Rep. Beto O’Rourke has mounted the most serious effort by a Democrat to win a Senate seat in Texas in decades, becoming the darling of leftist wallets and a liberal media eager to see Sen. Ted Cruz lose.
His savvy politicking and everyman personality helped to keep the race close — at one point in August even closing to within 1 percentage point with Mr. Cruz in one Emerson poll.
“It seems to me O’Rourke developed his momentum early as he moved around the state,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “And I think two moments mattered: his speech about NFL players and their right to kneel during the National Anthem and that video of him skateboarding at a Whataburger. It all captured his youth, and enjoyment, and excitement about the whole campaign.”
But that early surge gave Mr. Cruz plenty of time to respond. And respond he did.
Famous as an undergraduate debater at Princeton, Mr. Cruz showcased his talent in two televised debates that allowed him to paint a stark contrast between himself and Mr. O’Rourke, whom Mr. Cruz depicted as a liberal beloved by coastal left-wingers and wallets but out-of-touch with Texans.
Mr. O’Rourke appeared to misstep in the first debate when he said he did not try to flee the scene when he was arrested on DWI charges in 1998. That put him at odds with police reports from the time which included a witness who told officers Mr. O’Rourke tried to do just that.
Details that hadn’t emerged during Mr. O’Rourke’s previous races for his House seat were revealed — such as the high rate of speed Mr. O’Rourke was traveling at, the fact he hit another vehicle, or the witness’s statement he tried to flee the scene. So did a second arrest on a misdemeanor burglary charge from a 1995 incident at the University of Texas El-Paso. Mr. O’Rourke, the son of an El Paso judge who was facing re-election five weeks after the DWI arrest, was not prosecuted for the alleged burglary attempt.
Faced with those headwinds, Mr. O’Rourke’s rise in the polls stalled.
“I think O’Rourke peaked too early,” said Kirby Goidel, director of the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University.
At the same time, Mr. Cruz – who at 47 is essentially the same age as the 46-year-old Mr. O’Rourke - proved surprisingly adept at social media, with his campaign Twitter feed scoring several funny, viral hits. Mr. Cruz had one as recently as Halloween when he tweeted the Zodiac killer’s infamous ‘code,’ thereby spoofing a negative Internet meme about the conservative senator.
And just as Mr. O’Rourke benefited from outside sources of publicity and money, so did Mr. Cruz get a late, out-of-state helping hand.
“With Cruz, the moment for him was really the rally with Trump,” Mr. Jillson said.
That came in late October.
The two men had more than their share of nasty spats during the 2016 presidential campaign when President Trump labeled Mr. Cruz “Lyin’ Ted,” and Mr. Cruz described Mr. Trump as a man no right-thinking person would put in the White House.
They have since mended fences and worked together on tax cuts and Supreme Court nominations. Mr. Trump even says he’s decided on a new nickname for his erstwhile opponent: “Beautiful Ted.”
“It seemed like Cruz was in one gear, that he wasn’t able to shift up into another level of energy,” Mr. Jillson said. “But I think that changed for him and Republicans when Trump showed up and said to the base, ‘I need this guy. I want this guy.’”
The professional oddsmakers have consistently rated the race from “Lean Republican” to “solidly Republican,” and Mr. Cruz scores a 6.5 percentage point lead in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.
He’ll also likely get a boost from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who’s cruising to re-election at the top of the state ticket, and whose turnout operation can’t but help Mr. Cruz.
The better question might be how close Mr. O’Rourke can keep the final vote.
Liberals have been repeatedly teased with the idea they have a legitimate candidate so often, it’s hard for them to fully buy-in.
“This has been an ongoing thing,” Mr. Goidel said. “From Wendy Davis and all these others, they’ve started to say, ‘we don’t believe you anymore,’ and I think the electorate in Texas has grown more resistant to some of that. And unless O’Rourke somehow figures out how to break all the turnout models, he’s going to lose.”