Could Democratic outsider Beto O’Rourke really beat Ted Cruz in Texas?

Recent polling puts O’Rourke within the margin of error for victory in a state which once was an unassailable Republican stronghold.

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Could the unthinkable be about to happen? That’s the question both Democrats and Republicans are asking themselves after a bombshell poll this week put Beto O’Rourke, the upstart Democratic challenger, within one point of the incumbent Republican, Texas senator and former presidential candidate Ted Cruz.

According to the poll, which was conducted by Emerson college, 38 per cent of registered voters said they were planning to vote for Cruz and 37 per cent for O’Rourke, with 21 per cent undecided. This puts the Democratic challenger well within the margin of error for victory. Among voters aged 18-34, according to the poll, O’Rourke is ahead of Cruz by 19 points.

Even more worrying for Republicans is the personal favourability of the candidates: 57 per cent of independent voters reported an unfavourable view of Cruz. In a test of voting intention among independents O’Rourke totally smoked Cruz, 45 per cent to 25 per cent.

Some have questioned how robust the Emerson poll results will be. In the past, early polling in Texas has tended to favour Democratic candidates in a way that has not showed on election day, according to the Texas Tribune.

But the Real Clear Politics polling aggregator shows that several other recent polls have also shown the Texas senate race tightening in recent weeks, with an NBC News/Marist poll from mid-August showing Cruz ahead by four points and a Texas Lyceum poll from July showing Cruz ahead by just one point.

The Real Clear Politics spread currently shows Cruz ahead by 5.5 points, just outside the margin of error, but there is plenty of time for the race to tighten further before election day on November 6 – or for the gap to widen again.

Certainly, O’Rourke has Republicans rattled. In many ways he is the perfect candidate; he is good-looking, charismatic and an extremely energetic campaigner who has held events in every one of Texas’s 254 counties – mostly driving himself in his modest maroon Dodge Caravan people-carrier, the Texas Tribune reports.

O’Rourke is clearly a fan of long drives. He first drew wide media attention in 2016, when his impromptu bipartisan road-trip from Texas to Washington DC with Republican representative Will Hurd following a cancelled flight went viral on social media.

Until recently, received wisdom would have held that O’Rourke’s views on many progressive issues render him virtually unelectable in a state like Texas. He supports the legalisation of marijuana, immigration reform and universal healthcare, and during a 2016 Democratic sit-in in Congress demanding gun control legislation O’Rourke not only participated but also live-streamed the event on Periscope.

But even in the once-unassailable Republican stronghold of Texas, the political centre of gravity appears to be shifting. O’Rourke has proved himself an extraordinarily effective fundraiser. He has raised a staggering $23.33 million so far from small individual campaign donations averaging $33 while refusing money from corporate PACs. That’s almost exactly the same amount raised by Cruz, a famous incumbent with deep-pocketed corporate supporters.

Moreover, in the second quarter of 2018 O’Rourke raised an astonishing $10.4m, making him the second-highest fundraiser currently running for Senate, after former Florida governor Rick Scott, who raised $10.7m in the same period. Cruz reportedly raised only $4m in this time.

The publicity that followed such eye-popping fundraising numbers made O’Rourke a target of right-wing media. Fox News focused on O’Rourke’s defence of the black athletes who have been kneeling during the national anthem in political protest. “Cruz challenger Beto O'Rourke dinged for saying ‘nothing more American’ than kneeling during anthem,” the headline blared.

Of course, it is Republican strategists and Fox News themselves doing the “dinging”. O’Rourke’s full statement makes clear that he understands that the athletes, led by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, are protesting police brutality and racial injustice and not the anthem or the flag itself, as right-wing publications and politicians including President Trump have suggested.

Recent elections, including special elections in Pennsylvania and Alabama, have shown large swings from Republican to Democrat, leading many on the left to predict a “blue wave” in November’s midterm, caused by the revitalization of left-wing activism in reaction to the Trump presidency.

In the Alabama special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, the Democrat Doug Jones beat the Republican Roy Moore, though only after Moore attracted enormous press attention when his history of alleged child sexual assault became headline news. The special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, where Democrat Conor Lamb beat Republican Rick Saccone in a district Trump won in 2016 by 20 points, might be a more reliable sign of a coming anti-Trump backlash.

But a midterm general election is different from a special election. Special elections tend to generate much higher media interest, which can boost turnout. Midterm general elections are a different beast, and Cruz is an incumbent with the advantage of name-recognition running against an almost-completely unknown outsider.

On the other hand, Texas might no longer be so reliably Republican. In 2013, I wrote for this magazine about how demographic changes in the state might turn it from deep red to purple in the coming years as the Latinx population grows:

In the age group 65 and over, there are many more Anglos – a Southern slang term for non-Hispanic whites – than Hispanics: 67.6 per cent to 20.5. But as age descends, the ratios switch over. In the 35-to-39 age group they are about equal and by the time you get to the under-fives there are considerably more Hispanics than Anglos – 50.6 per cent to 31.7 per cent. In total, Hispanics account for 48.3 per cent of the under-18s in the state and that figure is rising. By the time the current cohort of children is of voting age, Hispanics will be the majority in Texas.

That analysis is five years old, which means five years of that cohort have now entered voting age. Will they be energised enough by the Trump age to swing the Senate race in favour of the Democrats? We will find out in November. In the meantime, this race has certainly become close enough to make Ted Cruz sweat.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.