Eyes on 2018: Texas Senate Race

For all the talk of Texas becoming a purple state, it’s still pretty solidly red. In 2016, Texans supported Trump over Clinton, 52.4 percent to 43.3 percent. Texas Democrats have in fact lost 123 consecutive statewide races since 1996. That means the Democratic Party hasn’t produced one senator, one judge, one comptroller, or one Agricultural Commissioner in over 20 years. It’s an impressively horrendous record.

Still, streaks like these are bound to end eventually. Democrats have a relatively strong candidate in Beto O’Rourke, who is running a grassroots campaign while raising impressive amounts of money. It remains to be seen, however, if O’Rourke can defy expectations and become the first El Paso native ever elected to statewide office. (Yes, that’s somehow true.)

The Picture:

This seat is firmly in Likely Republican territory. Ted Cruz, while by no means America’s favorite Senator, is comparatively better liked than the state’s Sen. Cornyn, and Cruz’ reputation as a tried-and-true conservative will make him difficult to unseat.

Ted Cruz’s conservativism stretches across fiscal and social issues. He is perhaps the politician most closely associated with the Tea Party, and he played an instrumental role in the 2013 government shutdown. His opponent, Congressman Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, sits on the opposite side of the political spectrum. He supports a single-payer healthcare system and marijuana legalization and is following Bernie Sanders’ lead in refusing to take corporate PAC money.

While O’Rourke and Cruz are worlds apart on most issues, immigration will no doubt be topic of much debate in a state like Texas. If Congress does not act on DACA soon, the issue will take on even greater significance, with the potential to bolster either candidate depending on how they address it.

With Cruz taking a hardline stance on immigration, O’Rourke has flexibility on how he portrays his views. Though he comes from a border town in El Paso, the section on immigration from his website is rather uncontroversial, and immigration is fairly low down on his non-alphabetized list of issues.

Thus far, he has focused most of his outrage on the political system, a strategy which will allow him to remain palatable for the state’s mostly White, largely racially resentful voting populace. Still, he will need to target outreach on immigration to Latino communities to drive up Latino turnout. He’ll also need to be prepared to fight back against attacks on his decidedly liberal policy preferences and potentially on his 1998 DUI arrest.

It’s also worth mentioning fundraising. While O’Rourke’s fundraising numbers are impressive, Cruz entered 2018 with more money in his coffers, and SuperPACs run by him and his allies had almost $2.5 million saved up by the end of last year. If O’Rourke wants to compete against Cruz, he’ll have to compete financially as well, and he’ll have to do almost all of it from small donors.

Where the Race Stands:

At a glimpse, polling numbers look good for O’Rourke. A December 2017 Gallup poll found that only 39 percent of Texans approved or President Trump’s job performance, while 54 percent disapproved. A Public Policy Polling/End Citizens United poll* from January found that only 38 percent of voters viewed Cruz favorably and Cruz led O’Rourke by just 8 percent, with 18 percent of voters undecided.**

In most states, early poll numbers this strong for a relatively unknown challenger would be unequivocally great news. Unfortunately for Democrats, Texas is a bit of a unique case.

Texas’ voting populace is significantly more conservative than non-voters. Part of this might be pure disenchantment in the process – losing 123 consecutive statewide elections can no doubt be exhausting. But most of the discrepancy comes from vast differences in the racial and ethnic demographics of Texans who take part in elections compared to those who do not. While non-Hispanic Whites make up less than 50 percent of the state’s population, they made up 68.9 percent of voters in 2016. Part of this discrepancy stems from differences in citizenship rates and documentation, but even among citizens, non-Hispanic White turnout is consistently higher.

Resultantly, the people most likely to dislike the president are also the least likely to participate in elections. In reality, Trump’s approval rating among Texas voters is likely significantly higher than polling indicates, as his approval ratings among White Americans are generally higher than those among non-Whites.

What’s more, the End Citizens United/PPP poll significantly oversamples Latino voters. In their sample, Latino voters will make up 18 percent of voters; if actual turnout data looked like this, it would represent a 50 percent increase from the group’s turnout in the 2016 Presidential election (when 11.9 percent of voters were Latino). Latino turnout has historically been lower in midterm elections, and even if 2018 proves to be a special case, the best Democrats can realistically hope for is a modest increase. It’s also a poll sponsored by an openly progressive organization, so its results should be taken with a grain of salt regardless.

Meanwhile, an internal poll conducted for the Cruz campaign in December indicated an 18-point lead for the Cruz; needless to say, this poll is older and also probably biased, but it underscores the skepticism that the PPP poll warrants.

It’s worth noting that Democrats were in a similar spot back in 2014. Fresh off a high-profile filibuster during which she emphatically fought to delay the passage of abortion restrictions, Wendy Davis was considered Democrats’ first real chance to win a statewide office in years. Yet despite early poll numbers that found her within single digits, she ultimately lost by 20 percent.

The comparison isn’t perfect, as Davis ran a uniquely weak campaign which emphasized her pro-choice stance – a near death sentence in Texas state politics – but O’Rourke is a similarly left-of-center candidate who will be vulnerable to attacks portraying him as too liberal and out of touch with the state’s values. (To be clear, I do not think O’Rourke will lose by anywhere near 20 points – being known for being socially liberal is much worse in Texas than being known for being fiscally liberal.)

While the race needs time to develop and O’Rourke certainly stands a chance, victory will no doubt be an uphill battle.

RACE STANDING: Likely Republican

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Immigration, fundraising numbers, likely voter polls

*Though End Citizens United is a progressive group, Public Policy Polling (PPP), which conducted the poll on the group’s behalf, is a generally well-respected pollster.

**A January poll from conservative-leaning pollster Morning Consult found that Senator Cruz had a 50 percent approval rating, though the toplines do not add up. The poll finds that 50 percent of Texans approve of Sen. Cruz’s job proposal, compared to 32 percent who disapprove and 28 percent who have no opinion. 50 + 32 + 28 equals 110, so it unclear what the error was in the posting. Morning Consult did not respond to a request for clarification as of this posting, so we did not feel comfortable including the poll in our analysis.

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