Can personality trump ideology in the Cruz-O’Rourke race?

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, left, faces U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in debate at the KENS 5 Studios in San Antonio on October 16, 2018. Photo by Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News/POOL

With less than a week to go before Election Day and early voters casting ballots at a record pace, the nation’s eyes are on the Texas mid-term U.S. Senate race.

The contest between Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Democrat U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke pits a former GOP presidential candidate against one of the brightest young stars in the Democratic firmament and has drawn both unprecedented money and tremendous national media attention. Cruz seems to have the edge right now with a narrow but persistent lead in recent polls, but the race promises to be the closest statewide contest that Texas has seen in some time. The ultimate result, however it goes, will reveal much about the state of politics in Texas and the nation.

A Cruz win would be a bitter disappointment to Texas Democrats. This race appears to present them an ideal opportunity: a dynamic candidate running in what should be a favorable climate for Democrats nationally, with enormous money at his disposal, facing a Republican with only middling approval ratings. If they can’t win this race, when would we expect them to win a statewide election in Texas in the foreseeable future? Lucy will once again have snatched the football away from the Democrats’ Charlie Brown, as a once-promising candidacy — and dreams of a purple Texas — will have fizzled.

A Cruz victory would also offer lessons for Democrats in terms of campaign strategy. O’Rourke has sought to win this election by combining an earnest, cheerful, moderate demeanor with decidedly left-leaning positions on healthcare, immigration, abortion, gun control and other issues, trying simultaneously to make inroads among moderate suburbanites while energizing core Democratic constituencies. If this approach fails — especially if Cruz wins fairly comfortably — then Democrats will have to question whether it is possible to have their cake and eat it, too. Future candidates may feel pressure to choose between a strategy of moderation, calculated to woo swing voters, and an all-out progressive attempt to rally the base. “A little of both” will have turned out to be a losing strategy.

Finally, a Cruz victory would underscore the enduring power of partisan loyalties. Despite ongoing demographic change, the Texas electorate remains predominantly Republican. Polls over the summer showed a very close race, with many Republican voters reporting that they were “undecided” — either unenthusiastic about Cruz or intrigued by the charismatic Democrat. As Election Day approaches, however, more and more Republicans seem to be coming home to Cruz, perhaps driven in part by the partisan spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearings that activated tribal allegiances. As the eventual return to the fold of most of the “never Trump” Republicans and the “Berniecrats” in 2016 showed, most partisans ultimately have a hard time defecting to the other side in today’s highly polarized climate.

If O’Rourke manages an upset, we will have to rethink much of the conventional wisdom about Texas politics. An O’Rourke win would likely result from unprecedented turnout by normally unreliable mid-term voting blocs: young people and minorities. If these groups mobilize, especially in a non-presidential election year, then Texas may see genuine two-party competition much sooner than most observers expect.

Moreover, it would show that personality can trump ideology. O’Rourke has staked out positions clearly to the left of the Texas electorate on a range of policy questions. If Texans choose him nonetheless, it would suggest that even a genuinely progressive ideology can be packaged with an appealing personal style to make it palatable to a majority of the state’s voters. This would surely embolden progressive elements in the Texas Democratic Party.

Another result of an O’Rourke victory would be instant speculation about his presidential ambitions. Indeed, this may be inevitable to some degree — win or lose — in spite of his campaign promises to serve out a full six-year term if elected. Betomania is a real phenomenon; the adoring crowds, the perceived “cool” factor, the favorable profiles from the national press and the combination of left-wing ideology with winning personal style are eerily reminiscent of 2008 Barack Obama. Democrats are looking for a champion who can unite the constituencies in their party and provide a happy, optimistic contrast with Donald Trump’s bombastic style.

The $39 million that O’Rourke pulled in from around the country in the last three months suggests that many think they have found their man. If he manages to parlay that support into an upset win in ruby-red Texas, expect truly next-level hype to kick in.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist 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.

J. Matthew Wilson

Professor, Southern Methodist University