Cruz-O’Rourke increasingly looks like Allen-Webb

Cruz-O’Rourke increasingly looks like Allen-Webb
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Coming into this election, very few prognosticators thought the race for Texas’s Senate seat would prove worthy of any attention.  Whereas incumbent Senator Ted Cruz maintains a consistent, though not large, polling lead, Democratic Representative Beto O’Rourke of El Paso has clearly demonstrated his viability.

This race previously escaped serious attention because Texas votes reliably Republican. Democrats have not elected a U.S. Senator since 1988 or any statewide official since 1994.  Although Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE’s nine-point victory in Texas two years ago represented a marked decline in previous Republican victory margins, it was the tenth straight presidential election in which Texas voted GOP. Democrats perennially tout Texas as a future blue state due to an increasing Hispanic population, but they have thus far failed to gain much ground in actual.

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In addition, Cruz, though just finishing his first term, is a nationally prominent figure with past and future presidential ambitions.  While he may not be well positioned to win Democratic and independent votes, he is a lock to raise immense amounts of money and sweep the Republican base. Yet numerous polls show him with a consistent 4-5 points lead, so Cruz most certainly does not appear to be a juggernaut.

O’Rourke, however, has managed to come very close to outraising Cruz, and now has more cash on-hand. While 2018 shows every sign of being a year that has excited the Democratic base to its maximum, O’Rourke has shown himself as an unusually appealing candidate in his own right.  He has generated enthusiasm and easily won the Democratic primary.

Veteran political watchers may find themselves with a sense of déjà vu. Why? 

Twelve years ago, in 2006, Virginia appeared to be a reliably Republican state which most people thought would easily reelect one term incumbent Senator George Allen.  Virginia had voted for George W. Bush two years earlier by a solid nine-point margin, which marked the tenth consecutive time it voted for the Republican for President.  At the time many prognosticators saw Virginia as a future blue state, due to increasing populations of minorities and socially liberal professionals in Northern Virginia, though such potential had yet to show up in votes.

The one term incumbent, George Allen aimed his political pitch squarely at turning out the Republican base, particularly social conservatives. Many observers considered Allen to be a major contender for the Presidency in 2008, and as the 2006 cycle began almost no one thought his reelection to be in doubt.

The Democratic nominee, Jim Webb, did not fit the classic profile of the left wing “netroots” activists that seemed poised to take over the Democratic Party at the time.  He was a former Reagan administration official with idiosyncratic policy views.  But he opposed the Iraq War and the Bush Administration with a visibly pugnacious spirit, and managed to energize the base while still appealing to moderate voters.  He did not outraise Allen, but otherwise filled a similar profile to O’Rourke today.

Webb famously won the upset by a scant 9,329 votes.  Now, we aren’t predicting a similar O’Rourke victory.  But in terms of the political climate of the states and the candidates, the fundamentals of the 2018 Texas race are very similar to the 2006 Virginia race. The 2006 Virginia race proved anything could happen, even in a race widely deemed to favor the incumbent. Cruz needs to take note. 

There is one huge difference.  Cruz has made some silly statements about O’Rourke’s name, but has yet to commit a major gaffe. Conversely, in mid-August 2006, Allen referred to a Webb campaigner of Indian descent as “Macaca”- reported at the time as a racial slur - and gave him a “welcome to America.” Allen’s campaign then unhinged when he unsuccessfully tried to explain his comment as a misunderstanding. Without the big gaffe, he likely would have won.

So while Cruz may be ahead in the polls now, he may very well be one mistake from being in serious trouble.  The stakes here go beyond one Senate seat.  The 2006 race marked an inflection point for Virginia, which has voted entirely Democrat for President and Senate since, and for Governor in two of three elections.  A Cruz defeat could play a similar catalyzing role in Texas, a state three and half times the size of Virginia. That would change the entire national political playing field.

Whet Smith, a 2012 Republican candidate for the Texas State House, is an Attorney, educator, and consultant based in Houston. Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and longtime analyst of Virginia politics; follow him on Twitter @MarkJRozellGMU.