We got ourselves a horserace in Texas. I'm pulling for Beto, but we'll see how the turnouts are in November.Senate race opens: Ted Cruz slams Beto O'Rourke as 'left wing liberal,' shrugs off anti-Trump anger
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WASHINGTON — The fight between Sen. Ted Cruz and challenger Beto O’Rourke opened with fireworks Tuesday night, as the senator labeled his rival a “left-wing liberal Democrat” pushing an “angry” agenda that includes raising taxes and grabbing guns.
O’Rourke, a three-term congressman hoping to snap his party’s 25-year losing streak in Texas, shrugged off the attack, arguing that he’s less interested in mudslinging than in kitchen table issues such as a living wage, jobs, education and health care.
"Can you define any of that on the political spectrum?" he said.
Both cleared the primaries Tuesday with little resistance. Even before polls closed, Cruz was framing the race as a bid by Bernie Sanders-style “liberal socialists” to undermine conservative Texas values. The onslaught suggested not only that Cruz isn’t taking the race for granted but that, like independent analysts, he sees a tough slog over the next eight months.
“The extreme left is angry and energized and they hate the president ... But the good news is there are more conservatives than there are liberals in Texas,” Cruz said in a call with Texas journalists. Hours later he released a scathing campaign jingle with such lyrics as: “Beto wants those open borders, and he wants to take our guns. Not a chance on earth he gets the vote of millions of Tex-ans.”
O'Rourke, in an interview before the ad’s release, pitched his candidacy as not anti-Cruz, but pro-Texans.
"I'm not running against anyone. I'm running with the people of Texas to do something really great for this country," he said, adding: "There's really not much I need to say about Sen. Cruz. I trust the people of Texas. I trust their ability to make their own judgments."
Texas Republicans haven’t lost statewide since 1994. But President Donald Trump looms over the midterm elections, and even in Texas, some voters will use their ballots to signal dismay with him and punish his most ardent defenders, among them Cruz.
“I don’t think it’s a slam dunk,” said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Yeah it’s Texas, but the environment is bad even in Texas,” she said, adding that Trump “is going to be the third candidate on the ballot in a way that is very real ... Cruz might have to work for this one.”
Cook ranks the race “likely Republican.” So does CNN, a recent downgrade from “Solid Republican.”
Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate. Of the 26 seats Democrats are defending, 10 are in states that Trump won. Trump won Texas, though by a smaller margin than recent GOP nominees.
“It is inconceivable to me that Senator Cruz loses in the fall,” said GOP strategist Rob Jesmer, former executive director of the party’s Senate campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “That being said, I think we are heading into a very challenging environment in the fall, and that could result in a more competitive race than Texas Republicans are used to.”
El Paso Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who is challenging Ted Cruz for his Senate seat, arrives at a town hall meeting at the Plumbers & Pipefitters Union Hall on West Miller Road in Garland on January 26, 2018.
(Louis DeLuca/Staff Photographer)
On issues, the choice for voters is stark.
Cruz is among the most conservative members of the Senate and his take-no-prisoners style during his first term made him a major irritant both to Barack Obama and to GOP leaders.
O’Rourke has positioned himself as more of a moderate, though support for legalizing marijuana — not that he emphasizes that issue — is one of many stances that open him to attack.
They largely agree on support for free trade and NAFTA. But they diverge on Obamacare, immigration policy, border security and taxes. Cruz touts a top grade from the NRA and tweaked O’Rourke for earning an F over his support for restrictions on high-capacity magazines and assault-style weapons.
O’Rourke accuses Cruz and Trump of a heartless approach to immigration and a foolish call for a border wall that would mainly antagonize a key trading partner. He contrasts his own support for universal health care with Cruz instigating a 16-day government shutdown in 2013 in a failed bid to defund the Affordable Care Act.
He also noted that while they both won their seats in 2012, Cruz was angling for the White House almost immediately.
Jockeying for money
O’Rourke has raised more than $8.7 million since declaring his candidacy last March, topping Cruz in that same period. In the first six weeks of 2018 alone, he outraised Cruz $2.3 million to $800,000.
O’Rourke did this while shunning PAC money, endearing himself to grassroots Democrats but potentially hobbling himself for the fall.
GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser, who ran Sen. John Cornyn's 2014 race, said it would take at least $10 million to “run any semblance of a statewide campaign” against Cruz, preferably $25 million. That makes disavowing PAC money a good talking point but a “big mistake.”
Still, Cruz enters the general campaign with a $6 million war chest, an edge of more than $1 million — and with near universal name recognition.
O’Rourke, by contrast, opened this campaign unknown beyond his El Paso base.
He has barnstormed Texas for months, drawing surprisingly large crowds in smaller cities that statewide Democratic candidates have neglected for years — though retail scale politics has limits in a state so vast.
“O’Rourke has surpassed every expectation” in terms of attracting funds and attention, Duffy said.
But even if O’Rourke “looks like a Kennedy” and makes voters swoon because he “doesn’t sound like a pre-packaged candidate,” said Steinhauser, his chances hinge on “huge turnout” among Democrats.
What Republicans euphemistically refer to as a tough environment, Democrats call the “Trump factor.”
Cruz has tied himself unabashedly to the divisive president and said Tuesday night that he welcomes Trump's support.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said that even voters who don’t usually support Democrats “are sick and tired of the way the Republican Party is turning a blind eye to [Trump’s] incompetence, the corruption, and his playing footsie with the Russians.”
And the Cruz-Trump alliance is hardly the only line of attack Democrats will pursue.
“We’ve got plenty of ammunition to use against him,” he said.
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