The Slatest

Beto O’Rourke Makes Republicans So Anxious, They Forgot How Much They Hate Ted Cruz

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke campaigns in Houston.
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke campaigns in Houston.
William Philpott/Reuters

The conservative cavalry, as predicted, is on its way to Texas to try to save Sen. Ted Cruz. “Behind the scenes,” Politico reports, “the White House, party leaders and a collection of conservative outside groups have begun plotting out a full-fledged effort to bolster Cruz.” The plan includes an October rally in the Lone Star State featuring Donald Trump, a fundraiser for Cruz at a high-priced D.C. steakhouse, a seven-figure ad blitz from the anti-tax Club for Growth, and additional help potentially coming from the Koch brothers’ dark-money machine and a Mitch McConnell–aligned super PAC.

Cruz allies also spent the weekend sounding the alarm on his behalf. At a closed-door confab with GOP donors in New York City, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney suggested that Cruz might not be “likable” enough to defeat Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke this fall. Appearing on MSNBC, a member of Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, Rick Tyler, also warned that his former boss was in danger. And speaking to Politico, Texas Sen. John Cornyn declared, “We’re not bluffing, this is real, and it is a serious threat.”

That so many Republicans can even be called Cruz allies tells you everything you need to know about the zero-sum nature of partisan politics right now, where the enemy of your enemy is your friend—even if the two of you have spent years lobbing insults at one another.

A small sampling of some of the more memorable things Cruz’s fellow Republicans have said about him over the years: The late Sen. John McCain called him a “wacko bird.” Former House Speaker John Boehner called him a “jackass” and “Lucifer in the flesh.” McConnell once likened him to a “mule.” Sen. Lindsey Graham even joked about how you could kill Cruz and get away with it if the adjudication were up to the Senate. And then, of course, there was Trump, who spent much of the 2016 primary taking swings at “Lyin’ Ted.” He questioned Cruz’s evangelical faith, mocked his wife’s appearance, suggested his father was somehow involved in JFK’s assassination, and declared that the Texas senator was, gasp, “worse than Hillary when you think about it.” All of that was just a prelude to the 2016 convention, during which Cruz refused to endorse Trump, Trump egged on the angry crowd as it booed Cruz, and Cruz’s wife had to run for cover accompanied by a security escort.

That Trump’s GOP has come around on Cruz is hardly a surprise, though. After all, Republicans said plenty of mean things about Trump, and Trump even meaner things about many of them, during the 2016 campaign. But they have since joined forces in the name of cutting taxes for the wealthy, making it more difficult for the rest of the country to get health insurance, and stacking the courts with conservative judges. Still, everyone involved here would clearly prefer to be spending their time and money pretty much anywhere else. That they can’t is further evidence that O’Rourke has them legitimately worried he could snag one of the two seats Democrats need to take control of the Senate.

Cruz remains the favorite in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994, but it’s clear this one isn’t the Republican gimme that Texas statewide races usually are. Cruz leads O’Rourke by just 4.4 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average, and his lead has cracked double digits in only two RCP-tracked polls this year, most recently in June. Of the five surveys since, four found O’Rourke within the margin of error.

Those aren’t the only numbers that have Republicans worried. O’Rourke has proved to be a magnet for money, both from within the state and outside of it, despite swearing off PAC contributions. 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 out-raised 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. Meanwhile, O’Rourke has spent far less: He began July with nearly $14 million in his account, about $5 million more than Cruz.

O’Rourke’s strength has created a feedback loop of sorts, whereby his fundraising success and stronger-than-expected performance in the polls earn him coverage in the national press as The Man Who Can Beat Ted Cruz, which in turn boosts his name ID and ability to ask for more cash from liberals who are clearly excited by his campaign and who clearly despise his opponent.

That’s not a knock on all the press attention. The outcome of this race really will go a long way in determining control of the Senate, and the contrasting styles of the two men illustrate larger intra- and interparty dynamics that are shaping the political climate nationwide. So it’s worth keeping an eye on what happens next. Now that there is no doubt Cruz has a fight on his hands, the GOP is doing what it can to push him to victory. But the Democratic establishment is unlikely to rally as completely behind O’Rourke in response, given that the truly horrendous midterm map they face in the Senate has them spread thin already. If O’Rourke really does have a chance to win this November, then he’s going to have to prove to be the political rock star all those profiles keep making him out to be.