Dr. Mark P. Jones is the fellow in political science at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University and co-author of Texas Politics Today. We asked him to share his opinion on the Sen. Ted Cruz vs. Beto O'Rourke race for Senate.
Beto O'Rourke has been touring the Lone Star State for almost a year and a half. From El Paso to Texarkana, and Amarillo to Brownsville, O'Rourke has been appearing before packed houses of enthusiastic fans.
O'Rourke optimists do have some reasons to be bullish about his prospects. They can highlight recent surveys where O'Rourke is within the poll’s margin of error of Sen. Ted Cruz. They can trumpet that in spite of eschewing PAC money, O'Rourke has out-raised Cruz by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. And they can point to the genuine groundswell of popular support for O'Rourke’s campaign — it's difficult to drive more than a few blocks without seeing a Beto yard sign and easy to drive a few hundred without seeing a Cruz sign.
Yet, it is a virtual certainty that Cruz is going to defeat O'Rourke on Nov. 6. O'Rourke’s odds of victory are perhaps 1 in 20, about the same as the University of Tulsa’s odds of victory when it takes on the Longhorns in UT’s home opener at DKR Stadium on Sept. 8. Here are six Beto buzzkills why.
One, the median Republican margin of victory in statewide judicial elections in 2014 and 2016 was 23 and 15 percent. Since this is almost purely a partisan vote (few voters know much at all about the judicial candidates), it suggests Cruz begins the race with a natural advantage of somewhere between 10 and 18 points, taking into account the Texas GOP’s Obama tailwind has been replaced by a Trump headwind.
Two, the population surveyed in the polls cited by O'Rourke supporters likely does not reflect the population of actual fall voters, over-representing Democrats and under-representing Republicans, and thus projecting vote percentages for O'Rourke and Cruz that are too high and low respectively. And, even with the poll demographics skewed slightly in O'Rourke’s favor, Cruz has consistently maintained a solid average advantage of 6 percent.
Three, O'Rourke has raised significantly more money than Cruz this cycle, but they have a relatively similar level of cash on hand when one combines the amount in the war chests of the campaigns and of aligned groups.
Four, polls suggest around one-third of likely voters still know very little about O'Rourke, putting him in a pitched race with Cruz to define himself positively (as someone who wants to move beyond divisive hyper-partisan politics to improve the lives of all Americans via better education, health care and job opportunities) in the eyes of these lower information voters before Cruz has a chance to define him negatively (as someone with extreme positions such as abolishing ICE, legalizing drugs and kneeling during the national anthem).
Five, O'Rourke’s campaign haul of $24 million through June 30 is very impressive, but he will need to match that amount between July and November if he is going to go toe-to-toe with Cruz across the state’s 20 media markets, including two of the most expensive in the nation (Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston). While Cruz can rely on national Republican groups to support his campaign, O'Rourke is unlikely to receive a similar level of support from national Democratic groups, whose strategy to take control of the U.S. Senate is focused primarily on flipping Arizona and Nevada while protecting vulnerable Democratic incumbents in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and West Virginia. National Democrats realize running a Senate campaign in Texas costs about the same as running equivalent campaigns in all of the above-mentioned states combined (excluding Florida), and therefore they will get a better return on their investment supporting Democratic candidates in these races rather than O'Rourke’s long-shot bid.
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Six, this fall O'Rourke can expect little help from his fellow Texas Democrats outside of a handful of U.S. House candidates, with his fellow statewide candidates currently possessing a combined campaign war chest of only $2 million compared with the $58 million in the coffers of their Republican rivals. Key within this latter amount is the $29 million possessed by Gov. Greg Abbott’s re-election campaign. This money will be used by the governor’s top-shelf campaign team to identify, educate and mobilize likely GOP voters to turn out this fall, voters who will more likely than not vote for Cruz as well as Abbott, in a majority of cases using the straight-ticket vote option employed by 6 out of 10 Texans. While O'Rourke needs to spend money on identifying and mobilizing supporters as well as on swaying undecided voters, Cruz can focus most of his resources on the latter mission, confident Team Abbott will take care of the former task.
All signs indicate O'Rourke is not going to defeat Cruz in November, but he has a very real chance to limit his margin of defeat to the single digits, something no statewide Democrat facing a Texan has done since 2008. If O'Rourke achieves this feat, he will have gone a long way toward restoring some of the optimism within the Texas Democratic Party that was crushed in 2014 when Democrat Wendy Davis was decimated by Abbott in spite of being well-known, talented and spending close to $50 million.
While 2018 will not be O'Rourke’s year to take a victory lap around Texas and head to D.C. as the state’s junior senator, I suspect we will be seeing him on the campaign trail in the future, especially now that he has eclipsed the Castro brothers (Joaquín and Julián) in many Democratic circles by capturing the hearts and minds of tens of thousands of Texans from the college campuses of Austin and San Antonio, to the fields of the Rio Grande Valley and Panhandle, to the carpool lines of Dallas and Houston.