By Tom Dart in Houston /Washington, DC
It underlines America’s strange and turbulent political moment that the highest-profile and most intriguing battle in November’s midterm elections is in one of the most predictably Republican states.
“We have a real race in the state of Texas,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz said during a bruising debate with Beto O’Rourke on Friday. “The hard left is energised, they are angry, many of them are filled with hatred for President Trump.”
Less than three years ago, before Donald Trump surged clear, Cruz was arguably the favourite for the Republican presidential nomination. Now he faces a scrap to keep his Senate seat amid swelling Democratic optimism that a “blue wave” can gain a majority in the House of Representatives and perhaps even the Senate.
Democrats need to pick up two seats to take the Senate, though the House is a more realistic target. Winning back either chamber would help them stymie Trump’s agenda and show they are in a strong position to win the White House in 2020.
Challenging Cruz is O’Rourke, a charismatic politician from the border city of El Paso who was a virtual unknown a year ago. Cruz is the frontrunner but O’Rourke has the momentum and attention.
Recent polls range from a nine-point Cruz lead to a two-point O’Rourke edge. On Friday, a few hours before the pair’s hour-long head-to-head in Dallas, the respected Cook Political Report newsletter shifted the race from “lean Republican” to “toss-up”.
A US congressman of Irish heritage who is giving up a safe House seat, O’Rourke is a tall, trim, handsome figure whose appearance is often compared with Robert Kennedy. Arrested in his twenties for burglary and driving while intoxicated (though not convicted), he played guitar in a punk band and ran an Internet business before turning to politics.
The 45-year-old has become the political equivalent of a rock star, holding standing room-only rallies attended by thousands, inspiring fawning profiles and being feted by left-leaning celebrities in Hollywood and New York.
The Texas GOP looked fusty when they mocked O’Rourke for skateboarding in the car park of a Whataburger fast-food restaurant last month. And his cool credentials were boosted when Willie Nelson, the venerable Texan country music legend, revealed plans to headline a pro-O’Rourke gig in Austin.
The race is one of several surprisingly tight contests in Texas this year as the increasingly diverse demographics of urban areas mix with determined resistance to Trumpism and the concerns of some moderate Republicans.
Texas’ four biggest cities, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Austin, all voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But suburban and rural areas remained firmly Republican, handing Trump a nine-point victory.
Texas is the second-most populous state behind solidly-blue California: flipping it is a Democrat’s dream. Republicans have been so dominant – a Democrat last won a statewide race in 1994 – that Democrats have struggled to find talented and well-funded candidates. Yet despite pledging to take only small contributions from individuals, O’Rourke has out-raised Cruz, netting an impressive $24mn.
“It’s clear that O’Rourke is a unique figure and has a presence that has stimulated Democrats,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “I also think it does suggest that there is a rising tide of dissatisfaction with Republicans and some of the policies, especially with Donald Trump.
“The importance of the race is that as more Democrats begin to awaken you may see Texas drifting towards competitive in a presidential race which will lock the Democrats at the presidential level for a long time. In short, if Texas goes blue, no Republican can ever win the presidency until there’s some other major change.”
In a sign of his concern, Cruz – who called Trump “utterly amoral”, a “pathological liar” and a “snivelling coward” not long before endorsing him for president – has invited Trump to ride to the rescue with a rally next month. In 2016, Trump baselessly linked Cruz’s father to the assassination of John F Kennedy and retweeted an unflattering photo of Cruz’s wife, Heidi, with an image of his own wife, Melania, a former model.
“I’m picking the biggest stadium in Texas we can find,” Trump tweeted in August. “Ted has my complete and total Endorsement. His opponent is a disaster for Texas.”
During campaign stops typically conducted at calorific barbecue joints, Cruz has depicted O’Rourke as a radical Bernie Sanders-style socialist who wants to introduce deranged policies such as healthcare for all, banning the sale of military-style rifles, combating climate change, not cutting taxes for rich people and reforming the immigration system to make it more humane.
O’Rourke has largely avoided talking about Cruz and Trump, preferring to preach a gospel of inclusivity and consensus. On Friday, that strategy took a battering.
While O’Rourke backed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Cruz enthused over Trump’s planned border wall. As O’Rourke advocated background checks for gun buyers, Cruz insisted school shootings are caused not by guns but by “removing God from the public square”.
O’Rourke backed the right of American football players to protest police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem.
When each man was asked at the end to offer something positive about his opponent, O’Rourke praised Cruz’s commitment to public service and empathised with the toll that travel and long hours take on family life. Cruz replied in the same vein before inserting a backhanded compliment.
“I think you are absolutely sincere, like Bernie, that you believe in expanding government and higher taxes and I commend you for fighting for what you believe in.”
“True to form,” O’Rourke muttered darkly. – Guardian News and Media
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