By Jim Ellis
March 31, 2017 — Reports coming from Texas, as reported in the Houston Chronicle, indicate that three-term Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso) will formally announce a challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz (R). Will O’Rourke be a viable challenger, or will his campaign be nothing more than a political suicide run?
It will be interesting to see what type of arguments the El Paso congressman and his Democratic allies use in attempting to convince the Texas electorate to choose a Senate Democratic contender for the first time since the late Lloyd Bentsen (D) was last re-elected in 1988. It has been 26 years since the Democrats won any major Texas statewide election, last occurring in 1990 when Ann Richards became governor. Other Democratic statewide candidates were also swept into constitutional office that year, as they had been for previous generations. George W. Bush unseated Gov. Richards in 1994, which actually began the period of Texas Republican dominance that continues to this day.
Beating Sen. Cruz may actually be more difficult than running against a typical Republican incumbent, meaning one who did not actively oppose President Trump. Democrats who hope to take advantage of what is typically a favorable wave for the out party in a president’s first mid-term election, may have a difficult time wrapping Cruz in such a surge, if it is to form, since he was the president’s chief electoral opponent for the GOP nomination.
Lone Star State Democrats have been attempting to sell the story that their candidates have a chance in general elections because Texas is demographically changing. They are energized to see Texas Hispanic population numbers become almost equivalent to the Anglo figures. According to the Census Bureau July 2015 estimates, Anglos account for only 43 percent of the state population base, with Hispanics totaling 38.8 percent. However, these types of demographic numbers haven’t yet helped the Democrats win elections.
Since the presidential election of 2000, Republicans have carried the state in all five presidential campaigns, four gubernatorial contests, and six US Senate races. Their average win margin is 17.7 percent with a high 33-point victory when then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) was re-elected in 2000, to a low of nine points when Gov. Rick Perry (R) won a second full term in 2006 and Donald Trump carrying the state last November.
Democrats were claiming that Texas is beginning to shift, citing Hillary Clinton carrying the major population centers of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and El Paso, and taking three congressional districts held by Republican incumbents. But these shifts did not result in a precipitous change in the statewide vote. While Trump’s margin was lower than the average Republican victory margin over the past 16 years, it was not so low as to substantiate the claim that a potential Democratic candidate is coming into a competitive realm.
Compounding the obstacles that O’Rourke must overcome, no one has ever been elected to the Senate to represent Texas or as governor of the state when hailing from El Paso. Interestingly, former New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) and current Land of Enchantment GOP Gov. Susana Martinez are both from El Paso, but no one from the city has won a corresponding Texas election.
Therefore, in even the best-case scenario for O’Rourke, his campaign would have to mount an effort to eradicate more than a nine-point deficit. Should everything begin to fall his way politically, he would then have to establish a new historical precedent by finding a way to appeal to the rest of the huge state with a political base from Texas’ far western corner.
Though Sen. Cruz will have to run a significant campaign to counter O’Rourke’s challenge, especially since he spent most of his first term running for president instead of fully representing the state, he will remain with the favorite’s mantle for a second term. Even if the intangibles do turn negative for the GOP in 2018, Sen. Ted Cruz will be a very unlikely casualty.