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Yes, the Race Between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz is for Real

Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith sizes up Senate contest.

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It’s September 4. Labor Day was Monday. We are now officially in the final sprint of the 2018 midterm campaigns, and we are still talking about the Texas Senate race.

That is remarkable given that Texas has, for the last several decades, been one of the most reliable Republican states in the country. But polls and people agree; Democrat Beto O’Rourke is withing striking distance of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R). Why? How? And where are we going? I reached out to Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith for answers. (Sidebar: The Tribune’s yearly political gathering — the Texas Tribune Festival — is coming and, if you like politics, you need to be there.)

Our conversation — conducted via email and lightly edited for flow — is below.

Chris Cillizza: It’s post-Labor Day. Is this race as close as most polling suggests?
Evan Smith: Well, it’s close, and more importantly it’s closer than nearly every general election race in Texas has been for several decades. There is general agreement among pollsters and political observers that O’Rourke is trailing by mid-high single digits. By contrast, the Democrat running for governor is behind by twice that amount or more. O’Rourke has raised more money than Cruz and has more cash on hand, meaning can he get his name ID up and his message out in a very expensive state. He is already getting tons of free media. But Texas is a red state, and that’s the mountain he has to scale. The odds are still against him, though they’ve improved.

How did we get here? Is this about Beto? Ted? Or just the changing of the state’s demographics?
We won’t know if it’s about the state’s changing demographics unless we see who votes. Democrats have not been particularly good at turning out their voters over the last several election cycles. Unless they turn it around this time, changing demographics don’t matter. Said another way, an emerging Hispanic majority only has political impact if those in that emerging majority make their voices heard at the ballot box. I think it’s mostly about O’Rourke’s overperformance relative to expectations. He is a talented, charismatic and empathetic campaigner — seemingly the best at this of any Democrat to run statewide since Ann Richards. It’s also about the moment politically in this country, which is why there are other races in play, congressional and legislative, that normally wouldn’t be.

Cruz seems to be worried. They have started attacking Beto over being in a band, wearing a dress and a past (known) DUI. Is this a sudden panic?
They’re definitely sounding the alarm. Not sure it’s panic quite yet. O’Rourke is still relatively unknown, so they’re trying to define him in character terms before he can define himself. Oldest trick in the book. They’re betting that his younger, wilder days will be a turn-off. Hmm, where have I heard that phrase before? Oh, right, George W. Bush. Who won the presidency. For this strategy to be successful, you’d have to believe there are voters who are toying with voting for O’Rourke but won’t because HE WAS IN A PUNK ROCK BAND. I’m not sure this is a Footloose election cycle.

Donald Trump is coming to Texas for Cruz. How has their relationship changed since Cruz refused to endorse at the convention? And will Trump help?
I seem to remember them not getting along a few years ago. LOL. The President said or intimated nasty things about Cruz’s wife, Cruz’s dad and Cruz himself during the Republican primary for president and never apologized. Somehow Cruz got around to supporting him anyway in the general election (cough cough Supreme Court cough cough) and has made peace with the President’s unique approach to the job once in office. It’s hard for those of us who witnessed 2016 playing out in real time to imagine Trump riding to the rescue for Cruz, and Cruz eagerly accepting his help.

On the other hand, who knows if this will be a good or bad idea in the end? O’Rourke is running — overtly and not — against Trump as much as Cruz, and that gives him and other Democrats lift in a potential wave. This may be the most nationalized midterm election of our lifetimes. The President is absolutely on the ballot. Even in Texas, that helps the blue team.

Finish this sentence: “In January 2019, Beto O’Rourke’s job will be ______________.” Now, explain.
Honestly, after 2016 we should all be out of the predictions business this far out. Having said that, tell me who shows up to vote on Election Day and I’ll tell you what I think is going to happen. In the absence of that, I legitimately cannot say, which, in itself, is saying a lot. A few months back there was near-zero chance this race was going to be competitive. It is 100 percent competitive now. Pop some popcorn.

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