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In Texas midterms, left-wing Democrat 'absolutely could beat Ted Cruz'

© Paul Ratje, AFP | Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke addresses the press after he and other politicians visited the tent city June 23, 2018 in Tornillo, Texas, housing immigrant children separated from their parents.

Text by Tom WHEELDON

Latest update : 2018-10-06

Senator Ted Cruz is facing an unexpectedly tough re-election race against left-wing Democrat Beto O’Rourke, prompting Republican concern that red-state Texas could succumb to a ‘blue wave’ in November’s midterm elections.

The standard-bearer of the traditional GOP right, Cruz is campaigning for re-election in November’s midterms with just a three-point poll lead over his challenger O’Rourke, according to an aggregate of voter intention surveys by the specialist website RealClearPolitics.

One poll even gives Cruz a mere one-point edge over O’Rourke, a Congressman who since 2012 represented a district encompassing most of El Paso county, along the Mexican border.

Cruz came second to US President Donald Trump in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination after four years as one of the Senate’s most outspoken GOP right-wingers.

The risk of losing in a GOP bastion to a candidate who supports such policies as comprehensive immigration reform, tighter gun controls and the legalisation of marijuana has caused anxiety amongst senior Republicans in Washington.

‘Dogfight’

“There is a possibility that we will […] lose a race in Texas for the Senate,” Mick Mulvaney, a member of Donald Trump’s cabinet, told a group of GOP officials and donors on September 8, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by The New York Times.

Three days later, GOP Texas State Representative Lyle Larson told the paper that Cruz has “got a dogfight on his hands”. “I can tell you there’s [sic] Beto signs all over my district that are unexplainable,” he continued.

“O’Rourke absolutely could beat Cruz,” said Colin Strother, a Democrat strategist in Texas, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “Going into the election, most of us believed that his goal shouldn’t even be to win, but to boost the Democrats’ performance to make us more competitive for the 2020 presidential cycle. But as the race has gone on, it has appeared more and more likely that O’Rourke has a chance to win.”

Such was the mounting consternation in Washington GOP circles that Trump felt the need to tweet on September 7 that he will speak at a “major rally” in October in aid of his former rival – despite having said during the Republican nomination race that Cruz “has accomplished absolutely nothing” for Texans, to which the latter responded by calling Trump “a serial philanderer”, “a snivelling coward” and “a pathological liar”.

“Either Ted Cruz is in trouble or it’s a remarkable waste of the president’s resources,” Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist and former 2016 campaign adviser to Cruz, told AP.

Texas has not elected a Democrat in a statewide vote since 1994 – the longest drought in any state for either of the two main political parties.

Republicans tend to win there by landslides. In presidential races, John McCain beat Barack Obama in Texas with a 12-point margin in 2008; Mitt Romney carried it with a 16 percent lead in 2012; and Donald Trump trumped Hillary Clinton in the state by 8 percent.

GOP Governor Greg Abbott looks set to continue this trend in November’s gubernatorial vote, with a 14 percent poll lead against his Democrat challenger Lupe Valdez.

‘Cruz is not a very likeable person’

Experts say that O’Rourke’s personal appeal, compared to that of his opponent, is crucial to his impressive prospects in the November elections.

“Personality is very often a major factor in American elections, especially in Texas – and Ted Cruz is not a very likeable person,” Robert Biles, a professor of political science at Sam Houston University, told FRANCE 24.

Contrastingly, O’Rourke has a “very pleasant, positive, upbeat personality, which he has managed to project well on the campaign”, Biles continued.

The Democrat Congressman is “building his career on being a reflective and bipartisan member of the legislative”, which many voters see as a “refreshing change”, Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at Houston University, told FRANCE 24.

“Democrats and progressives are very energised and they love O’Rourke,” added Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “He is Kennedy-esque.”

‘A clear backlash against Trump’

It seems that O’Rourke has also benefitted from defining his character in contrast to that of Trump, who was “surprisingly unpopular in Texas in 2016” and is widely regarded there as “all hat and no cattle”, according to Sabato.

“There is a clear backlash against Donald Trump amongst active voters,” Rottinghaus continued. “You’ve got a growing group of swing voters – especially women and college-educated voters – who are unhappy with the president, along with young and increasingly ethnically diverse voters who are joining a growing Democratic coalition.”

Indeed, the diversification of Texas, most prominently marked by a rapidly expanding Latino population, is eroding the Republicans’ advantage in the state. Non-Hispanic whites – who are now a minority in Texas, according to the 2010 US census – tend to identify as Republicans, while Latinos tend to favour Democrats.

“Texas will definitely become a ‘blue state’ because of its increasingly young and ethnically diverse electorate and the trend in those groups towards the Democratic Party,” Rottinghaus argued.

But, he added, “it is likely to happen in the long term as opposed to the short term”.

GOP ‘out of touch with the average Texan’

Analysts say that persuading sympathetic voters to turn out in elections is a major obstacle to Democrat victories in Texas in the immediate future.

In the 2016 election cycle, Texas had the third lowest voter turnout of all US states, at 51 percent. Amongst Hispanic Texans, this figure was 40 percent.

“There are parts of the Hispanic community that are very politicised and very energised to come out and vote, but large parts are not,” Biles pointed out.

Notably, Hispanics represent 37.5 percent of Texas’s population, but just 20 percent of its voters. “One reason why voter turnout is so low amongst Hispanics is that it’s much harder to vote in Texas than in other states, without question,” Rottinghaus observed. “There are very restrictive voter ID laws.”

Texan law requires that before they can vote, citizens must show government-issued photo ID, such as their passport or driver’s licence. In 2017, a federal judge ruled that this piece of legislation was intended to discriminate against ethnic minorities, who are more likely to have difficulty obtaining such documents. But this year, a federal appeals court upheld the law.

That is not the only way in which Texas election laws might count in Cruz’s favour. “Texas allows what is called straight-ballot voting, in which you can flip a lever at the top of the ballot and vote for all candidates of one party,” explained Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “Almost two-thirds of Texans do that, with a far larger number of Republicans than Democrats.”

Ergo, Jillson continued, “I think election day will be very difficult for O’Rourke, so he will have to be visibly ahead if he wants to win”.

Low turnout and the boost to the GOP from idiosyncrasies in the state’s voting system mean that Texan election results are unrepresentative of public opinion, Strother argued: “On issues like legalising marijuana, more reasonable gun laws, even a woman’s right to choose, the Republican party is increasingly out of touch with the average Texan. The problem is that the average Texan doesn’t vote – and getting these people to vote is O’Rourke’s challenge.”

Date created : 2018-09-14

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