The road to a Democratic Senate majority in 2018 runs through Texas — yes, Texas.
Facing a grim midterm map, Democrats are desperately trying to put enough GOP-held seats in play to take advantage of Donald Trump’s unpopularity and carve a credible path back to Senate control. The odds are so long that Democrats must pin their hopes on taking out Ted Cruz in the reliably conservative bastion of Texas.
Their first ray of hope is the entry of three-term Rep. Beto O’Rourke — a 44-year-old former hard rock musician and internet entrepreneur who speaks fluent Spanish — into the race on Friday. Though Cruz is universally known, Democrats insist he’s not invincible, pointing to the first-term Republican’s poor polling numbers and prolonged focus on running for president.
And they say O’Rourke is formidable enough that they can make a case to donors that they actually have a shot at winning the state — and the Senate overall.
“People want to win and they want to play offense. And Texas represents that,” O’Rourke said in an interview earlier this month. “Texas is how you win back the Senate.”
For the first time in several election cycles, control of the Senate is not up for grabs barring a massive anti-Republican wave. Already facing a four-seat deficit, Democrats have to defend 25 seats, including five in conservative states that voted overwhelmingly for Trump last year and five more that he carried by a narrower margin.
The GOP, by contrast, has to protect just nine seats. After Arizona and Nevada, Texas is probably the most enticing opportunity, given the demographic challenges the party faces in states like Tennessee, Nebraska and Mississippi.
Republicans say that once again, Democrats are getting ahead of themselves. After major wins in conservative states in 2012, the party has lost races that they tried to contest in Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, North Carolina and South Dakota.
Republicans acknowledge that eventually Democrats will be competitive in Texas if the GOP doesn’t do a better job of courting minority voters. But they say a $100 million race against Cruz — the amount Democrats estimate they’ll need to spend — won’t cut it.
“I know Beto. And he’s a good guy. But I think this is a suicide mission,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, another Texan and a two-time chairman of the party’s Senate campaign arm. “We haven’t elected a Democrat statewide since … 1994.”
If Democrats can legitimately put Texas in play — still an if — it would be an important moment for the party going into the next election. Raising money for 2018 would be a lot easier if they can inspire donors with a message of potentially taking the Senate, as opposed to just stanching the bleeding.
Still, senior Democrats are quick to tamp down expectations about their chances in the Lone Star State. Last year, Democrats had a favorable map and were bubbling with confidence about their prospects of winning the Senate — only to experience a disaster on Election Day.
Their focus is on reelecting endangered incumbents and keeping the GOP from a filibuster-proof majority in 2019, which would allow Republicans to run roughshod over Democrats.
“We’re realistic. Our approach is, No. 1, to shore up the blue line we have in the Senate right now,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Wild things can happen in 2018. We can be very competitive in Texas.”
O’Rourke will be going up against a singular figure in Cruz. The 46-year-old senator quickly made his mark in the GOP as a take-no-prisoners conservative: He led the party into a government shutdown, branded Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar and infamously declined to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention, before eventually coming around. Since the election, Cruz has been a more cooperative presence in the Senate.
Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) is mulling a primary challenge against Cruz from the center. That could damage Cruz and force him to expend resources with O’Rourke waiting further down the line.
Privately, Republicans believe McCaul will back off since Trump won the election and McCaul can’t blame Cruz’s feud with Trump for costing the GOP the presidential race. McCaul refused to answer questions about whether he will challenge Cruz.
“I just don’t want to talk about any of this,” McCaul said.
But O’Rourke does.
“He’s been very busy running for president since he was elected to the Senate. Which is fine for him. It hasn’t been especially good for Texas,” O’Rourke said.
Cruz declined an interview for this story. In a statement, he said: “I welcome [O’Rourke] to the race, and will continue to work every day to earn and keep the trust of Texans across our great state. I’m confident that Texans want a senator who will lead the fight for freedom.”
The affable O’Rourke cuts a unique profile in the House. He recently spent two days in a car with Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) driving from Texas to D.C. after a snowstorm. The two livestreamed the entire ride and took questions from constituents along the way.
O’Rourke says he won’t accept PAC money in the race against Cruz, which could put him at a severe disadvantage given national Democrats’ focus on defending the 10 incumbents from states that Trump won.
O’Rourke acknowledged the disadvantages he faces going in, from fundraising to low name recognition to the state’s conservative tilt. But he pointed to his last major race, when he upset longtime Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes in a 2012 primary.
“I was running against 100-to-1 odds,” O’Rourke said. “You don’t know until you do it.”
O’Rourke and Cruz have some similarities: They both believe in term limits and have annoyed their party leaders, though O’Rourke has done so in far less strident ways than Cruz. Most notably, O’Rourke has sought distance from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s messaging campaigns on Obamacare, concluding bluntly: “That shit doesn’t work.”
O’Rourke could conceivably have a primary challenge himself in Rep. Joaquin Castro. But Texas Democrats and state strategists believe that Castro will likely pass now that O’Rourke is in. Unlike O’Rourke, who has said he will serve only until 2020 in the House, Castro hasn’t promised an end-date there.
Castro, who speaks with O’Rourke frequently, insists he’s still weighing his option and plans to decide by the end of April.
“We both agreed that we would come to our own decisions about the race and go from there,” Castro said in an interview Wednesday.
The fact that young, promising candidates are mulling runs in Texas offers Democrats hope that their party’s fortunes are changing in the nation’s second most populous state.
“Texas is going to be competitive. The question is whether 2018 is that moment,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “It might be the combination of Cruz’s profile and the changing demographics.”
But Republicans remember the likes of Wendy Davis, whose much-hyped 2014 gubernatorial run ended in a 20-point blowout. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner said Democrats’ are in for a similar ending in 2018.
“And we [Republicans] plan on a very competitive election in California,” Gardner said sarcastically.
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