Here's Why This Year's Election Could Finally Be Different in Texas

Throughout 2017 and 2018, your good friends here at the Observer have strained to make sense, any sort of sense, out of the Senate race between Sen. Ted Cruz and El Paso U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke.

We've talked with O'Rourke about Cruz's plan to have notorious drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzman pay for President Donald Trump's wall on the Texas-Mexico border, been there as the representative barnstormed all 254 Texas counties and tried to figure out just what the Texas GOP was attempting to do when it scolded O'Rourke for being in a band and skateboarding through a Whataburger parking lot.

More than anything, we've looked at polls that told us everything and nothing about the race. Enough of them have come out that we know the race is close, but they've had more swings than a carny ride at the State Fair of Texas. Is the race a dead heat or is O'Rourke doomed to be a noble failure such as predicted by the Observer's favorite Rice University professor, Mark Jones.

There's been a lot of noise and very little signal. One thing is clear: O'Rourke's path to victory requires things to go very differently from how they did for former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, another Texas candidate who raised a lot of money and picked a bunch of national media attention, in 2014. Oh, surely you remember her? Pink trainers? Wendy Davis. D-A-V-I-S.

Sen. Ted Cruz is still cool as a cucumber, for now.EXPAND
Sen. Ted Cruz is still cool as a cucumber, for now.
Gage Skidmore

The latest reason to hope something different is actually happening comes from election modeling savant Nate Silver, who took a deep dive late last week into why his forecast for the Cruz-O'Rourke race shows the challenger with a chance of winning (31 percent) that's higher than he expected. (It's worth noting that, while 30 percent doesn't sound like much, an event that happens 30 percent of the time happens pretty frequently. A .300 hitter in baseball, for example, is usually one of the top 15 hitters in the major leagues. Trump, according to Silver, had about a 30 percent chance of beating Hillary Clinton.)

The reason O'Rourke's chances are so high, despite his having led in only one of the dozens of polls taken in the race so far, is that the "fundamentals" of the election actually favor O'Rourke, which makes the Texas Senate race unique among others with Republican opponents this fall.

While Cruz is the incumbent in a overwhelmingly Republican state, both of which give him some advantage, that advantage is mitigated, according to Silver, by Texas' being a big state and Congress' low approval rating.

"Some factors hurting Cruz have nothing to do with Cruz himself, but rather with the state of Texas," Silver writes. "Historically, the incumbency advantage is larger in small, idiosyncratic states and smaller in larger, more diverse ones. This is why Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono’s incumbency advantage in Hawaii is much larger than Cruz’s in Texas or Sen. Bill Nelson’s in Florida, for example. In addition, Congress’s overall approval rating is low, which hurts incumbents in all states and all parties."

The overall political climate — Democrats are favored by about 7 points in an average of generic congressional ballot surveys — along with O'Rourke's experience, huge fundraising advantage over Cruz and the overwhelming frequency with which Cruz votes with his party, are also signs that point to a possible upset, according to Silver.

"To run for Senate, O’Rourke is giving up his seat in the U.S. House, which is a higher office than had been held by Cruz’s 2012 opponent, Paul Sadler, a former state representative," Silver says. "Strong incumbents tend to deter strong challengers from entering the race, but Cruz wasn’t able to do so this time. Cruz also has a very conservative voting record, one that is perhaps 'too conservative' even for Texas."

Cruz's backing of Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination despite sexual assault allegations is the kind of thing that could drive suburban turnout for O'Rourke, something Democratic operatives have said is essential since the beginning of the campaign. Put everything together, and the signs are there that O'Rourke could be genuinely competitive the first week in November.

Then again, how many times have you heard that one before?  

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