In 2018 Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) barely won re-election to the U.S. Senate, with the narrowest statewide margin victory of any Texas Republican since 1998. Six years later, however, Cruz is well on his way to re-election, with little worry of another close race, let alone a defeat.
This is despite that Democrats view Texas as their best hope for flipping a GOP held Senate seat in 2024.
In 2018, Democrat Beto O’Rourke came closer to winning a statewide race than any Democrat since 1998, falling to Cruz by 2.6 percentage points. O’Rourke’s success was the result of a perfect storm of forces that converged in the Lone Star State that year.
First, an increasingly unpopular President Donald Trump was in the White House. This caused a drag on the entire Texas Republican ticket, without compensating with the mobilizational benefits that would have occurred if he had been on the ballot.
Second, O’Rourke was effective in being many different things to many different people, without being seen as hypocritical or plagued by self-contradiction. For Democrats whom he mobilized to set a modern midterm turnout record, O’Rourke was a strong progressive willing to push for the policies they prioritized and fight against the Trump administration. For independents and moderate Republicans, O’Rourke was a post-partisan pragmatist who road-tripped with Republican Congressman Will Hurd and represented a centrist alternative to the polarizing Cruz.
Third, O’Rourke was able to be everything to everyone in part because Cruz did not take his challenge seriously until the final month of the campaign. As a result, the Cruz campaign’s attack ads were too little, too late to change swing voters’ positive evaluation of O’Rourke. As a result, thousands of Republican and independent voters who cast a ballot for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott (who won by 13.3 points) stayed true to Beto.
Fourth, during his first term, many Texans felt Cruz was focused far more on his national image and 2016 presidential bid than on representing their state’s interests in the U.S. Senate. This caused a sharp contrast with his Texas-centric predecessor, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).
In 2018, some Texas Trump supporters still remembered Cruz’s non-endorsement of Trump in his speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, and called on those watching to “vote their conscience” in November.
What a difference six years makes.
A University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs poll released on Feb. 1 shows that Cruz enjoys a robust nine-point advantage in vote intention over the presumptive Democratic nominee, Rep. Colin Allred, 49 to 40 percent. He enjoys a 10-point advantage over the other viable Democratic Party nominee, Texas State Senator Roland Gutierrez.
How could this be? First, Democrats have President Biden dragging down the entire Texas Democratic ticket. Three out of five Texans has an unfavorable opinion of Biden, and the Biden administration’s specific policy positions on immigration/border security, oil and natural gas, and culture war issues such as DEI and transgender athletes are at odds with those of most Texans. For example, 62 percent of likely voters support, and 33 percent oppose, Abbott’s efforts to secure the Texas border with Mexico, an effort that is sharply criticized by the Biden administration.
Second, neither of the two viable Democratic U.S. Senate candidates (Allred and Gutierrez) appear able to recreate the “Beto magic” of 2018 to allow them to be everything to everyone. In fact, even O’Rourke himself would be unable to recreate that magic if he had opted to be the Democratic nominee this year.
Third, the Cruz campaign (and Texas Republicans more generally), once bitten and twice shy, learned from their near-death experience in 2018. As a result, from now through November, Cruz will monitor his support and that of his Democratic rivals and react accordingly with fundraising and advertising to blunt Democratic momentum before it has time to consolidate, as occurred in 2018 for O’Rourke.
Fourth, Cruz has avoided big problems. Over the last six years, he has had a few missteps, most notably his ill-fated trip to Cancún in February 2021, when half the state was without power amid freezing temperatures. But by and large, he has been far more focused during his second term on his home state, and less focused on ambitions for higher office.
Although a small handful of Texans still “Remember Snowflake” (Cruz’s poodle, left behind while the rest of the Cruz family decamped to the Mayan Riviera), Cruz’s favorability ratings among likely voters in Texas are notably more positive than those of Democrats. For example, whereas 48 percent of likely voters have a favorable opinion of Cruz, only 41 percent have a favorable opinion of O’Rourke, 39 percent have a favorable opinion of Biden, and 37 percent have a favorable opinion of Vice President Kamala Harris.
It is always possible that either national or local conditions will change in such a way to cause the Texas U.S. Senate race to become more competitive between now and November. But currently, Cruz looks to be well on course for re-election to a third term.
This reality only puts more pressure on national Democrats to successfully defend their vulnerable U.S. Senate seats in Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania (and to a lesser extent Michigan and Wisconsin). Flipping Texas simply isn’t realistic at present.
Therefore, the only way Democrats can retain control of the U.S. Senate is by running the table in those seven states, and holding the presidency to maintain the tie-breaking vote of the vice president.
This isn’t quite as bad as drawing a starting hand of a 2-7 in Texas Hold’Em, but it’s far from an optimal position.
Mark P. Jones is the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University. He is a professor in the Department of Political Science, the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Political Science Fellow and the faculty director of the Master of Global Affairs Program.