Texas Senate Race Tighter Than Expected

The Texas Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke is looking close, but Democrats should not hold out much hope of flipping this seat.

Three new polls are leading some analysts to wonder if Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who is seeking re-election to a second term in November in a race that pits him against Congressman Beto O’Rourke may be more vulnerable than you’d expect a Republican in the Lone Star State to be. Looking at the details of these polls, though, and the trends we’ve seen in the race to date, it seems clear that Cruz is still in a relatively comfortable position as we head closer to the unofficial start of the General Election campaign in September.

First up, and perhaps the most surprising, is a Texas Lyceum poll that shows Cruz with just a two-point lead over his Democratic challenger:

The Texas Senate race between Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) is neck and neck, according to a new poll released Wednesday.

The 2018 Texas Lyceum Poll showed Cruz leading O’Rourke by a hair — 41 percent to 39 percent, respectively, among likely voters. That’s well within the survey’s margin of error of 4.67 percentage points of 441 likely voters.

That’s a particularly tight margin for Texas, which has not elected a Democrat to the Senate in three decades.

The findings come weeks after O’Rourke, a three-term congressman, reported a staggering $10.4 million fundraising haul in the second quarter of the 2018 cycle, bringing his cash on hand to just under $14 million.

That’s far more than the incumbent Cruz, who raised about $4.1 million in the second quarter and has about $9.3 million in cash on hand, Federal Election Commission filings show.

Texas has normally been a reliably red state, voting for President Trump over his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton by 9 points in 2016.

Chris Wilson, a former pollster for Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, called the poll’s findings into question on Wednesday, saying that the partisan breakdown for the survey “looks nothing like Texas voters.”

Here’s Wilson’s Tweet regarding the partisan breakdown in the poll, and he does seem to have a point in his argument that the poll may be oversampling Democrats relative to what actual turnout has been in Texas in the past:

While that’s an unusual breakdown for a Texas poll, it’s worth noting that the demographic breakdown does not appear to be impacting the poll’s measurement of other statewide races in the Lone Star State. In the Governor’s race, for example, Greg Abbott leads his Democratic opponent 44% to 25% among Registered voters while Lt. Governor Dan Patrick leads his Democratic opponent 32% to 23%. Among likely voters, Abbott’s lead expands to 16 points and Patrick’s lead expands to 10 points. This suggests that the poll may be more on the spot than Cruz supporters would like it to be.

On the other end of the spectrum is a new poll from Quinnipiac University which shows Cruz leading by six points amount registered voters:

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) holds a 6-point lead over Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) in the race for Senate in Texas, according to a Quinnipiac University poll out Wednesday.

Cruz’s support comes in at 49 percent among Texas voters, according to the survey. O’Rourke comes in at 43 percent.

That’s a significantly smaller lead for the incumbent than he carried in a May Quinnipiac poll, which gave him a 50-39 percent lead over O’Rourke.O’Rourke, a three-term congressman, also holds the lead among black, Hispanic and female voters, while Cruz has the majority backing of white and male voters, the Quinnipiac poll found.

The Senate fight in deep-red Texas has become increasingly competitive — and expensive. O’Rourke raked in a whopping $10.4 million in fundraising between April and June. That’s significantly more than the roughly $4.1 million raised by Cruz in the same period.

Texas has long been considered a Republican stronghold. The state has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988, and the current race is rated as a likely Republican win by the Cook Political Report.

Sitting in the middle of these two polls is a new poll conducted by Public Policy Polling on behalf of a group called “End Citizens United”:

Democrat Beto O’Rourke has pulled within 4 percentage points of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, among Texas voters, according to a new poll from an O’Rourke-allied group, End Citizens United.

The survey, conducted by the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling, found O’Rourke, an El Paso congressman, trailing Cruz 42 percent to 46 percent. That’s closer than the 8-point lead PPP gave Cruz when it surveyed the race in January for End Citizens United, a Democratic group focused on campaign finance reform.

“This is a race where we’ve seen an incredible amount of movement — and the momentum is entirely in Beto’s favor,” ECU President Tiffany Mullersaid in a statement. “Senator Cruz’s record of serving special interest juxtaposed with Beto’s refusal to take a dime of PAC money is the clearest example of how money-in-politics is defining this race. These numbers spell trouble for Cruz.”

Once voters were told about O’Rourke’s decision to reject PAC money, he took the lead, 46 percent to 43 percent. The January poll produced a similar result, giving O’Rourke a 2-point advantage after respondents were informed he isn’t taking PAC money.

Looking at the poll average, RealClearPolitics, which does not include the PPP poll in its average, gives Cruz an average of 46.5% to O’Rourke’s 40.0%, which of course gives Cruz an average lead in recent polling of 6.5 points. By way of contrast, Cruz won his first term in the Senate in 2012 against Democratic nominee Larry Sadler by more than 16 points and 1.4 million votes. Additionally, given the fact that Trump won the Lone Star State by more than 800,000 votes and nine percentage points in November 2016 the fact that Cruz is polling so close to a Democrat at this point in the race is causing some people to raise their eyebrows. The most notable of these are the people at the Cook Political Report, who have downgraded the race from “Likely Republican” to “Leans Republican”:

Of the eight general election polls aggregated on RealClearPolitics, six showed Cruz at between 47 percent and 51 percent. In those same six polls, O’Rourke was between 39 percent and 43 percent. While O’Rourke has room to grow, Cruz is consistently closer to and in some cases at or above 50 percent. In a state as Republican as Texas, those last few points that O’Rourke needs to hit 50 percent are going to be very hard (and very expensive) to get. There are some observers who believe that there simply aren’t enough Democratic and Democratic-leaning independents voters to push O’Rourke across the line. In fact, a Democrat hasn’t represented Texas in the Senate since 1993 when appointed U.S. Sen. Bob Krueger served for six months (Democrat Lloyd Bentsen served from 1971 – 1993). There are others who believe that O’Rourke can attract some more establishment Republicans who just don’t like Cruz. In a cycle like this, it is hard to simply dismiss such a proposition.

Suffice it to say that O’Rourke has made incredible progress in a pretty red state, at least when it comes to running for statewide office. The race moves to Lean Republican. Whether it ever gets to Toss Up remains to be seen.

This isn’t the first indication that the race in Texas could end up being closer than might otherwise be expected. In April, the first real poll of the race after O’Rourke won the Democratic nomination showed Cruz with just a three-point advantage over O’Rourke, far lower than one would expect for a Republican incumbent that earlier in the race. A subsequent poll that was taken a month later, though, put Cruz eleven points ahead of his Democratic opponent, suggesting that the race would indeed be more like the traditional Republican v. Democratic race that we’ve seen in Texas before. Since then, though, the polling has closed back up and, as noted above, O’Rourke has shown the ability to raise a tremendous amount of money notwithstanding the odds stacked against him. As a result, we’re at a point where, as The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin notes, Cruz is looking increasingly vulnerable, but she also cautions Democrats not to get overly optimistic:

Democrats, however, shouldn’t get too enamored with the polls. Cruz has plenty of time to drop a ton of negative ads on O’Rourke, pushing his favorable numbers down. And we are talking Texas, which President Trump won by nine points. Cruz has a strong GOP governor (Greg Abbott) at the top of the ticket, a network of supporters and more than 90 percent name ID. His problem is that he is joined at the hip with Trump on everything from the tax bill to border policy, and Trump surprisingly isn’t all that popular in Texas. (Quinnipiac has Trump’s approval at 46 to 49 percent; Lyceum has it at 44 to 52 percent.)

O’Rourke will paint Cruz as a rude ideologue, a show-boater who doesn’t get anything done for his state. He’s got a lot to work with given Cruz’s reputation in the Senate and all the time Cruz spent running for president. O’Rourke eschewed PAC money, and may try to tag Cruz as the ally of the rich and big business, not the middle class, using the tax cuts as Exhibit A. (It will be interesting to see if Cruz goes for the capital-gains indexing scheme, another boon to the rich.) Cruz is going to try to make O’Rourke into a far-lefty, but so far O’Rourke has steered a more moderate course (e.g., opposing abolition of ICE) and talked regularly about working across the aisle.

That we are even talking about a competitive race in Texas in an off-year election is remarkable. Whether O’Rourke can pull off the upset of the year depends on how motivated his voters are (are they finally going to turn out millennials and Hispanic voters?) and just how unlikable Cruz appears in the five scheduled debates (which Cruz wants to hold on Friday nights — high school football night — ensuring a smaller audience).

Could Texas vote for a cheery, wonkish moderate Democrat? Check back after a couple of debates, and we’ll see how the race stands.

Rubin is right to caution Democrats against getting too optimistic about flipping Texas this year. The primary reason for that is the fact that Texas remains a deeply red state on the statewide level. Republicans control all of the statewide offices from Governor all the way down to positions such as George P. Bush, who currently serves as the (elected) Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office. Additionally, no Democrat has won the state in a Presidential election since Jimmy Carter won the state by just over 100,000 votes in 1976. On the Senate side,  Ted Cruz’s seat has been in Republican hands since Kay Bailey Hutchinson won the seat to succeed Lloyd Bentsen in 1993 and John Cornyn’s seat has been in Republican hands since John Tower won a Special Election to succeed Lyndon Johnson in 1961. (Source) Additionally, the state has had a succession of Republican Governors since George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards in 1994 and Republican Lt. Governors since Rick Perry was elected to that position in 1998. While there has been much talk about the state turning “purple” at some point due to the influx of Latino voters and other transplants, there is no evidence that this is likely to happen this year, or at any point in the foreseeable future.

It’s also worth keeping in mind one other thing:

At the top of the list there’s Cruz himself, who is as much a controversial figure and a magnet for criticism in Texas itself as he is nationwide. Because of this, it’s not surprising that he’s finding the opening stages of this bid for re-election to be a bit bumpier than they might be for an ordinary Republican. Second, it’s typically the case that Senators face their most difficult re-election bids in their effort to obtain a second term than they do in subsequent elections. This is generally true regardless of what state or candidate you’re talking about. Finally, 2018 is likely to be a year in which Democrats nationwide are energized even in deeply red states like Texas. That means that a Democratic candidate will likely do better than expected even if they don’t win. This poll number is interesting and indicates that the race bears being watched. In the end, though, I suspect that Cruz will be re-elected easily although perhaps not by the large margins we ordinarily see from Republicans in Texas.

These new polls only serve to reinforce that conclusion. In the end, Cruz is likely to be re-elected. While the polls are currently showing O’Rourke doing better than you might an expect a Democrat to do statewide in Texas, this is still Texas, and Texas is still a red state. Additionally, Cruz is likely to benefit from the fact that Governor Greg Abbott and other statewide elected officials, all of whom are Republican, will be on the ballot and re-elected easily. This will likely result in a favorably Republican turnout that will pull Cruz over the top. All of this could change if future polls closer to election continue to show a tough race for Cruz, but as things stand now I am still keep Texas on the Republican side of the ledger.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Gromitt Gunn says:

    One thing these polls do not take into account is that we have party line voting here in Texas, and judges are elected. So your average general election ballot can be several pages long, and the urge to just press “R” or “D” and be done with it is strong. Even if a person is inclined against Cruz, if they go the party line option, they then have to dislike him enough to actively fo through the ballot to find the Senate race and manually switch their autofilled vote over to Beto.

  2. James Pearce says:

    Rubin is right to caution Democrats against getting too optimistic about flipping Texas this year. The primary reason for that is the fact that Texas remains a deeply red state on the statewide level. Republicans control all of the statewide offices from Governor all the way down to positions such as George P. Bush, who currently serves as the (elected) Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office. Additionally, no Democrat has won the state in a Presidential election since Jimmy Carter won the state by just over 100,000 votes in 1976.

    The first time a Texas Republican was elected to state-wide office was in 1961. Three generations later, within living memory, they have them all.

    I have strong doubts that Texas is as deeply red as this result suggests and I’m glad the Great Texas Abandonment is winding down so we can test that hypothesis.

  3. Todd says:

    Two things:

    1) The excitement around Beto O’Rourke is real. He was just here in Wichita Falls the other night. He packed a room in this very conservative part of the State. Those in attendance included the Republican Mayor. https://www.timesrecordnews.com/story/news/local/2018/08/01/standing-room-only-democrats-event/886796002/

    Even if Beto doesn’t win in the end, just the belief that he can may drive enough turnout to impact some of the House races that pundits do see as potentially winnable for Democrats.

    2) Between Ted Cruz making proposals to end the child separation crisis, publicly saying people should vote for the Democrat instead of the Nazi in IL, and more recently calling for debates with Beto O’Rourke, I don’t think it’s wrong to speculate that something in his campaign’s internal numbers is telling him to take this race more seriously than many might have expected.

  4. Tammy says:

    Never did get Texas. They all talk big. I guess everything is bigger in Texas. Liberalism is big. Islam is big. Gay is big. Illegal immigration is big. Texas is for losers.

  5. Todd says:

    @Tammy: I wasn’t a big fan of Texas until I lived here. Even with total Republican control of government, on a day-to-day basis, most parts of the state are really not bad places to live.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    I met my wife in Austin, Texas, so I’ll always have affection for Austin at least. Also they have a Voodoo Donuts outlet right on 6th Street. On the other hand the weather in summer is appalling and if there’s a single thing that stands out for me other than my wife, it’s the cockroaches. Humidity and roaches.

    We’ve toyed with the idea of moving back there – real estate is a wee bit cheaper than the Bay Area – but can’t see encouraging our (adult) kids to spend more time there. There aren’t a lot of places a trans person can feel relatively safe in this country and Texas sure as hell isn’t one.

  7. al Ameda says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    About half my heritage is Texas. On my mother’s side both grand parents are East Texas, one from Cass County up toward Texarkana. I have relative all over the state, from Abilene to San Antonio to Houston to Dallas to Waco. I have friends who lived in and around Austin for years.

    Texas and California are alike in one important aspect: they’re both larger than life places, places where a kind of mythology has grown up around them. They’re both States and a state-of-mind.

    Can’t help it but … Texas is interesting to me. I like Texas.