“Only one of us has been to each county in Texas.” This was the reply from Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) during the September 21 debate for the Texas 2018 Senate Race. Cruz’s remark had been that O’Rourke did not represent, nor did he understand, “Texas values.” This exchange demonstrates a thought-process dissonance between the PAC-fed, power-seeking elites like Cruz, and the grassroots-inspired, hopeful challengers like O’Rourke. The Texas senate race comes at a crucial time in American politics, with fundamental moral and ethical principles on the ballot — from climate change to racial justice.
It is in this context that we look back to Cruz’s original rise to power during the “Tea Party movement,” the 2011 push by the religious right to seize power in Congress. While the Tea Party movement itself has died down, Ted Cruz represents a personification of its driving forces: uncompromising ultraconservativism combined with a heavy opposition to the constitutional wall between church and state. These values are also heavily associated with the deep south and Texas. It should be viewed as particularly striking, then, that the race between O’Rourke, a progressive modeled in much the same way as Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Cruz, the de-facto representative of the Christian Right, has been declared a toss-up by the Cook Political Report. Previously, the race had been declared “leans Republican.” We will explore why Beto O’Rourke has a significant chance of victory during this apparent shift of ideology, despite the aspects of Texas, and red states in general, that would suggest a major loss.
The first major point that conventional wisdom tells us should be sinking Beto O’Rourke in the polls, and ultimately on election day, is the historical context of the state of Texas. Texas has not elected a Democratic senator since 1976. O’Rourke also does not hold what could be considered the typical red state Democrat’s neo-liberal, centrist views, such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who backed Kavanaugh and opposes significant action on climate change. It has been assumed by the Democratic party since the Clinton-era that the only way to win in typically red states was to essentially act like a Republican.
The problem with this logic is that when presented with pseudo-Republican and actual Republican, most voters have demonstrated that they will choose the actual Republican. It makes sense, then, that O’Rourke’s progressive platform of Medicare-for-all single-payer healthcare, criminal justice and police reform, and gun control would galvanize and motivate voters in the state to support him.
A candidate with policies that offer a meaningful positive change from the status quo will always draw more excitement than a candidate who defends the status-quo. Texas is undergoing a transformation of demographics, and while voter suppression efforts by the Republican party attempt to hinder the impact of this change, suppression only works if the tide can be mitigated.
Voter suppression is an egregious violation of basic rights, which especially targets marginalized and vulnerable groups, namely poor individuals of color. Texas has particularly harsh voter ID laws. Fighting these policies is necessary, and high amounts of turnout can overcome draconian voter suppression tactics to a degree. It is true that Ted Cruz would likely win against a standard red state Democrat. Beto O’Rourke is not a standard red state Democrat. If anyone has a significant chance of victory against Ted Cruz, it is Beto O’Rourke
Money is viewed as an obvious centerpiece of any political campaign, and Senate campaigns are among the most expensive. With this understanding, O’Rourke’s refusal to take PAC money should, in theory, hinder his ability to match Cruz’s financial machine. Without funds, it is nearly impossible to advertise effectively and mobilize people, and an unadvertised campaign will more-likely-than-not fail. It would be helpful to look at the actual fundraising numbers to see if this holds true. The expectation is that Cruz has far outraised O’Rourke. This expectation does not hold: O’Rourke raised $38.1 million in the last three months, while Cruz has only raised $12 million. O’Rourke in his bid for senate has raised more money than Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential election. Grassroots funding can be ongoing and intense, while PAC funding typically is only a one-shot deal for the election season. On this point too, O’Rourke comes out ahead.
A final point in O’Rourke’s favor is that the Republican party itself does not seem to particularly like Cruz. Without party backing, even a conflicted and divided party like the Republican party, most candidates look substantially weaker when compared with their opponent who does have party backing. Billboards have been placed on highways across Texas with screenshots of a Trump tweet from before the 2016 election, which asks why anyone would vote for Ted Cruz when he has done nothing for Texas. This is an attempt to drive a mental wedge between individuals who support both Trump and Cruz. O’Rourke not only has party support, but he also polls extremely well with independents.
An O’Rourke victory, however unlikely, would galvanize voters in red states and blue states alike, as it would demonstrate that progressive policies can and do work everywhere. Beto O’Rourke has a more significant chance of beating Ted Cruz than any average red state democrat, and his platform has ensured that the people of Texas remain mobilized.
Regardless of the outcome of this election, O’Rourke represents a growing trend of truly progressive candidates funded directly by the grassroots, and that is a hopeful thought.