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2018 Texas Senate Race Analysis: No, Texas Flipping Blue Is Not That Imminent

Updated on January 19, 2019
Texas State Capitol in Austin, TX
Texas State Capitol in Austin, TX
Senator Ted Cruz (left) and Congressman Beto O'Rourke (right) during the first Texas Senate debate.
Senator Ted Cruz (left) and Congressman Beto O'Rourke (right) during the first Texas Senate debate.

The Great State of Texas has long been prevalently perceived as a solid red state, a virtually impregnable Republican stronghold, a part of the constellated 22 states or more that guarantee the GOP close to 200 electoral votes in every single presidential election and one of the states that reliably send duos of Republican senators to Washington and delegate nice numbers of conservatives to the US House of Representatives. In truth, that perception is corroborated by the fact that thus far, no statewide Democratic victory has materialized there for practically a quarter century (the last time a Democrat won a statewide race in Texas was in 1994). However, things seem to be changing, at least according to most media and an array of political pundits. With the results of the historic 2018 midterm elections in which the Democrats made an aberrant advance by making the Senate race between their nominee, Congressman Beto O’Rourke, and incumbent Republican Ted Cruz shockingly close (Cruz eventually prevailed by an unusually slim margin of well-nigh 210,000 votes or only 2.6%), they’re sanguine about the prospect of the Lone Star State shifting its partisan allegiance to the Democratic party—the party that in fact had formerly dominated it for a considerable amount of time—in the future. In this case, their conviction isn’t mistaken. Indeed, Texas is undergoing a range of changes: the demographics of its electorate is diversifying at a formidable pace, albeit not as fast as some other states’ and the nation’s overall, and there is ubiquitous and vigorous urbanization within its boundaries. Given that the sweeping majority of urban voters and minority voters are predisposed to be more liberal and vote Democrat, we can safely say that these consequential changes are rendering the state’s political environment more conducive to the Democrats’ success. So yes, Texas turning Democratic is definitely a feasible scenario that could come to pass sometime soon. What’s left much doubted and disputed, though, is how we should define that “soon”. While others predict otherwise, some analysts have gone far enough to suggest that, predicating on Cruz’s subpar performance in 2018 and also the presumptive accretion of newly eligible minority voters—particularly Latinos—which would fortify the Democratic base substantially enough to outgun the Republican one (according to them), the state could blue as soon as the next election cycle (in 2020) or the one right after it (in 2022). Unfortunately, they seem to have ended up with an exaggerated projection conceivably by omitting one extremely crucial thing: the very discrete context of the Cruz-O’Rourke race.

Senator-elect Ted Cruz announcing his victory in the Texas Senate race in 2012
Senator-elect Ted Cruz announcing his victory in the Texas Senate race in 2012

Back in 2012, Ted Cruz—the darling of Tea Partiers—handily triumphed in the Texas Senate election against his Democratic opponent Paul Sadler by a margin of 16 points (which was nearly equivalent to Mitt Romney’s edge of victory in the presidential election in the state), effectively ascending to the upper chamber of Congress to supersede the retiring Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. His win came as no jaw-dropper. Virtually everybody had already anticipated it and barely did the race spark national sensation or grab much national attention. Cruz went on to become a prominent voice of solid conservatives, pushing for moral values and limited government while pitching himself as a strict constitutionalist. Before long, the freshman senator captured national attention by playing a key role in effectuating the notorious government shutdown in 2013 in an attempt to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. 3 years later, he pushed himself into the national spotlight again, this time running for president in the acrid 2016 Republican presidential primaries, of course, ending up losing to Donald Trump who would ultimately be voted into the Oval Office. Undoubtedly, these deeds of his made him a well-known figure in national politics. But, alas, every rose has it thorn. For Cruz’s swelling national reputation, it’s a big thorn. Being in the limelight made him considerably more susceptible to attacks by the media, and that was quite detrimental to his standing. Perhaps this could explain partially how both his favorability and job approval rating had been on decline since his assumption of office.

Senator Cruz announcing his bid for the presidency on March 25, 2015 at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia
Senator Cruz announcing his bid for the presidency on March 25, 2015 at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia
Senator Cruz giving a 21-hour senate floor speech against Obamacare, a consequential moment that, while endearing him to many conservatives, earned him criticisms from a number of his Republican colleagues and alienated some GOP'ers.
Senator Cruz giving a 21-hour senate floor speech against Obamacare, a consequential moment that, while endearing him to many conservatives, earned him criticisms from a number of his Republican colleagues and alienated some GOP'ers.

Unfortunately, the difficulty for the him wasn’t circumscribed to just that. It’s extended to his discord with some Republicans with whom his approach to politics didn’t sit well. The quadragenarian Evangelical Senator, while advocating the same types of conservative policies the majority of his fellow GOP’ers elsewhere champion, was belligerent when it came to dealmaking. For multiple times, reluctant to compromise with his standpoints and give in to the other side, he stood tall and said no to trade-offs. While this earned him commendation from many conservatives, it also did him criticisms from moderate/bipartisan members of his party who got to develop the notion that he was too principled a guy and too conservative a politician. Of course, with polls consequently and consistently revealing he’s one of the most polarizing people in politics, that hurt his popularity among non-Republican voters too. Moreover, with his frequent and fervent critiques of the political establishment, he had already estranged the GOP leadership and their adherents. Accordingly, he lost support from certain groups of Republicans, making his own base somewhat porous. As for political moderates and nonpartisans, some of them were distanced away by the fact that Cruz, once one of Trump’s most vehement detractors, was acquiescent in transforming into one of the president’s most stalwart allies and because the president’s fairly unpopular among these constituents, Cruz’s rapport with him also turned off a number of them.

That’s presumably why, according to a poll conducted by Morning Consult, he had a modest approval rating of 49% (with 35% disapproval rating) in October 2018, the month before he was put on the ballot, even in one of the staunchest Republican states in the nation. Actually, the number wasn’t far nuanced from the 50.9% he received on election day.

Governor Greg Abbott delivering his second inaugural address on January 15, 2019 after easily winning re-election with 55.8% of the votes in November 2018
Governor Greg Abbott delivering his second inaugural address on January 15, 2019 after easily winning re-election with 55.8% of the votes in November 2018

To contrast, Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican who supported the same conservative principles Cruz did but employed a different rhetoric and had a different approach to politics—less incendiary, more gentle and conciliatory—and who was also on the ballot in November 2018, had as high as 57% approval rating (and only 26% disapproval rating) according to a poll conducted at the same time by the same pollsters. (In fact, Abbott ranked 7th among all governors in terms of popularity in October 2018). On election day, he finished off with a tidy 13–point margin over his opponent, garnering 55.8% of the votes overall.

So if Texas was really on the verge of turning blue or, at least, grey, why would it give Governor Abbott a solid victory? But what's the reason for Ted Cruz winning by just a tiny margin despite a strong economy under President Trump, which was supposed to favor him because of the state's political affiliation, and his incumbency advantage then? You might ask. Well, the answer is pretty simple: the unorthodox closeness of the 2018 Texas Senate race had much more to do with Senator Cruz himself and some other specific factors—the charisma of Beto O'Rourke and the incredibly strong anti–Trump impetus in the overall national environment, which affected him directly who served in the federal government and was closely associated with the president much more than Abbott who didn't and wasn't, included—than the character of the Lone Star State itself and the attitude of its constituents.


© 2019 Pendhamma S

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