Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke is expected to announce a run for Senate against Ted Cruz Friday, giving the seemingly long-shot race one of the best Democratic candidates it could hope for. There are plenty of reasons to discount the viability of this race—Democrats haven’t won a key statewide race in Texas in decades—but the combination of state, cycle, and candidates have the potential to make it far more competitive than it first appears. Let’s go through each one to see how they may increase O’Rourke’s chances:
Texas has been seen as the Democrat’s great white (blue?) whale for a while now. While other increasingly diverse states such as Virginia and Nevada have moved toward Democrats, Texas has remained stubbornly stuck as a Republican stronghold. Since 1990, Republicans have won every Senate and gubernatorial race, usually by double-digit margins. Most recently, Texas state senator Wendy Davis made a national name for herself filibustering anti-choice legislation in 2013, only to lose the governor’s race the next year by 20 points.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t signs of hope in the state. President Trump only won 52 percent in Texas, well below Romney’s 57 percent in 2012. And Clinton won in places where Democrats haven’t succeeded in decades, well before Republicans took over the state. This is most evident in two congressional districts won by Clinton despite being drawn to be safe Republican districts, the 7th and the 32nd. Both districts are primarily made up of suburban areas in and around Dallas and Houston. Seven other districts in Texas moved toward Clinton by double digits compared to their 2012 results, also mostly suburban areas around big cities. These districts make up one-quarter of the entire state.
Now it’s possible that these shifts are one-offs, and these areas will return to their historic Republican roots. But an ongoing election shows that that might not be the case. Georgia’s 6th Congressional District similarly covers a suburban area outside a big southern city that has historically voted Republican. After a big Democratic shift toward Clinton in 2016, the seat is now in the middle of a highly competitive special election where a young, personable Democrat has the GOP running scared. (You may have heard of him.)
In a neutral year with generic candidates, these ongoing shifts, even accelerated by Trump, would not be enough for O’Rourke to win. But additional factors are far more likely to help O’Rourke than to hurt him.
As anyone who has followed American politics can tell you, a state’s partisanship changes slowly over long periods of time. But if that were the only factor in elections, politics would get pretty boring. Each election also brings unique factors that collectively tend to benefit one party or the other. This can be anywhere from a light “breeze” to a strong “wave” depending on the year. The most important factors are whether it’s a midterm or presidential year, which party holds the presidency, and how popular the president is. For example, 2010 was a midterm year with a Democratic president holding middling approval ratings. This was a central factor in Republican Mark Kirk winning a Senate seat in deep-blue Illinois. Had any of those factors been different, he probably wouldn’t have won.
Let’s return to Wendy Davis’ campaign for Texas governor. 2014 was a not-unexpectedly poor cycle for Democrats. It was a midterm, they held the presidency, and Obama was not particularly popular. In a year where Democrats lost the Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland governor’s races, is it any surprise that they got slammed in the Texas race as well?
Two of these cyclical factors are already known for 2018. It’s a midterm cycle and a Republican will be president. This combination should help Democrats, though recent midterms have seen Democrats struggle with turning out their younger, more diverse base. But running in a midterm against the president has been a recipe for success for decades. It’s even more effective when that president isn’t particularly popular at the time.
Many elections have shown how presidential job approval correlates with the president’s party’s results in midterm elections. It’s most clear in the House, where all 435 seats are up each cycle, while the limited numbers of seats and states up in the Senate causes variation in the results. But focusing just on one race in one state, as we are here, means that the worse President Trump’s approval rating is in 2018, the better for O’Rourke. We obviously can’t know what that will be in the future but we know that Trump is currently averaging 40 percent approval, far below any other president this early in an administration.
The last time an unpopular GOP president faced a midterm election, in 2006, Democrats won six senate seats, including in states like Missouri and Montana. They even made a Tennessee Senate race competitive, only losing 51-48 despite the state’s deep-red hue. Tennessee is by all accounts, even more Republican than Texas is.
All signs point to 2018 being a good cycle for Democrats, which O’Rourke will absolutely need to make this race competitive. But there’s one last factor to consider: the candidates themselves.
O’Rourke is a young, personable, successful businessman who played in punk rock bands during and after college. Ted Cruz is, well, Ted Cruz. There’s a tendency to overemphasize candidate quality when looking at legislative races (great candidates lose to terrible candidates all the time) but it is a factor. While O’Rourke has never run statewide before, he impressively defeated an incumbent Democratic congressman in a primary in 2012.
Cruz is excellent at running as far to the right as humanly possible and making everyone else who meets him loathe him. He’s never run a competitive general election campaign nor attempted to appeal to even moderate Republicans (though in fairness, neither has O’Rourke). According to the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, Cruz’s favorability in the state is way underwater at 32 percent favorable to 49 percent unfavorable as of October 2016. His job approval rating this February was only slightly better at 38 percent approve to 39 percent disapprove.
Ted Cruz only seems intimidating because he’s extremely well-known nationally and came in second in the GOP primary last year. But he’s no Chuck Grassley, with decades of crossover appeal to fall back on. In reality, he’s a not-very-popular freshman senator embarking on his first re-election campaign.
A Reality Check
None of this is to say that there aren’t significant challenges on the road to victory. O’Rourke suffers from a massive name recognition deficit and will likely be outspent by tens of millions of dollars. Running a statewide race in a state like Texas doesn’t allow you to leverage your personal popularity the way that Heidi Heitkamp can in North Dakota. The state remains Republican leaning, which can save even unpopular candidates in bad years (such as Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy in 2014). And we don’t ultimately know what the political reality will be on November 6, 2018. But if O’Rourke can raise the money and run a good race, all signs point to this race being far more competitive than people currently think.