.
Cruz readily admits he is being outspent 3-1 and gives his opponent credit for raising a historic $70 million war chest.
By comparison, Cruz has raised $40.2 million to date. For Cruz’s 2016 presidential bid, he raised $94.3 million.
“Beto O’Rourke is the number one Democratic fundraiser in the country,” Cruz said from the stage at a recent Galveston Island town rally, noting the staggering $38 million his challenger raised at the start of the race.
“That is more money than any Senate candidate has raised in a single quarter in the history of the United States of America and that is dangerous,” he said. “It means we are being outspent.”
Before Cruz appeared at the rally, a few supporters mulled the meaning of O’Rourke’s sudden burst onto the statewide stage. O’Rourke had been a low-key U.S. congressman representing El Paso before he entered the Senate race.
O’Rourke has run a grassroots campaign aimed at reaching out to voters in Texas’ 254 counties; he had visited them all by June 9. In addition to rallies, he has relied on going door-to-door to meet voters and seek their support.
Gearing up for a bigger race?
At least one Republican loyalist said he thinks the Democrat party might not expect O’Rourke to win.
“I think it’s a test,” said Rusty Carnes, a 57-year-old Galveston businessman who said he votes straight GOP ticket. “I think they plan on seeing if this could set him up to run for president.”
Also, O’Rourke would be a no-baggage presidential candidate, Carnes said.
“He is well-spoken,” he said. “He is intelligent and thoughtful. He says the right things. What’s he got on him? A DWI and he jumped over a fence? Those were youthful indiscretions. That’s something they can smooth over and would be soon forgotten.”
The idea that strong Republican insiders have good things to say about O’Rourke felt bittersweet to a Houston-area Democrat who leads a local PAC.
“It makes me feel good and sad at the same time because they likely won’t vote for him even though they probably believe he’s a better candidate,” said Stephanie Bailey, a 50-year-old advertising executive from Spring. “We are so polarized right now that they won’t vote for him even if they agree he’s right.”
The only criticism Carnes said he has of O’Rourke comes from the sources of the money he has raised.
“I don’t like that he is being funded with money outside Texas,” he said. “They are interfering with our race.”
Bailey said she had a response to that common criticism.
“Cruz gets money from out-of-state, too,” she said. “The fact that Beto has raised so much means the rest of the nation believes this is an important race.”
Cruz embraces ‘lost Texas Democrats’
Meanwhile, as O’Rourke has been racking up donations, Cruz has been embracing the “lost Texas Democrats.”
“They say there is no longer a home for me in that party,” he told supporters at the Galveston Island event. Until a decade ago, the island had a century-long history as a Democrat stronghold.
Today, however, party leaders bicker that Democrats hijack their party to stay elected. Cruz called on burying the feud on the seven-mile sandbar along the upper Texas coast.
“To them I say, ‘Join us, we welcome you with open arms,’ ” he said.
Cruz’s efforts to tap the conservative Democrat base has become a stump speech staple. He repeated the call in the Rio Grande Valley, which has a pattern of low voter turnout.
Cruz’s attempts to sway the conservative Democrat didn’t surprise one political insider who leads a Texas PAC and campaigned with O’Rourke in Houston. Stephanie Bailey, a 50-year-old advertising executive, said Cruz’s statements reflect a broader political issue in Texas.
“You don’t just have this going on in the Democrat party,” she said. “You have it in the Republican too. You will see Republicans who say that what used to be known as GOP values are now Democrat values because the GOP party has been hijacked by the Tea Party or (the PAC) Empower Texans.”
O’Rourke has called to impeach President Donald Trump and abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But Cruz said most Texas Democrats don’t agree with those views and have lost faith in his opponent’s platform.
“Texas for a long time has had millions of conservative Democrats and millions of moderate Democrats and they look at the national party and they are getting so extreme and they are getting so radical that they are getting bat crap crazy,” Cruz said.
Forecasts for the projected winner of the race are divided and it appears to be a toss-up. Daily polls on the website FiveThirtyEight show likely Texas voters gave Cruz a three-point lead during most of the early voting period.