Beto O'Rourke is dominating Ted Cruz in enthusiasm and fundraising — but he's still headed for defeat

Beto O'Rourke is dominating Ted Cruz in enthusiasm and fundraising — but he's still headed for defeat

Beto O’Rourke is the closest thing Texas has to a political rock star today, with a devoted group of followers who pack his events, sport Beto gear, proudly display Beto yard signs, and contribute money to his campaign. The electricity surrounding O’Rourke’s campaign is palpable in many parts of the state and within numerous social groups.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz challenger O'Rourke launching .27M TV ad buy focusing on 'positive' message Neo-Nazis hope to leverage Alex Jones controversies one year after Charlottesville violence Texas brewery makes 'Beto Beer' for Democratic Senate candidate MORE is no rock star, it’s rare to see anyone wearing Cruz shirts or putting his signs in their yard, and while Cruz does have his share of diehard supporters, few would use the term “electric” to describe his campaign. And, while Cruz has raised a respectable amount of money, O’Rourke has so far bested him in the fundraising derby by a noteworthy margin, including a second quarter where Beto more than doubled Cruz with a haul of $10.4 million.

Yet, in spite of the enthusiasm and fundraising gap separating the two campaigns, there is little doubt that Cruz is going to defeat O’Rourke in November.


First, this campaign is taking place in the Lone Star State, where statewide Republican candidates begin this election cycle with an advantage of at least 15 percentage points over their Democratic rival. 

While Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAl Gore: Trump has had 'less of an impact on environment so far than I feared' Trump claims tapes of him saying the 'n-word' don't exist Trump wanted to require staffers to get permission before writing books: report MORE may have bested Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: FBI fires Strzok after anti-Trump tweets | Trump signs defense bill with cyber war policy | Google under scrutiny over location data | Sinclair's troubles may just be beginning | Tech to ease health data access | Netflix CFO to step down Signs grow that Mueller is zeroing in on Roger Stone Omarosa claims president called Trump Jr. a 'f--- up' for releasing Trump Tower emails MORE by only 9 points, in races not involving a candidate named Trump, the median statewide Republican candidate won by 15 points in 2016 (range of 13 to 16) and by 22 points in 2014 (range of 19 to 27).

Second, the Cruz vs. O’Rourke battle is not occurring in a vacuum, but rather within the context of a cycle featuring the election of members of the plural state executive branch and more than 2,000 other federal, state, and county posts. Furthermore, these races are linked together via the state’s straight voting option, which approximately three out of five Texans utilize when casting their ballot.

All seven GOP members of the state's plural executive are running for re-election, challenged by a slate of Democrats whose name recognition ranges from middling to virtually nonexistent.

The race between incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez (D) is the most lopsided gubernatorial contest in modern Texas history. Cruz will benefit considerably from the voter targeting activities the Abbott campaign has been engaged in over the past year and a half as well as the $20 to $30 million it will spend between now and November on logistics, messaging and mobilization.

In contrast, O’Rourke is unable to rely on any real assistance from the other statewide Democratic candidates, and is thus something of a political Battlestar Galactica, forced to confront the entire Cylon Fleet on his own.

Third, Texas is very expensive state in which to campaign. It has 20 media markets, including two in the U.S. top 10 (Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston) and two others in the top 40 (San Antonio, Austin). And, in spite of having actively campaigned for a almost a year and a half, one in four Texas voters still doesn’t really know who O’Rourke is. While O’Rourke has raised an exceptional amount of money, almost $20 million, he’ll need to match that number over the next four months to have enough funds to run a full-scale Texas-sized campaign. 

And, unlike Democratic senate challengers in Arizona and Nevada, O’Rourke is unlikely to receive a great deal of institutional national support. National Democrats and their allies can obtain a much bigger senate bang for their buck outside of the Lone Star State than within it. It costs about as much to run a single statewide campaign in Texas as it does to run five similar campaigns combined in Arizona and Nevada along with the states of three of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents: Missouri (Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillStudy: 3 of every 10 House candidate websites vulnerable to hacks Unions see Missouri win as red state watershed US suspected Russia was behind 2016 cyberattacks against Swedish news organizations: report MORE), North Dakota (Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOvernight Energy: Trump Cabinet officials head west | Zinke says California fires are not 'a debate about climate change' | Perry tours North Dakota coal mine | EPA chief meets industry leaders in Iowa to discuss ethanol mandate Trump’s big wall isn’t going anywhere — and the polls show why Senate Judiciary announces Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing MORE), and West Virginia (Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump’s big wall isn’t going anywhere — and the polls show why Senate Judiciary announces Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing Anti-abortion group launches ads against Manchin over Planned Parenthood MORE).

While O’Rourke is unlikely to win in November, this does not necessarily mean that his losing campaign will not have a positive impact on his political career and on the Texas Democratic Party.

Prior to O’Rourke’s Senate bid, Joaquín and Julián Castro were widely considered to represent the Texas Democratic Party’s future. Both, however, chose to stay on the sidelines this year (a decision more understandable in the case of Rep. Joaquín Castro than that of his brother, who served as President Obama’s HUD secretary).

If he does well against Cruz, say losing by a single-digit margin (compared to Democrat Wendy Davis’s 20 point loss to Abbott in 2014), O’Rourke will have arguably leapfrogged the Castro brothers within the Texas Democratic Party and put himself in the pole position for another U.S. Senate bid in 2020 or a gubernatorial bid in 2022.

More generally, O’Rourke’s campaign has helped re-invigorate the Texas Democratic Party and provide it with a statewide contact list that can be used in the future for mobilization and fundraising. Furthermore, O’Rourke has attracted a host of talented individuals to his campaign, and it would not be surprising to see a political Siouxsie Sioux emerge from the O’Rourke mosh pit to launch an electoral bid of their own in 2020 or 2022.

Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s fellow in political science and the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University as well as a co-author of “Texas Politics Today: 2017-2018 Edition.” Follow him @MarkPJonesTX.