O'Rourke faces uphill battle against Cruz after lackluster primary win

O'Rourke faces uphill battle against Cruz after lackluster primary win
© Getty

Texas Democrats had their strongest turnout numbers in more than a decade in Tuesday’s primaries, but Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s weaker-than-expected performance indicates that he’s still got a long way to go in his bid to take on Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits Russia raises problems for GOP candidates Deal to fix family separations hits snag in the Senate MORE (R-Texas). 

O’Rourke won the Democratic nomination on Tuesday night, officially setting up his high-profile clash with Cruz in November. But the congressman won just 62 percent of the vote against candidates with far less name recognition and resources, signaling that he still needs to boost his statewide name recognition.

ADVERTISEMENT
O’Rourke, who’s represented the El Paso-based district since 2013, has been campaigning and fundraising nonstop since he jumped into the race last March. Yet his two relatively unknown primary challengers managed to secure a sizable portion of the vote, despite spending virtually no money.

Texas political observers say O’Rourke will need to spend the coming months becoming better acquainted with voters, but they still believe he’s the kind of candidate who can drive up turnout for Democrats in the fall and make more inroads for the party in the deep-red state.

“It’s clear that this is going to be an uphill battle, but at the same time the Democrats are going to need someone like O’Rourke who’s going to invest and energize the Democratic Party and its voters,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“Although he’s unlikely to win, the fact that he can energize Democrats in places otherwise they may not come to vote is positive for the party in the long run. He’s running a strategy that will be effective in 10 years, but not 10 months.”

In the run-up to the primary, O’Rourke has stunned those in both national and Texas political circles with his prolific fundraising and rigorous campaign schedule. He’s 28 counties away from visiting all of 254 counties in the state. 

O’Rourke has raised nearly $9 million in his Senate bid and has at times outpaced Cruz in quarterly totals, though the senator still has an edge of more than $1 million in cash on hand. O’Rourke has $4.9 million in the bank, and spent more than $4 million ahead of the primary.

Despite O’Rourke’s advantages over his primary rivals, opponent Sema Hernandez dominated most of the counties along the U.S.-Mexico border and won nearly 24 percent of the vote without raising or spending any money. His other opponent, Edward Kimbrough, won 14 percent of the vote and spent $575. 

Texas strategists noted that candidates with Latino surnames can typically garner a decent percentage of the Democratic primary vote, even if they’re not the front-runner. 

They said that O’Rourke will need to reach out to more of those voters, adding that he’s already well-positioned to do so given that he’s fluent in Spanish and has a grasp on those issues. Rottinghaus added that he also needs to focus on urban areas, since a significant concentration of Democratic voters reside around Houston, Austin and Dallas.

But Matt Angle, a Democratic strategist and director of the Lone Star Project, pushed back on the narrative of Tuesday night. He argued that O’Rourke failed to meet expectations, but performed well given his low statewide name recognition.

“He’s simply not known in big parts of the state and in urban counties, there are big parts of the population that don’t know him, so the fact that he came out of that with 62 percent, is actually very good. It frustrates me that he was given this false standard to reach,” Angle said, adding that O’Rourke needs to campaign beyond Democrats’ urban strongholds.

Pre-empting Tuesday night’s results, Cruz sought to manage expectations by saying he’s “absolutely” concerned about the possibility of high Democratic turnout in Texas. He warned that conservatives staying on the sidelines in November could turn Texas blue. 

After O’Rourke locked up the nomination, Cruz launched the first salvo of what’s likely to be a contentious general election season.

Late on primary night, Cruz’s campaign launched a radio ad in the form of a country song that criticizes O’Rourke for going by his nickname “Beto,” while pointing out that O’Rourke isn’t actually Hispanic. Cruz critics quickly pointed out that the senator’s birth name isn’t Ted, but Rafael.

When asked about Cruz attack on CNN’s “New Day,” O’Rourke brushed it off and said Texans don’t want to focus on the “small, mean, petty stuff.” 

"We can get into name-calling and talk about why the other person is such an awful guy, or we can focus on the big things we want to do for the future of our country, for the generations that will succeed us," O’Rourke said on the show.

Democrats believe O’Rourke needs to maintain that strategy and not get sucked into negative campaigning.

“[Cruz’s] strategy is to make the campaign ugly,” Angle said. “[O’Rourke] has to be able to continue to draw that contrast, be able to criticize Cruz and be able to challenge him but not be pulled down in the mud with him.”

But Cruz said Wednesday on CNN that he “absolutely” takes the race seriously and said that parts of the ad are just meant to “have a sense of humor.”

Political observers and strategists see only a narrow path for O’Rourke, given that he can’t win solely on Democratic votes while political polarization makes it tough for O’Rourke to sway more moderates and independents. Plus, no Democrat has won a Senate election in Texas since 1988.

While some Republicans acknowledge that O’Rourke is a much better Senate candidate for Democrats than in previous cycles, they believe the Democratic Party will have a better shot in some of the heavily targeted House races, like swing seats held by GOP Reps. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdTrump's Russia remarks put intel chiefs in tough spot GOP rep: Putin delivered ‘classic disinformation’ in conference with Trump GOP lawmaker: Trump is 'getting played by' a former KGB agent MORE and John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonDem, GOP groups prepare spending blitz for midterms Election Countdown: Family separation policy may haunt GOP in November | Why Republican candidates are bracing for surprises | House Dems rake in record May haul | 'Dumpster fire' ad goes viral Cook Political Report got it wrong: Reps. Sessions and Culberson’s districts are not 'toss-ups' MORE. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonProminent Putin critic: If Trump turns me over, I'm dead Dems unveil slate of measures to ratchet up pressure on Russia Trump tweets old video of Clinton talking up 'a strong Russia' MORE won both of those seats in the 2016 election.

“[Democrats] have a case to be made and will make the case that they’re going to turn out a ton of people in the fall and threaten some Republican incumbents, but I think it really only gives a shot, a good aim at Will Hurd and, potentially, Culberson,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist who managed Texas Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Senators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits Senate approves resolution warning Trump not to hand over US officials MORE’s (R) 2014 race.