WASHINGTON — The fight between Sen. Ted Cruz and challenger Beto O’Rourke pits a tea party darling who used his first term to run for the White House against a dynamic three-term congressman hoping to snap his party’s 25-year losing streak in Texas.
Both cleared the primaries on Tuesday with little resistance, and even before polls closed, Cruz was framing the race as a bid by “angry” Bernie Sanders-style liberals to attack Texas’ conservative values.
“Congressman O’Rourke is a left-wing liberal Democrat,” said Cruz, who only recently began mentioning his rival by name, in a call with Texas reporters. “It is true that the extreme left is angry and energized and they hate the president … . But the good news is there are more conservatives than there are liberals in Texas.”
O’Rourke shrugged off the label and said that like voters, he’s focused on jobs, a living wage, education and affordable health care.
“Can you define any of that on the political spectrum?” he said.
“I’m not running against anyone. I’m running with the people of Texas to do something really great for this country,” he said, adding: “There’s really not much I need to say about Senator Cruz. I trust the people of Texas. I trust their ability to make their own judgments.”
Texas Republicans haven’t lost statewide since 1994. But President Donald Trump looms over the midterm elections, and even in Texas, some voters will use their ballots to signal dismay with him and punish his most ardent defenders, among them Cruz.
Related: Marijuana advocate Beto O’Rourke kicks off bid to unseat Cruz in Texas
“I don’t think it’s a slam dunk,” said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Yeah it’s Texas, but the environment is bad even in Texas,” she said, adding that Trump “is going to be the third candidate on the ballot in a way that is very real … . Cruz might have to work for this one.”
Cook ranks the race “likely Republican.” So does CNN, a recent downgrade from “Solid Republican.”
Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate. Of the 26 seats Democrats are defending, 10 are in states that Trump won. Trump won Texas, though by a smaller margin than recent GOP nominees.
The last Democrat to represent Texas in the Senate was Bob Krueger, an appointee who kept the seat warm for five months in 1993 after Democrat Lloyd Bentsen resigned to serve as Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary. Kay Bailey Hutchison ousted Krueger in a special election. Cruz took over when she retired in 2012, after an upset win over then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the primary.
“It is inconceivable to me that Senator Cruz loses in the fall,” said GOP strategist Rob Jesmer, former executive director of the party’s Senate campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “That being said, I think we are heading into a very challenging environment in the fall and that could result in a more competitive race than Texas Republicans are used to.”
On issues, the choice for voters is stark.
Cruz is among the most conservative members of the Senate and his take-no-prisoners style during his first term made him a major irritant both to Barack Obama and to GOP leaders.
O’Rourke has positioned himself as more of a moderate, though support for legalizing marijuana — not that he emphasizes that issue — is one of many stances that open him to attack.
They largely agree on support for free trade and NAFTA. But they diverge on Obamacare, immigration policy, border security and taxes. Cruz touts a top grade from the NRA and tweaked O’Rourke for earning an F over his support for restrictions on high capacity magazines and assault-style weapons.
Where O’Rourke accuses Cruz and Trump of a heartless approach to immigration and a foolish call for a border wall that would mainly antagonize a key trading partner, Cruz hits back that the Democrat supports open borders and amnesty for undocumented immigrants.
“I am not remotely afraid to debate left-wing liberal socialists,” Cruz said in committing to debate his rival, noting that he faced off three times with Sanders on CNN over the past year, “and the values of Texas are not the values of Congressman O’Rourke or Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or Chuck Schumer.”
O’Rourke, too, said he looked forward to debating his rival in coming months.
He contrasted his support for universal health care with Cruz instigating a 16-day government shutdown in 2013 in a bid to defund the Affordable Care Act.
He also noted that while they both won their seats in 2012, Cruz was angling for the White House almost immediately.
“Ted Cruz leaves Texas and is campaigning in Iowa and is in New Hampshire, and he boasts of having visited every one of the 99 counties of Iowa,” O’Rourke said.
In the primaries, Cruz faced Houston energy lawyer Stefano de Stefano, Christian TV producer Bruce Jacobson Jr., accountant and self-described moderate Mary Miller, and former La Marque mayor Geraldine Sam.
O’Rourke faced Sema Hernandez, who described herself as a “progressive Berniecrat,” and retired postal worker Edward Kimbrough.
O’Rourke has raised more than $8.7 million since declaring his candidacy last March, topping Cruz in that same period. In the first six weeks of 2018 alone, he outraised Cruz $2.3 million to $800,000 — a wake-up call for Republicans who had assumed that Texas would remain a dependable fortress.
O’Rourke did this while shunning PAC money, endearing himself to grassroots Democrats but potentially hobbling himself for the fall.
GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser, who ran Sen. John Cornyn’s 2014 race, said it would take at least $10 million to “run any semblance of a statewide campaign” against Cruz, preferably $25 million. That makes shunning PAC money a good talking point but a “big mistake.”
Still, Cruz enters the general campaign with a $6 million war chest, an edge of more than $1 million.
Outside groups on the right and left could pour money into Texas if they smell opportunity. But the party committees are likely to remain on the sidelines. With roughly 20 media markets in Texas, they can get more bang for the buck elsewhere.
Cruz enters the race with near universal name recognition, but also a reputation as a polarizing figure.
He adamantly refuses to accept responsibility for the 2013 shutdown, an episode that propelled his presidential aspirations, cementing the affection of conservatives and making him a reviled adversary for the left.
O’Rourke, by contrast, opened this campaign unknown beyond his El Paso base, far from the vote-rich regions around Dallas and Houston.
He has barnstormed Texas for months, drawing surprisingly large crowds in small and medium-sized cities that statewide Democratic candidates have neglected for years — though retail scale politics has limits in a state so vast.
“This is as simple and direct as democracy can get,” he said, adding that he plans to continue that approach.
Related: Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke introduces federal bill to curb driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses
“O’Rourke has surpassed every expectation” in terms of attracting funds and attention, Duffy said.
But even if O’Rourke “looks like a Kennedy” and makes voters swoon with support for term limits and “doesn’t sound like a prepackaged candidate,” said Steinhauser, his chances hinge on “huge turnout” among Democrats.
Republicans profess little concern for Cruz’s prospects. But what they refer to euphemistically as a tough environment, Democrats call the “Trump factor.”
Cruz has tied himself unabashedly to the divisive president and said Tuesday night that he welcomes Trump’s support.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said that even voters who don’t usually support Democrats “are sick and tired of the way the Republican Party is turning a blind eye to (Trump’s) incompetence, the corruption, and his playing footsie with the Russians.”
And the Cruz-Trump alliance is hardly the only line of attack Democrats will pursue.
“We’ve got plenty of ammunition to use against him,” he said.