Despite Unprecedented Fundraising Haul, Beto O'Rourke Still Faces Uphill Climb Against Ted Cruz

Beto O'Rourke (right) shakes hands with Genaro Menchach at Bishop Barbers, owned by Marcus Santillan, on Jefferson Boulevard.
Beto O'Rourke (right) shakes hands with Genaro Menchach at Bishop Barbers, owned by Marcus Santillan, on Jefferson Boulevard. Danny Gallagher
However things end up in November, U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso has already made one thing clear in his challenge to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz: It isn't going to be easy for the incumbent, not by a long shot.

O'Rourke announced Tuesday that he raised $6.7 million during the first quarter of 2018, a staggering amount for a U.S. Senate race. More than any Texas Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in recent memory, O'Rourke appears set to take his campaign throughout the state and its expensive media markets. That doesn't mean he actually has a decent chance to beat Cruz, however. At least not yet.

O'Rourke's haul is the biggest ever recorded in Texas for a candidate who isn't self-funding. The cash — almost triple the candidate's next-highest quarterly total, $2.4 million — came from about 141,000 donors. While Cruz has yet to release his first-quarter fundraising totals, his total for the first 45 days of the year, $803,000, came in well behind O'Rourke's midway report of $2.3 million raised. O'Rourke's windfall should also close some of the $1.1 million gap in cash on hand that existed between him and Cruz in mid-February.

"Campaigning in a grassroots fashion while raising more than $6.7 million from 141,000 contributions, we are the story of a campaign powered by people who are standing up to special interests, proving that we are more than a match and making it clear that Texans are willing to do exactly what our state and country need of us at this critical time," O'Rourke said in a statement.

While raising more cash than Cruz is better than the alternative, Rice University political science professor Mark Jones says O'Rourke's totals aren't indicative of a race that's changed very much over the last couple of months.

"It doesn't change my view of the overall outcome. It's still going to be a Ted Cruz victory and a Beto O'Rourke defeat," Jones says. "I think it does suggest that Ted Cruz is going to have to work harder than he would like during this campaign. Unlike [Lt. Gov.] Dan Patrick or even [Gov.] Greg Abbott, Cruz is going to have to come close to matching O'Rourke in fundraising and appearances if for no other reason to avoid the humiliation of winning but winning with what's far and away the lowest margin of any statewide Republican."

Because of Republican resources that are already in place throughout the state and Republicans who are going to spend heavily on campaigns regardless of competition, O'Rourke has to raise more money than Cruz just to stay competitive, Jones says.

"O'Rourke is effectively having to do this all on his own," Jones says. "He has to do things that Cruz already has done for him. He has to set up organization and infrastructure in places were it doesn't exist. Cruz can take advantage of the existing Republican infrastructure, both that of the county parties and also that of Gov. Abbott."

Rather than fundraising totals, the big thing to look for in assessing whether O'Rourke is in a truly competitive race with Cruz is whether the super political action committees get involved. As long as national money and groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee stay out of the state and focused on competitive Senate races in states like Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee and Missouri, it's a sign O'Rourke isn't likely to win, Jones says.

"If we start to see the national super PACs involved as well as the DSCC, then that would mean that they've been doing multiple private polls and they're convinced that Texas is now a better bet than those other competitive states, or at least that Texas is in the same range as Tennessee, Arizona and Nevada and therefore worth investing money in," Jones says. "If the DSCC were to make that type of move ... if you actually see them spending real dollars in the millions to go after Ted Cruz, that's a signal that they have lots of polls, lots of focus groups, and they're convinced that it's actually feasible."
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young