Is Ted Cruz in Real Peril or Not?

It may seem counterintuitive, but I believe that the Republicans’ big upset victory yesterday in a special election to fill a seat in the Texas Senate is bad news for Ted Cruz. The Democrats lost the supposedly safe San Antonio seat in no small part because the incumbent had to resign in June “after being found guilty of 11 felonies, including fraud and money laundering, related to his involvement with FourWinds Logistics, a now-defunct oilfield services company found to have perpetrated a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors.”

It didn’t help that the Democrats ran Pete Gallego, a former U.S. congressman who had been ousted from office and then failed in a bid to retake his seat in 2016. Gallego ran with the uninspiring “long-running message that he would be a safe, reliable choice for the district in the wake of the tumultuous period that precipitated [his predecessor’s] resignation.” Governor Greg Abbott “held up [former Texas game warden Pete] Flores’ win as evidence that the idea of a ‘blue wave’ in November is overblown and that Hispanic voters have soured on Democrats.”

Evidently, the Latino voters of this particular senate district were fed up enough with the Democrats for giving them corrupt and ineffectual candidates that they were willing to give a Republican a chance to represent them. If a party doesn’t want that to happen, it needs to avoid Ponzi schemes, felony convictions, and appallingly boring messaging.

The problem for Ted Cruz is that he’s relying on Texans to stick with their historic partisan lean, but maybe Texans are ready to roll the dice on inspiring alternatives this year.  The polling of the Cruz-O’Rourke race is certainly confusing.  Yesterday, we saw a Quinnipiac poll showing Ted Cruz with a relatively comfortable 54-45 lead. The news came with some advice that Democrats temper their optimism about winning the race.

“The Texas U.S. Senate race between Sen. Ted Cruz and Congressman Beto O’Rourke, and Democratic hopes for an upset win there, have boosted talk of a Senate takeover,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “These numbers may calm that talk. Congressman O’Rourke may be drawing big crowds and media attention, but Texas likely voters like Sen. Cruz better.”

Yet, today, we have the first poll to show Beto O’Rourke in the lead.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, leads Republican incumbent Ted Cruz by 2 percentage points among likely voters, according to an Ipsos online poll released Wednesday in conjunction with Reuters and the University of Virginia. O’Rourke has been closing the gap over the last several months, but this is the first poll that puts him ahead of Cruz.

Forty-seven percent of likely voters told Reuters they would vote for O’Rourke, while 45 percent said they would cast their ballot for Cruz. Three percent said they would vote for “Other,” and 5 percent said “None.” The margin or error on that portion of the poll was 3.5 percentage points.

The difference in the results may be explained by the differing methodologies of the two pollsters. The Ipsos poll is an internet survey while the Quinnipiac relies on phone calls. The Ipsos poll also puts a lot of emphasis on the “temperature” of the respondents:

But it’s trying to predict who will show up on Election Day that shifts the numbers, said Ipsos Vice President Chris Jackson.

Ipsos is trying to gauge political enthusiasm on each side, said Jackson. The poll asked respondents to estimate the likelihood that they’d vote in the midterm elections on a scale from one to 10. “More Democrats are registering at the highest part of the scale, at the 10, than the Republicans,” Jackson said. And that’s what’s interesting, he said, because Republicans usually have the momentum advantage in Texas.

“It demonstrates how Democrats are mobilized,” said Jackson. “This election is going to be really competitive and its going be very hard fought.”

O’Rourke is also in an unusually strong financial position, having out-raised the incumbent Ted Cruz, a former presidential candidate with an enormous contact list, by over ten million dollars.

But Rep. O’Rourke’s biggest advantage might be that he is not the incumbent in this contest.

Respondents [to the Ipsos survey] were also asked whether they perceived Cruz and O’Rourke as “traditional” politicians. Sixty-three percent of respondents saw Cruz as traditional, while only 28 percent perceived O’Rourke that way — something that may be to O’Rourke’s advantage in a political climate that leans away from establishment politics, Jackson said.

Last night we saw an establishment politician in Pete Gallego lose a special election in a bright blue senate district. That could mean that the Republicans aren’t in as much trouble in Texas as people suspect, but it could also mean that establishment politicians are in a lot more peril than is generally understood.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.