The midterm math for Senate Democrats is daunting: They need to pick up two seats this fall, but for most of the year they seemed to have only three legitimate chances to flip a seat, one each in Arizona, Tennessee, and Nevada. Meanwhile, they’ve been playing defense in roughly a dozen red-state races, at least five of which are currently seen as toss-ups. Democrats could afford to lose just one of those contests and still take control of the upper chamber next year.
Note the past tense of seemed and could. Now that equation has changed, at least on paper. On Friday, the Cook Political Report moved Sen. Ted Cruz’s Texas seat one notch in Democrats’ favor into the “Lean Republican” column, making it the fourth GOP-held Senate seat with the potential to flip this fall. Cook still favors Cruz to win another six-year term—and other major nonpartisan handicappers have been more cautious in rating the race—but the move reflects mounting evidence that Rep. Beto O’Rourke may really have a shot at accomplishing what no Democrat has in nearly a quarter-century: win statewide in Texas.
The possibility alone expands the midterm map, slightly but significantly, and the more competitive the contest in Texas appears, the more money the conservative cavalry of GOP campaign committees, special interest groups, and super PACs will have to spend there that they’d rather be spending elsewhere.
A pair of polls released this week found Cruz’s lead within their respective margins of error. A Quinnipiac University survey had the Republican senator up just 6 percentage points on O’Rourke—nearly half the 11-percentage-point lead Cruz had when the same pollsters surveyed the state two months before. Meanwhile, a less established polling outfit, Texas Lyceum, put Cruz’s lead at an even narrower 2 percentage points. With those polls factored in, Cruz’s lead in RealClearPolitics rolling average dipped to 6.5 percentage points.
Those aren’t the only numbers Democrats are getting excited about. O’Rourke has proved to be a magnet for money, both from within the Lone Star State and outside of it. In the most recent fundraising period, he brought in $10.4 million to Cruz’s $4.6 million, marking the second quarter in row the challenger has outraised the incumbent by more than double. Cruz had banked roughly $10 million before O’Rourke even got in the race, but as of the end of last June, the two had raised nearly identical totals. O’Rourke, meanwhile, has spent far less: He began July with $14 million in his campaign bank account, about $5 million more than Cruz.
The best reason for Democrats to be excited, meanwhile, might be that Cruz is acting like a candidate who is starting to get nervous. Back in April, O’Rourke challenged Cruz to a slate of six debates, two of which were to be in Spanish. Cruz finally felt compelled to respond last week, proposing five debates, all in English. Yes, Cruz fancies himself a master debater, but as my colleague Jim Newell points out, that’s an awful lot of televised one-on-one time for an incumbent to offer up if he believes he has re-election in the bag.
Still, liberals ought to temper their expectations in Texas—not easy since they would take obvious joy in knocking Cruz off given his role on the national scene during the past half-decade, on everything from health care to immigration to guns. Democrats are vastly outnumbered in Texas, and O’Rourke still faces the very real challenge of simply introducing himself to voters in the state. Quinnipiac found that, about 100 days out from Election Day, 43 percent of Texas voters didn’t know enough about O’Rourke to have an opinion of him.
Cruz is never going to win a popularity contest (even within his own party), but he’s proved a capable campaigner, despite—or perhaps because of—his willingness to play dirty. He’s also spent considerable time and energy mending fences with Donald Trump after his jeer-inducing speech at the 2016 GOP convention, and he received the president’s endorsement in May. Cruz’s support has been at or near 50 percent in three of the past four polls, suggesting that even if Texas Republicans don’t love Cruz, most like him enough to vote for him this November.
There’s also recent history to consider. The last statewide Texas race to draw national attention was Wendy Davis’ bid for governor against Republican Greg Abbott in 2014.* Like O’Rourke, Davis was seen as a rising star in her party, with national appeal and the small-dollar support to prove it. In the end, though, Davis and her pink shoes lost by more than 20 points in what proved to be a banner year for the GOP nationally. The political winds are now blowing in the opposite direction, but there’s still good reason to doubt that O’Rourke can succeed where Davis fell short.
*Correction, Aug. 3, 2018: An earlier version of this post misspelled Greg Abbott’s name.