SIZE matters in Texas, especially when the stakes are so high. President Donald Trump has said he is looking for the “biggest stadium we can find” to hold a rally for Ted Cruz as he tries to win re-election to the Senate. The fact that Mr Cruz is enlisting the help of the president, who once called him “Lyin’ Ted”, shows how vulnerable he is. Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, a Democratic congressman, has run a strong campaign and edged close to Mr Cruz, according to polls. The Cook Political Report, an electoral-analysis firm, considers the Texan race a toss-up for the first time in memory. Texans have not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.
Mr O’Rourke has served in Congress since 2013 and before that sat on the city council of El Paso, a city in west Texas close to the Mexican border. He started his scrappy Senate campaign with long odds. He has travelled to each of Texas’s 254 counties, including plenty of Republican strongholds, which no other candidate for Senate in the state has done. Like the former Democratic candidate for president, Bernie Sanders, he has refused to take money from political action committees, relying instead on individual donors. Before the end of June individuals had given him around $23.5m, nearly two-and-a-half times what they have handed Mr Cruz. The latest fundraising total, which will be announced soon, is expected to tilt even more heavily in Mr O’Rourke’s favour.
Mr O’Rourke is a progressive with the political savvy to present himself as a centrist. He supports background checks for gun owners, universal health care and legal marijuana, but never sounds strident: his views are personal opinions which he is willing to discuss with anyone. His events feel not unlike church meetings that are open to all denominations. “Republicans, Democrats and independents, you’re in the right place,” he told a packed high-school auditorium in DeSoto, a suburb of Dallas, in August.
He is not without liabilities. In his 20s Mr O’Rourke was involved in a drunk-driving accident, although he disputes whether he tried to flee the scene as the police report suggests. But his quiet affability and good looks have helped him to win over plenty of habitual Republican voters. One Republican housewife in Fort Worth proudly shows off a photo taken with him at her country club. In some conservative neighbourhoods in Dallas the lawn-signs supporting “Beto” easily outnumber those for Mr Cruz. His rapid ascent and optimistic rhetoric have inevitably prompted comparisons with Barack Obama. “Obama was a centrist too,” points out Cappy McGarr, an investor and O’Rourke enthusiast based in Dallas.
Mr Cruz is an experienced campaigner and strong debater. But even his supporters are not eager to spend time with him, explains a Republican operative and Cruz backer. Moderate Texans dislike how Mr Cruz played a key role in the federal government’s brief shutdown in 2013, flip-flopped on whether Mr Trump should be loathed or loved and has done little to champion Texan interests in the Senate. Mr Trump, while running for the Republican nomination for president against Mr Cruz, made that argument for them: “Why would the people of Texas support Ted Cruz when he has done absolutely nothing for them?” he tweeted.
Digital savviness has played a part in Mr O’Rourke’s rise. He has used Facebook’s live-video service to stream his campaign, including scenes of him skateboarding, doing laundry, eating at Whataburger and playing rhythm guitar for Willie Nelson, who is to Texas as ABBA is to Sweden. His online streams have garnered plenty of free attention, but he has also spent more than Mr Cruz on digital adverts, which can be tailored and targeted at supporters. From June until September Mr O’Rourke’s campaign spent around ten times more than Mr Cruz’s did with Facebook and Google, according to a study by Wesleyan University.
Texas is already “a purple [toss-up] state if the people who could vote voted. They just don’t,” says Laura Moser, an activist who ran unsuccessfully to represent Houston’s Harris County in the Democratic primary. According to the Centre for American Progress, a think-tank, Latino voters made up 32% of the state’s eligible voters in 2016, but just 21% of its actual voters. Though the state’s population is majority-minority, that is not true of its voters. According to the Centre’s projections, Latinos will make up a larger share of the state’s eligible voters than whites by 2036. In politics, 20 years may as well be a century. Mr O’Rourke needs Latino votes today if he hopes to win an easy victory.
Pancho and Lefty
If Hispanics do not provide the support Mr O’Rourke needs, he will have to rely on college-educated whites and moderate Republicans. In that case, what happens in suburban Houston, Austin and Dallas will be key. Extrapolating from polls in these areas, Mr Cruz is on track for a narrow win on November 6th.
The Texas race will test whether hope can be as powerful a draw as outrage. Mr O’Rourke has run a campaign that is all sunshine and little fear-mongering. Mr Cruz’s advertisements, by contrast, are mostly attacks on Mr O’Rourke in which he tries to portray his opponent, who once ran a small business, as a radical socialist. So far, Mr O’Rourke has been correct in his bet that being polite and positive could help set him apart. Whether it can get him elected is a different question.