Washington Wednesday: The Texas Senate race

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 19th of September, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s Washington Wednesday.

Ted Cruz was not supposed to win when he ran for the U.S. Senate from Texas in 2012. The political establishment there lined up behind longtime Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. And he did wind up finishing first. But first in such a crowded primary that Dewhurst couldn’t muster 50 percent of the votes.

That meant a runoff with the second-place finisher—former state solicitor general Ted Cruz.

CRUZ: What I believe makes me qualified to be a U.S. senator is I have spent a lifetime fighting for the Constitution and winning on a national level. 

The upstart Cruz trounced Dewhurst by 14 points. In the general election, Cruz beat Democrat Paul Sadler by 16.

Cruz quickly established himself as a star among Republican activists, but also one of the most polarizing figures in Washington. He became not only an antagonist to Democrats in Congress, but also Republicans.

CRUZ: It is career politicians in both parties that are kept in office by looting the taxpayer to benefit wealthy, powerful corporations.

Just over two years into his Senate career, Cruz launched a campaign for president. But he couldn’t get past an even thornier anti-establishment figure in Donald Trump.

Now Cruz is running for re-election in an unfamiliar position: He’s the incumbent now with establishment support—and he’s facing a fresh-faced Democrat, Beto O’Rourke.

Last week, O’Rourke appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to talk about his campaign.

O’ROURKE: This is going to be interesting. [laughter] But I’m convinced that the people of Texas, and that’s who we’re relying on—no PACs, no corporations, no special interests, no DNC—the people of Texas are more than a match for President Trump or for politics as usual. 

O’Rourke has raked in almost twice as much money as Cruz and is drawing big crowds on the campaign trail.

O’ROURKE: At this deeply divided, highly polarized moment in our country’s history, where the divisions have never been greater between Republicans and Democrats, haves and have nots, rural and urban, this is a moment where we have to come together.

RealClearPolitics shows Cruz has led in every poll conducted in the race. Yesterday a new Quinnipiac survey showed Cruz up by nine points. But another recent poll found only a one-point spread—a statistical dead heat.

That’s why the Texas Senate seat has gone from “likely Republican” to “leans Republican” to one of nine toss-up races. Democrats currently hold five of those toss-up seats, and Republicans the other four.

Those seats will decide control of the U.S. Senate on November 6th.

Here now to discuss this race with me is Brandon Rottinghaus. He’s a political science professor at the University of Houston. He’s also host of the Party Politics podcast.

Professor, I’d like to start with the specifics of this race, and then we’ll put it into the broader national context.

So let’s begin with Ted Cruz. Now, we got to know him on the national stage, because he was sort of the last man standing in the presidential primary against Donald Trump. Yet, we read some criticism of Cruz that he wasn’t able to project likeability. I’ve talked with political people in your state who support Cruz who kind of say the same, and so that’s become an issue here.

And then you amplify that with the image Cruz’s opponent, Beto O’Rourke, has been able to project. This idea that he’s “Kennedyesque” out on the stump.

I’d ask you, what role do you think that likeability plays in this race?

BRANDON ROTTINGHAUS, GUEST: I think likeability plays a pretty big force. You’re talking about a state that, although it’s big and urban, definitely values politicians that connect and Ted Cruz has had some trouble with that. I think it’s a general sense that he, relating to the moment you mentioned earlier about him running for president, is that there’s a sense that he wants to be president instead of being a senator from Texas. And so O’Rourke’s whole goal has sort of been to communicate that he is in this for Texas, not in it for himself or for the politics of it. So some of the likeability issues that Cruz has faced have, in fact, been related to the liability of him running for president.

EICHER: Well, the personalities are important, but so are issues, and what is your sense of the leading issues driving the concerns of Texas voters?

ROTTINGHAUS: Well, I think one big issue is clearly the immigration issue and Texas is the longest contiguous border with Mexico and so the issues relating to border security and migrant crossing are definitely on the minds of most voters, especially in the big cities that are closer to the border. Now, O’Rourke’s goal is basically to say that we should have a common-sense solution to the border issue. Ted Cruz takes a different tack, where he’s been more animated on the role of illegal immigration. This is something that has been kind of a red herring for Republicans going back for at least a good decade, and so it’s not uncommon that this would be used as kind of a base priming tool. But Ted Cruz has really elevated it in this particular race because of the contrast with O’Rourke.

EICHER: Two features that are common to most campaigns, of course, debates and ads.

And I understand the two candidates are squaring off for the first time later this week, right?

ROTTINGHAUS: That’s right, yes. Friday night lights, right?

EICHER: Friday night lights, indeed, yeah. But the ads have been running already and a lot of them are pretty spicy, pretty nasty in some respects.

How likely do you think it is that either these debates or the ads will move the needle in this race?

ROTTINGHAUS: I think they’ll have a little bit of an effect. I think the issue’s really turnout and so both campaigns recognize that if they can get the numbers where they want them, then you’re going to find that they’re going to be victorious on election night. So, for Ted Cruz, the Republican advantage in Texas in a midterm is generally about 1.5 million votes, sometimes higher depending on the turnout. So there’s a sort of natural, organic advantage that Republicans have. And what O’Rourke wants to do is to stimulate sort of new voters to come and hopeful that they’re going to vote for Democrats, at least vote for him… So, the Democratic turnout issue is going to be key.

So, really, the debates and the ads are designed to try not necessarily to position the candidates but rather to spike turnout. That said, Cruz is definitely using these ads and will certainly use the debates to try to convince people that O’Rourke is not what he says he is. O’Rourke’s advantage is that he’s come from a far-flung El Paso, which although is in the same state feels like it’s in a whole other universe since it’s so far away… And so the state being this large, it definitely has its disadvantages because not a lot of people knew who O’Rourke was, so Cruz wanted to try to define who O’Rourke was before O’Rourke could do so…  

These debates and these ads are going to be used by Cruz in particular to try to pinpoint and try to button down O’Rourke to some liberal positions, which the Cruz campaign hopes will essentially be the sort of telltale sign for Republicans that they need to vote and vote against O’Rourke and vote for Cruz in order for that to be stemmed.  

EICHER: Let’s talk about the larger context here. No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994, which suggests a rather uphill climb for O’Rourke.

But it’s also a tough election climate for Republicans in general and that has to be working against Cruz.

But to what extent do you think that this what seems like a very close race at this point is the result of state dynamics versus the national political winds?

ROTTINGHAUS: I think it’s definitely a bit of both. It’s clear that Donald Trump is not very popular nationwide. His numbers in Texas are above water but just above water, so mostly he’s about 50 percent. In particular for Trump in Texas, there are some issues that people disagree with. Some of the kind of conservative policies on the border have been problematic, some of the family reunification issues that occurred during the migrant crisis that has occurred and, really, is still ongoing is something that I think will put a lot of people off the Republican mindset and of the Trump administration in particular. The Trump administration policy towards trade has a tremendous impact on Texas and I think there are a lot of former Trump supporters who may decide either not to vote for Republicans or may switch their vote because they’re worried about the economic impact of Trump’s trade policies on Texans. So the president’s support in the state is stable but not as robust as any other Republican. So this election is in some ways a referendum on that. So for sure the national context makes a difference.

EICHER: I wonder a bit about the bellwether here, whether it’s a bellwether. I mean, if Cruz were to lose in Texas, do see that the Republicans would have any path of keeping control of the Senate?

ROTTINGHAUS: There’s a slim chance. It’s oddly all tied together so that if it’s the case that O’Rourke wins, it’s probably because some of the national party money and/or some of the independent money that otherwise slows Democrats in tight states would flow to Texas. I think for most people, looking at Texas and thinking about the financial implications for spending in Texas, the difficulty is that the media markets are so expensive and there are so many in Texas that moving the needle even a little bit is going to be really expensive.

So a lot of Democrats, I think, nationwide have thought they’d love to see O’Rourke win, they love the voltage, the energy is good, he’s got real charisma, he’s a possible presidential candidate in 2020 if things break his way, but the fact is that the finances may not spell a good strategic choice for Democrats. So, if O’Rourke wins, it’s largely going to be because either they pour a lot of money into it and potentially risk losing other seats, or it’s the case that O’Rourke himself was able to pull out what, I think, anybody would call a miracle.

EICHER: Okay, that’s helpful. Brandon Rottinghaus is a political science professor at the University of Houston. Professor, thanks for your time.

ROTTINGHAUS: My pleasure.

(AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez, File) In this June 22, 2018, file photo, Beto O’Rourke, who is running for the U.S. Senate, speaks during the general session at the Texas Democratic Convention in Fort Worth, Texas.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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