Beto O’Rourke: Playing the Ted Cruz game?

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for the upcoming U.S. Senate election in Texas, recently launched his first video advert for his campaign. Entitled “Showing Up,” it uses video clips taken from the Facebook Live videos that he has frequently utilized throughout the campaign. The title is also a nod to O’Rourke’s exhaustive travels across all of Texas’ 254 counties.

Recent polls have suggested that the race, once thought a long-shot for any Democratic candidate, is down to either 5 percentage points, as reported in the Texas Tribune, or as few as 2. The University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll takes in the largest sample and has O’Rourke within the margin of error. The gains that O’Rourke has made are particularly significant in light of the fact that he’s competing against an incumbent who has played the underdog game to great success in the recent past.

In 2012, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz ran for the Republican Party nomination for U.S. Senate. A November 2011 poll gave Cruz only a 6 percent chance of success; a Texas Tribune poll conducted around the same time suggested that Cruz trailed then-Lt. Gov. Dewhurst by 12 percent. By May 2012, a similar UT/TT poll found Cruz still trailed Dewhurst, though he was only slightly outside the margin of error, and among likely voters the gap was only 9 percent. The primary saw Cruz claim only 34 percent of the vote, but Dewhurst crucially failed to reach 50 percent. The two went forward to a runoff, which Cruz won in July before winning the general election that November.

Cruz had barely warmed his feet as a senator before he was being touted as a presidential candidate. An article in The Washington Post accurately picked most of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination in 2016 and had Cruz ranked sixth, writing “Cruz is the biggest attraction among rank-and-file Republicans at the moment. He evokes genuine passion among the base.” Cruz’s famous “Green Eggs and Ham” filibuster was considered by The Atlantic to be “the opening salvo of the 2016 campaign.”

These assertions were quickly backed up by polls, including one in September 2013 that found Cruz had the support of 20 percent of Republican primary voters. In March 2015, Cruz formally announced his candidacy.

After a start that The Washington Post described as “tepid,” Cruz began an aggressive campaign across Iowa, and in August he filmed his now infamous “machine gun bacon” video, in Boone, Iowa. Cruz gradually won the state over, and by the turn of the year, he was coming out as the favorite in some polls.

Ted Cruz ultimately fought a successful battle in Iowa, winning the primary over eventual nominee Donald Trump, 27.6 percent to 24.3 percent. Cruz had visited each of the 99 counties in Iowa and captured the grassroots initiative. In his victory speech, Cruz highlighted “800,000 contributions at with an average contribution of $67. That is the power of the grassroots. But it's more than that. It's 12,000 volunteers here in the state of Iowa. It's over 200,000 volunteers all across this great nation.”

Cruz ultimately won 11 primary contests before withdrawing from the presidential race over two months before the Republican National Convention and endorsing Donald Trump. But what is striking about his campaign history, in both 2012 and 2016, is the momentum he acquired as the campaigns wore on. The come-from-behind victories were won thanks to exhaustive campaigning and significant financial support. In 2012, super PACs backed Cruz to the tune of $7 million. His 2016 presidential campaign was reportedly backed by nearly $54 million from super PACs.

In 2018, however, the financial support remains, but the energy has yet to become evident.

April fundraising reports suggested that the Cruz campaign had raised $2.7 million, with another $3.2 million coming from his leadership PAC and fundraising committee. Beto O’Rourke, running a campaign that eschews PACs and focuses entirely on grassroots fundraising, raised $6.7 million in the same period. The totals, reported in May, showed O’Rourke had raised $13.2 million while Cruz lagged behind by nearly $6 million.

O’Rourke has, famously, channeled Cruz’s Iowa travel strategy and visited each of the 254 counties in Texas. The visibility of O’Rourke’s efforts to visit all corners of Texas has contrasted sharply with the often sporadic availability of Cruz events. The O’Rourke campaign has attempted to emphasize this point to supporters, even introducing a Snapchat filter that read “Ted Cruz visted 99 of Iowa’s 99 counties; when’s the last time he listened to Texans in” followed by the name of users' towns.

In Cruz’s words, taken from his Iowa victory speech, the next senator from Texas “will not be chosen by the Washington establishment. Will not be chosen by the lobbyists. But will be chosen by the most incredible powerful force, where all sovereignty resides in our nation by we the people.” The question is, can O’Rourke beat Cruz at his own game?

Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Andrew Sanders

Assistant professor, Texas A&M University San Antonio