September 20, 2018

Too Close to Call: Surprisingly Competitive Senate Races, Texas Edition

Sam Lane

As we rapidly approach November 6th, election day for the 2018 mid-terms, it appears increasingly likely that the Democratic Party will win enough seats to take control of the House of Representatives, while the Republican Party will maintain its majority in the Senate. Currently, the Democrats have a generic polling advantage of around 8 percentage points, and, while this number tends to fluctuate, this type of polling is historically highly correlative with large seat pickups in past mid-terms for the party out of power.

While the House is much likelier to flip than the Senate, where the Democrats are defending 24 seats, 10 of which are states that President Trump won 2016, there are three Senate races that are much closer than originally predicted and worth highlighting: Texas, Florida, and Tennessee.


Bill Nelson(i) vs. Rick Scott

Monday, September 24, 2018


Phil Bredesen v. Marsha Blackburn

Tuesday September 25, 2018

Texas Senate:

Ted Cruz (R) vs. Beto O’Rourke (D)

In perhaps the most surprising and widely-covered Senate race this year, Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, the four-term congressman from El Paso, has mounted a serious challenge to the incumbent senator and former 2016 presidential candidate, Ted Cruz.

Texas has long been a pipe dream for Democrats seeking to use the massive demographic changes occurring in the state as an avenue to first turn the state purple, then, eventually, attempt to turn the state blue. Despite this recent effort and optimism (see: Davis, Wendy), no Democrat has held a statewide office in Texas since 1993, when Robert Krueger served five months in the Senate following a resignation and his subsequent gubernatorial appointment.

Needless to say, the emergence of Robert Francis O’Rourke – who, despite accusations by Rafael “Ted” Cruz that he changed his name to appeal to Hispanic voters, has long been nicknamed “Beto”– as a viable candidate has energized Texas Democrats, producing an unusually close race.

Despite running in conservative Texas, O’Rourke isn’t exactly hiding from his center-of-left platform: He supports increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, has co-sponsored an assault weapons ban, favors passing the DREAM Act, and seeks to expunge marijuana offenses from official arrest records. While only two years younger than Cruz, O’Rourke often appears more youthful, which has proven useful while energizing younger voters, but has been exploited by the Cruz campaign to paint O’Rourke as the inexperienced candidate. To drive home that point, the official Texas GOP twitter account has tweeted photos of O’Rourke from his days in a punk rock band, a photo of O’Rourke’s mugshot from one of two of his 1990’s misdemeanor arrests, and a photo of O’Rourke holding a skateboard after a video went viral of O’Rourke skating around a Whataburger parking lot – a popular Texas burger chain restaurant that has achieved cult-like status in the state – following an August campaign rally.

Cruz, on the other hand, carries massive name recognition and benefits not only from all the traditional advantages that come with incumbency, but also the benefits that come with running as a Republican in Texas. Cruz, who is, surprisingly, at a fundraising disadvantage, accepts donations from PACs and corporations unlike his opponent, which, while helpful in financing his reelection bid, is being used by O’Rourke’s campaign to further differentiate the candidates and to paint Cruz as the establishment pick. Evidence suggests that this approach is working – a recent online Ipsos poll concluded that “Among likely voters, 76 percent saw Cruz as traditional, while only 32 percent perceived O’Rourke that way.”

Cruz is still clearly the favorite to win this election. Running a presidential campaign, even if you lose, is extraordinarily advantageous in terms of maintaining name recognition and building campaign infrastructure, and Cruz has essentially been running for public office for the better part of four years. Contrast this with O’Rourke, who, as recently as August, was far from universally known in the state – then, a NBC poll found that “44 percent of the adults in the sample and 36 percent of the registered voters who were surveyed said they were unsure of O’Rourke or had never heard of him.”

Still, strange things can happen in wave elections, as this one is predicated to be, and O’Rourke is a unique candidate. His campaign is adept at utilizing social media to garner maximum exposure, and they have succeeded in branding him as thoughtful, well-spoken candidate that can present center-of-left ideas to a normally non-receptive audience. This is best exemplified by a viral video of O’Rourke defending NFL players participating in the national anthem protest, in which he makes, if nothing else, an impassioned case for tolerating non-violent protest. He has also since softened his view on assault rifles for Texans who have already own AR-15s, which, while not an absolute requirement for candidates running in Texas, is highly correlated with election success in the state with the highest aggregate number of registered firearms.

This election is far from over, and there are still three debates scheduled between the candidates, which Cruz is far likelier to benefit from. Cruz is well known as an extremely talented debater – a highly honed skill stemming from his days leading the Princeton debate team to the World Debating Championship and his previous career as Texas Solicitor General where he presented oral arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court. O’Rourke may very well be a good debater, but his skills on such a large stage are an unknown at this point. It doesn’t help O’Rourke that the first debate will be held this Friday night, when one could reasonably assume that his younger audience is less likely to be watching.

As of publication, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight polling website predicts Cruz as the 2-1 favorite to win in November. While that certainly bodes well for the incumbent senator, it is also close enough to give rare hope – hope not seen in decades – to those Texas Democrats with a pipe dream.

Sam Lane

Sam is a member of the firm’s research team. He assists several lobbyists working in various practice areas by performing in-depth research and monitoring of legislative issues relevant to client interests.