The Slatest

Democrats Should be Excited—but Not Too Excited—About Texas Now Being a “Toss-Up”

Beto O'Rourke speaks during a campaign rally.
Beto O’Rourke speaks during a campaign rally in Plano, Texas, on Saturday.
Laura Buckman/Getty Images

Beto-mania continues:

This marks the second time the Cook Political Report has moved the advantage in the Senate Texas race leftward in less than two months and is the latest indication that U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has a legitimate chance of taking down GOP Sen. Ted Cruz this fall.

Still, a pair of necessary caveats. Technically, the “toss-up” rating means Cook’s nonpartisan handicappers believe both men have a “good chance” of winning this fall, but it’s clear Cook still believes Cruz has a better one. “O’Rourke has earned this rating,” analyst Jennifer Duffy wrote in her Friday update, “but getting the last couple of points to overtake Cruz and win the seat will be difficult though not utterly impossible.” Beto 2018: Not utterly impossible!

The second caveat is that unlike number-centric forecasters, Cook relies predominantly on conversations with political strategists from both parties to get the lay of the land in each race, making its ratings more subjective. The polls, meanwhile, paint a darker picture for O’Rourke. Yes, the Lone Star State surveys show a tight and often within-the-margin-of-error race, but each and every one has found Cruz in the lead, and the Texas Republican holds a 4.5-point advantage in RealClearPolitics’ rolling average. Likewise, the number crunchers over at FiveThirtyEight give Cruz a roughly 2-in-3 chance of holding on, based largely on the polling data. And since I’m raining on Beto’s parade: As my colleague Jim Newell pointed out in this week’s Hot Seats newsletter (subscribe here!), there’s at least some evidence that Democrats have a Hispanic-enthusiasm problem, which could be a problem for the party nationally and a giant problem for O’Rourke in Texas.

And yet by all accounts, O’Rourke has a credible chance to win this thing. That’s incredible. A Democrat hasn’t won a statewide election in Texas since 1994. And as unlikeable as Cruz is, he’s still an incumbent with a national profile and the backing of GOP establishment figures, who have become so nervous that they’re willing to pretend that they haven’t hated Cruz for years.

Meanwhile, while the rating change in Texas deserves top billing, it’s worth remembering that the other two races that shifted Friday are important, too, given a single seat could very well decide control of the Senate. Cook now believes Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is more likely than not to hold off a challenge from state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in West Virginia, where Trump won by a whopping 42 points two years ago. On the flip side, Cook thinks Democratic Sen. Jon Tester now has some work to do in Montana, where his advantage just shifted from “Likely” to “Lean” in his race against GOP state auditor Matt Rosendale in a state Trump won by 21 points. That’s mixed news for Democrats, but given they will likely need to hold onto both seats to have a chance at a majority, this arguably represents progress for them.

Democrats began the year with an absolutely horrendous Senate map—arguably the worst either party has faced since direct election of senators began more than a century ago. And yet here they are with six weeks to go with a legitimate shot of picking up as many as four seats in a year when they need just two more to take control of the upper chamber. In other words, Democratic control of the Senate: not utterly impossible.