The Key to Beto O’Rourke’s Texas Victory: Split-Ticket Voters

When Republican voters skip a race or cross party lines, it’s because the GOP incumbent has let them down.

Millions of Democrats across the nation are energized by Beto O’Rourke’s campaign to eject Ted Cruz from the Senate. Their joy on election night will depend whether a slice of Texas Republicans continue to split their votes between parties.

Early voting has just ended and the “blue wave” crashing across the state is a reality, but there’s also a reactionary “red wave.” Clearly this is not a normal low-energy mid-term election. The national excitement has come to focus on the O’Rourke versus Cruz race.

Texas is the second largest state with a population over 28 million and two time zones. Harris County, home to Houston, is more populous than all of Kentucky and 24 other states. Dumping all of Texas, or all Texans, into blue or red buckets is overly simplistic. Texas politics is more nuanced. Split-ticket voting is a very real thing.

I know because I previously ran for U.S. Congress in Texas’ District 7, comprising Western Houston and its suburbs. This piece of Harris County was once represented by George H.W. Bush and remains his home today. It’s gerrymandered to favor a Republican, but the vast majority of Republicans here are not fascists, white supremacist, or Tea Party zealots that grab headlines. They tend to be well-educated and wealthy with ties to the energy or health care industries. They calculate their options before voting.

Indeed, President Bush split his vote favoring Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. In 2015, his son from Dallas, President George W. Bush, said of Cruz, “I just don’t like the guy.” Seems the ticket splitting Bush family’s opinion of far-right members of their party has not changed. This year, the son has been campaigning hard for almost every Republican on the ballot, except Cruz.

The Bushes were not alone in 2016. Voters in Texas 7 gave Clinton 47%; slightly more than Trump’s 46%. The national media quickly declared Clinton the “winner” and a scrum of 2018 Democratic candidates emerged. This declaration ignored the fact 7% of the people who showed up chose not to vote for either Clinton or Trump. The same pool of Clinton voters supported Republican judges down ballot and returned my opponent , John Culberson, to Congress.

I am proud to have earned 44% of the vote in 2016, the best Democratic showing since 1964. I accomplished this while most down ballot Democrats received only 39.5%. That translates into 4.5% of the Republican-leaning voters backing both Clinton and Cargas before reverting to support their down ballot Republicans. Clinton’s 47% also indicates a larger group of 7.5% supported both her and down ballot Republicans. Republicans will split their vote for the right person.

The same pattern appeared in Texas District 22 where Republican Pete Olson earned 7.5% more votes than Trump. Similarly in the bizarrely shaped Texas District 2, Republican Ted Poe earned 9% more votes than Trump. In all three gerrymandered districts, the incumbent Republican performed materially better in 2016 than their flawed presidential candidate. Clinton may not have beat Trump in Texas 22 or Texas 2, but she did convince tens of thousands of Republicans to cross-over for her.

Some Republicans voted for Clinton, while many voted against Trump. The result was the same. Issues and character flaws can matter more than party loyalty.

Flooding devastated Texas 7 in 2015 and again 2016, before Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017. I made Culberson’s failure to bring home our tax dollars for flood control and dam repairs a top issue. After almost two decades in Washington, Culberson came to personify a do-nothing Congress.

Similarly, Ted Cruz is not well loved in Texas. Everyone recalls he single-handedly shut down the Federal Government in 2013 costing the economy $20 billion. He has spent much of his Senate tenure traveling the country campaigning for president instead of tending to constituent’s needs. He too failed to repair two federal dams in extremely critical condition that flooded West Houston after Harvey. Constituents also took note of his fawning affection for Trump after both his wife and father were unfairly attacked by Trump made Cruz look like the “sniveling coward.”

When Republican voters skip a race or cross party lines to vote for a Democrat, it’s because the Republican incumbent has let them down, and they are now open to embracing an amenable Democrat.

That’s the beauty and strength of O’Rourke’s positive campaign message. He has not campaigned exclusively on progressive values or pivoted during the general election to discover conservative values. He has traveled to all 254 counties in Texas to emerge as a populist champion of Texas values. O’Rourke reflects the views of the majority of Texans who also support marriage equality, giving DREAMERs a path to citizenship, not wasting our money on a wall down the middle of the Rio Grande, paying women equally for the same work, opposing ICE’s separation of immigrant children from their families, putting in place limited controls on access to high-powered guns, and funding millions for flood control to prevent flooding instead of billions for FEMA relief. Moderate Bush Republicans, like those living in Texas 7, appreciate these positions, appreciate being listened to, and are likely to reward O’Rourke with their vote.

John Davidson recently summarized in the Houston Chronicle the history of how Texas Republicans won over conservative Southern Democrats to wrestle control of Texas. They did this by promising to champion fiscal issues and finding common ground, not by becoming more liberal. O’Rourke is on the same path in reverse. He can win 8 to 16% of the Texas voters by promising to represent the values that matter to all Texans – including Republicans disappointed with Cruz.

The University of Texas at Tyler poll released this week captures the volatility of split-ticket Texans. While it puts Cruz ahead of O’Rourke by 3.6%, it also pegged Republican Gov. Greg Abbott 20.9% ahead of his Democratic rival, former Sheriff Lupe Valdez. With a margin of error of 3.3%, pundits from both parties can legitimately question Cruz’s apparent lead. They should not ignore the 17% swing between the senatorial and gubernatorial races. Sheriff Valdez has embraced many of the same issues and value as O’Rourke. The major difference is that moderate suburban Republicans like Abbott.

This poll also suggests that O’Rourke may not have the coattails many down ballot Democrats are hoping for.

Texas has a long quiet history of split-ticket voters. Running against an unpopular incumbent, like Cruz, creates the opportunity. Having a message that stresses common ground and Texas values, can turn an opportunity into electoral reality. If O’Rourke’s populist campaign taps into this split-ticket dynamic he will certainly be the newest senator from Texas.

James Cargas

James Cargas is Houston energy attorney, former Clinton appointee to the US Department of Energy, and a former Texas congressional candidate.