Rep. Beto O'Rourke
Credit: Inter-American Dialogue/Flickr

When he began his U.S. Senate campaign, Beto O’Rourke was just a congressman from El Paso who wasn’t even well-known across his home state of Texas. His biggest asset wasn’t his own. It was the fact that his opponent, Ted Cruz, has a unique ability to make people despise him and want to end his political career. This assured that O’Rourke would be able to raise money for his campaign and also that he’d be starting at a higher floor than your average Texas Democrat. Even a lot of Republicans hate Ted Cruz.

Ted Cruz had unusual advantages of his own, however. Having run for president in 2016, he had a massive donor and volunteer list. You’ve probably read a lot about Cambridge Analytica in the context of the special counsel’s probe of possible Russian collusion on the part of the Trump campaign, but it was Cruz who hired them first, for his run through the Republican caucuses and primaries. At the time, many attributed Cruz’s surprising victory in the Iowa caucuses to the work Cambridge Analytica did on his behalf.

Texas is obviously a very expensive place to run a statewide campaign, and O’Rourke seemed to hurt himself when he swore off accepting any money from political action committees.  No one is suggesting that he’ll be underfunded anymore, though, because he just shattered the national record for fundraising in a U.S. Senate race.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke raised an astonishing $38.1 million in three months, as Democrats in Texas and nationwide showered him with donations for his bid to oust Sen. Ted Cruz.

The haul smashed previous records for a U.S. Senate contest, and assures that the hard fought race, already the nation’s costliest, remains on top of the 2018 list.

O’Rourke’s haul is more than triple the $12 million that Cruz said he raised from July through September. Combined, the rivals have raised roughly $86 million but the challenger’s tally of $61.2 million vastly eclipses the incumbent’s $24.9 million.

The amount of money O’Rourke is raising could fund a credible presidential campaign, and he’s doing it with a lot of small donors. According to the Dallas Morning News, he’s raised at least $25 million and probably a lot more through the online ActBlue portal that facilities small recurring donations. According to the O’Rourke campaign, they have received 802,836 individual contributions, with the majority coming from Texans.

Republicans are duly impressed.  Sen. John Cornyn acknowledged at a Republican fundraiser last week that what is “so surprising here is how much money that Beto’s been raising.” Republican political consultant Bill Miller said that the 38 million dollars O’Rourke raised in the third quarter is “a colossal figure,” adding “it’s beyond surprising. No one could predict or expect it.” Mitch McConnell-linked strategist Josh Holmes said O’Rourke’s haul was “insanely impressive.”

Of course, Mr. Holmes also added that the Democrats are basically creating a Texas bonfire where they are burning all their money and that they’ll wish they’d allocated it more wisely after O’Rourke is defeated.  And there’s good reason to believe that he’s right.

A Quinnipiac University Poll released Thursday puts [Cruz] ahead by 9 percentage points. A New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll that ended Thursday shows an 8 point lead. Other surveys in recent weeks showed a tighter race, and one top handicapper, the Cook Political Report, has rated the contest a toss-up.

If the Cook Political Report is going out on a limb for a Democrat (for once), there is also a good reason for that.

With $38 million, O’Rourke has the opportunity to blanket the airwaves in Texas, clutter every Texan’s Facebook feed with ads, provide a yard sign to anyone willing to plant it, and put an army of volunteers on the streets knocking on doors and prodding voters to the polls. He can also afford a private jet to barnstorm the far reaches of the vast battleground.

We’ve seen the Democrats get caught up in irrational exuberance about a statewide race in Texas before. In 2014, Wendy Davis caught fire, garnered a tremendous amount of national media attention and raised a lot of money for her gubernatorial race. In the end, she failed to crack 40 percent of the vote and lost by nearly 20 points. That was a bad year for Democrats and this is shaping up to be a good one, but that doesn’t mean that it is unlikely that O’Rourke’s chances are more hype than reality.

If there’s an X factor in this contest, it could be O’Rourke’s charisma. Ted Cruz has political talents, but charisma isn’t one of them. In fact, in March 2016, USA Today ran an article entitled Why you may not like Ted Cruz’s face, according to science. Psychology Today ran a column by a neurologist that tried to explain why Cruz has what the Germans call Backpfeifengesicht– a face in need of punching. I don’t think anyone would say things like this about Beto O’Rourke.

And I don’t think anyone would say something like this about Ted Cruz.

Two months before the US midterm elections, Mr Deas, an African-American independent voter who voted for Republican George HW Bush and Democrat Barack Obama, is breaking with his customary political aloofness by carrying a placard for Robert O’Rourke, a charismatic Democratic congressman from El Paso known as “Beto”.

“He’s like a white Obama,” said Mr Deas. “He has a certain charisma, swag if you will, but you don’t get the sense that it is plastic or fake.”

To win, O’Rourke will have to outperform the polls. That’s something Donald Trump accomplished two years ago, so it shouldn’t shock anyone if it happens again in Texas. O’Rourke is running in a favorable political cycle against a deeply flawed candidate and he has both the money and the likability factor he needs to bring a winning message to the electorate down the stretch.

One indication that Cruz may be in trouble is that he seems to be avoiding making himself national news. He kept a low profile during the Kavanaugh hearings, for example, and he hasn’t been making waves the way he did routinely in the run-up to his presidential bid. I think he knows that he’ll lose if this is a personality contest, so he wants it be more of a partisan affair. Texas is a Republican state and they should be expected to elect a Republican to represent them in the Senate. So, Cruz’s strategy seems to be to lay low and remind people at every opportunity that O’Rourke is a Democrat.

It’s a strategy that probably still has a better than even chance of working. But it’s also possible that Cruz has met another competitor, like Trump, who he just can’t beat.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at