Corpus Christi Caller Times
Published 10:00 p.m. UTC Sep 4, 2018
GEORGETOWN, Texas – As Ted Cruz paced the stage at a town hall meeting inside a Mexican restaurant, he walked a line between bravado and worry.
He had arrived late for the early evening gathering in this conservative suburb north of Austin but was welcomed with whoops and cheers from the 461 supporters who made for a standing-room only audience. Cruz, who is in a pitched battle for re-election with Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, reminded them that he was among the Senate Republicans who pushed hardest for last year’s tax cut and that he was leading the fight to fully repeal Obamacare.
But Cruz, who in his first term in Washington crashed the decorum of the U.S. Senate with the fury of an untamed mustang and emerged as the last man standing between Donald Trump and the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, offered a rare view of his humble side.
“Congressman O’Rourke is the No. 1 Democratic fundraiser in the country,” Cruz said. “Contribute. We’re getting out raised 2 to 1. Every penny that is contributed will go to mobilizing, turning out, informing, energizing freedom-loving Texans across this state.”
Republicans, both in Texas – where no Democrat has won statewide since 1994 – and in Washington, say polls show the race closer than they’d like and that O’Rourke’s fundraising prowess is nothing short of astonishing. Still, they say Cruz is nearing the homestretch of a campaign that began in earnest when O’Rourke entered the race in March 2017.
“At the end of the day it’s Texas,” said Chris Pack, a spokesman for the super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “I think they’re going to have a hard time pulling the lever for somebody as liberal as O'Rourke.”
That view is echoed by Texas Republican operative Matt Mackowiak, a one-time adviser to Cruz’s predecessor, former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
"There's not much doubt that this race is going to be one of the closer races we've seen in Texas in quite a while,” Mackowiak said. “But 'closer' does not mean 'close.' ”
One longtime Texas operative said both Cruz and national Republicans would do well not to underestimate O’Rourke.
“It's a competitive race. It is as it appears,” said Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist and consultant who has been fixture in Texas politics for three decades. “Cruz is still on top. But the midterms are a disadvantage for Cruz. They generally are for members of the party in power.”
Jerry Polinard, a retired political science professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley who has been watching Texas politics since John Connally was governor in the mid-1960s, said the Cruz-O'Rourke contest is probably the state's hottest Senate race in more than 20 years. The question, Polinard said, is whether O'Rourke is just the latest in a long line of promising Texas Democrats who end up as road kill once the votes are counted in November.
"There's no doubt that he's getting a lot of attention, most of it positive, and raising a lot of money to be competitive," Polinard said. "Democrats are saying, 'Hey, we got a real chance here.' But what we have to find out is, how's he going to react once Cruz really starts to campaign."
There’s ample evidence that both behind the scenes and in plain sight that Republicans believe lightning could strike for a Democrat in Texas. Just days after his appearance on Aug. 24, Cruz launched his first attack ad against O’Rourke.
The incumbent seized on remarks O’Rourke made earlier in the month in support of the “take a knee” movement by some NFL players to call attention to racial injustice. Video of the Democrat saying “I can think of nothing more American” went viral and drew praise from such celebrities as talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Veep” and “Seinfeld” fame.
Basketball star LeBron James called the video “a must watch.”
But Cruz countered with a testimonial from a Vietnam War veteran and double amputee.
“I gave two legs for this country," says the veteran, Tim Lee. "I’m not able to stand. But I sure expect you to stand for me when the national anthem is being played.”
Cruz is getting help from the top. President Donald Trump tweeted on Friday he's coming to Texas in October to campaign for his one-time rival.
"I’m picking the biggest stadium in Texas we can find," the president tweeted. "As you know, Ted has my complete and total Endorsement. His opponent is a disaster for Texas - weak on Second Amendment, Crime, Borders, Military, and Vets!"
Meanwhile, Donald Trump Jr.’s political adviser Andy Surabian said that there also are plans for Trump’s son to head to Texas to campaign for Cruz in early October.
And Cruz is also getting a boost from the deep-pocketed, anti-tax Washington-based Club for Growth.
Robert Pipkin, field director, told USA TODAY the conservative advocacy group was preparing a seven-figure buy to bloody Cruz’s opponent.
Pipkin said his group would be hammering the message that “Beto is a fraud because he doesn’t represent people the way he says he does.”
Early on, O’Rourke vowed not to accept money from PACs or corporate sources. He beat Cruz to the airwaves with montages of images shot by smartphone of him campaigning around Texas. He doesn't mention the incumbent.
But Mackowiak, the Texas GOP operative, said O'Rourke is unlikely to receive support from the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“He’s not going to get the rocket fuel from the DSCC he’s going to need down the stretch,” said Mackowiak, noting that Democrats are having to defend several vulnerable incumbents.
Indeed, Democrats are defending seats in 10 states won by Trump. Any DSCC money that might otherwise come to Texas is more likely to end up helping a candidate such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, where Trump trounced Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 42 points.
Other states well ahead of Texas with flippable Republican Senate seats include Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee, insiders say. Privately, some Washington Democrats say, O’Rourke is raising plenty on his own and that their help would likely backfire in Texas – a state where being tied to national Democrats can be harmful.
O’Rourke has not hesitated to antagonize voters loyal to Trump, who two years ago won Texas by 9 percentage points. In a Facebook Live interview with the USA TODAY Network in early August, O’Rourke said the president’s reluctance to hold Russia accountable for interfering in the 2016 election is grounds to begin impeachment proceedings.
"To have the president of our country stand on a stage with Vladimir Putin and defend Putin instead of the American people and this democracy that has withstood attacks for 242 years and counting should be cause for concern," he said in the interview.
Cruz uses that statement to rally his base, warning that complacency by conservatives in November invites a Democratic takeover in January.
O’Rourke set the early pace in the race by turning his campaign into something of a nonstop road trip that had him and his small entourage driving to all 254 counties in the geographically largest state in the lower 48. The effort to introduce himself to millions of Texans outside of El Paso helped cause him to miss about 8 percent of the roll call votes on the House floor so far this year.
The tightening of the race has also prompted Cruz, who is likely familiar to every voter in the state, to miss parts of the late-summer Senate session so he could spend more time campaigning. Previously, he had urged McConnell to cancel the planned August recess to get more work done in the Senate.
“We must not waste one minute of one day while we work to fulfill the promises we made to the American people,” Cruz said at the time.
At his recent appearance outside of Austin, and as he does at nearly every campaign event, Cruz hung round to shake hands and have a photo taken with everyone in the audience who asked. Then he took questions from reporters, many of which focused on the performance of President Trump in general, and on the ongoing developments associated with the Russian interference in the 2016 election.
"This is a polarizing time,” Cruz told the reporters. “President Trump is a unique president. And one of the consequences of a unique presidency is that the extreme left has gotten very angry, very energized. Many of them are filled with rage, and even hatred, for the president."
When it was pointed out that he and Trump spent much of the 2016 primary season in a political knife fight, Cruz smiled.
"My relationship with Donald Trump has had its ups and downs, to put it mildly," he said. But he quickly made it clear that his political fortunes are better served by focusing on the upside of that relationship.
"For the past year and a half,” he added, “my office has worked every week – sometimes every day – with the president and the White House. We're working together very, very closely."