Beto needs a Hail Mary to win in Texas

In Texas — the land of Friday Night Lights, Bevo, the 12th Man and the Dallas Cowboys — late in the fourth quarter, Republican Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzIs this any way for NASA to build a lunar lander? GOP strategist predicts Biden will win nomination, cites fundraising strength 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE leads Democrat Rep. Beto O’Rourke by six points in the race to keep his seat in the Senate. Cruz has the ball on his 45-yard line, and faces a third down with four yards to go. O’Rourke could still win, but to do so needs to force a punt, march 80 yards down the field to score a touchdown in a little more than a minute with no timeouts remaining — and then kick the extra point for the victory.

O’Rourke has run a fantastic campaign in the largest and most important red state in the country, where no Democrat has won a statewide election since 1994. To put it another way, where the Democratic statewide losing streak is currently 129 electoral contests and counting. That’s a record of futility unmatched in the annals of Texas professional, college and high school football.

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O’Rourke has raised more money ($69 million to date) than any federal or state candidate in Texas history. Keep in mind, Texans like their campaign finance like their Texas Hold’em poker, no-limit, meaning it is not uncommon for state-level candidates to receive contributions from individual donors of $500,000 and $1 million. In contrast, the maximum any individual could give to O’Rourke 's primary and general election campaigns combined was $5,400. (O’Rourke does not accept PAC money.)

When O’Rourke launched his campaign a year and a half ago he was an unknown to almost everyone other than residents of his native El Paso (which is closer to San Diego than to Houston) and Texas media and political elites. Today, O’Rourke is a household name across the state with near-universal name recognition among Texas registered voters, not to mention a healthy level of name recognition across the country among Democratic activists (i.e., the people who vote in Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses).

During the past four electoral cycles, every Texas Republican running for statewide office has defeated their Democratic rival by a double-digit margin. This cycle, Cruz, like his fellow statewide GOP candidates, began his re-election bid enjoying a natural 12 to 15 percent advantage provided by the state’s traditional patterns of partisan support and voter turnout. 

Over the course of the past 19 months, O’Rourke has cut this Cruz advantage in half, with most reliable non-partisan polls suggesting a Cruz lead of between five and seven percentage points. But, for over a month, Cruz’s modest, but significant, lead has remained stable, as Texas voters have drifted into their respective partisan camps. Virtually all Republicans and Democrats support Cruz and O’Rourke respectively.

Support from millennial and younger voters, as well as a strong showing among Latinos will be key for O’Rourke. Unless O’Rourke is able to dramatically ramp up turnout among these groups during the final days of early voting and on Election Day, the showdown will end with a Cruz victory. That would mean the Texas Democratic Party statewide losing streak increases to 143 straight defeats.

Between 65 and 75 percent of all votes in Texas will be cast prior to Nov. 6. The early voting data indicate record midterm turnout among the prime O’Rourke voting block. O’Rourke key supporters include 18- to 29-year-olds (two-thirds of whom support O’Rourke). That may be enough to help O’Rourke pull to within a single digit of Cruz, but not enough so far to propel O’Rourke into the end zone and victory.

By the same token, Latinos thus far represent a larger share of voters than four years ago, but only modestly so, and in addition between one-third and two-fifths of Texas Latinos are expected to cast their ballot for Cruz. Finally, Cruz's trump card is Anglo voters age 50 and older, who are on track to account for about two-fifths of voters and are expected to vote for Cruz by a three-to-one margin.

O'Rourke's campaign has exceeded all expectations. It has transformed O’Rourke into the unquestioned rising star of the Texas Democratic Party and into a national political figure who will have raised over $75 million dollars from individual donors and given Cruz the political fight of his life.

The Beto 2018 campaign will in all likelihood not achieve its ultimate goal of sending O’Rourke to Washington D.C. as the Lone Star State's junior senator. But it will take O’Rourke 's political career to the next level and restore much-needed hope and optimism to Texas Democrats as they look toward the future. That is assuming O’Rourke's margin of defeat will be in the low to mid-single digits.

If instead O’Rourke’s defeat is in the range of 10 to 15 percentage points, then the narrative will be quite distinct: In spite of actively campaigning for 19 months and spending $75 million dollars, O’Rourke lost by double digits to the not especially popular Cruz in a midterm election with Trump in the White House. In that scenario, the Texas Democratic Party’s star quarterback just let the championship slip.

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.