By Hastings Wyman –
Democratic US Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso last week became the first announced challenger to US Sen. Ted Cruz (R) in next year’s election. A bit of a maverick, O’Rourke is likely to spark some interest in what could otherwise be a predictable campaign.
Despite an at-times sketchy past – a DUI conviction as well as one for breaking-and-entering in the 1990s – O’Rourke, 44, has cut his political teeth on long-shot but successful challenges to incumbents, first to win election to the El Paso city council, then in 2012 a primary victory over US Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D). But he also enjoys a quirky background as a punk-rocker and later as a tech entrepreneur, founding a firm which his wife now runs. He has written a book advocating the legalization of marijuana and has advocated ending the “War on Drugs.” He recently drove from San Antonio to Washington with Republican US Rep. Will Hurd, attracting considerable TV coverage along the way.
Harvey Kronberg of the Houston-based Quorum Report says that O’Rourke “is an intriguing character who is starting far enough in advance to gain some momentum and to build an organization.” He notes, however, that O’Rourke would need major money to make an impact.
O’Rourke had $399,000 in his kitty in his 4th Quarter financial report, a mere fraction of what he would need to mount a significant campaign. But the Dallas Morning News reports that O’Rourke’s father-in-law, Bill Sanders, is a billionaire (real estate).
Despite his maverick credentials, O’Rourke’s voting record is typical for a liberal Democrat, with favorable ratings from liberal groups and negative ones from conservatives. The Senate Conservatives Fund, headed by Virginia ex-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, has already sent out a fundraising appeal on Cruz’s behalf, attacking O’Rourke as “a darling of the left” and a “gun-grabbing, open-borders liberal.”
O’Rourke may not have the Democratic Primary to himself next year. US Rep. Joaquin Castro, 42, from San Antonio, is often mentioned as a potential challenger to Cruz. Were he to run, he would be favored – but perhaps not a lead-pipe cinch – in the primary over O’Rourke. Castro had $127,000 on hand, but could probably count on substantial contributions from his state and national Democratic allies. (Cruz had some $4,208,000.)
There has been talk of Cruz attracting a primary opponent, talk that centered in large part on Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump at the GOP convention, although he did come on board later. University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray casts doubt on a primary battle for Cruz. “The Senator’s laid pretty low with regard to the president recently,” he says, adding that Trump “has no organized structure” in Texas that could recruit a candidate and organize a campaign. Moreover, the anti-Cruz “talk has died down” among Trump folks,
Craig Murphy, who heads Murphy Nasica, the largest political consulting firm in Texas, says of a potential primary challenge to Cruz, “You hear some rumblings, but not lately, not anything serious. Incumbents rarely lose in Texas. A challenger would need to raise millions and millions, would need to be a millionaire.” As for last year’s tension between Cruz and Donald Trump, “It will be ancient history” by 2018.
There has also been talk of Matthew Dowd running as an independent. Dowd is a political consultant who was chief strategist for George W. Bush in his 2004 campaign. He is also a commentator for ABC News and for Bloomberg. Murray says that Dowd “has family wealth, but the talk hasn’t been very public lately.” If he does run, it would be “as sort of centrist, George Bush Republican,” which could offer moderate Republicans an alternative path to oppose staunchly conservative Cruz without having to vote Democratic.
Says Kronberg, “Texas is still a Republican state, but the immigrant population is going Democratic.” Exit polling showed that 34% of Texas Hispanics voted for Trump (some Latino analysts dispute) that number), compared with George W. Bush garnering nearly 50%. Kronberg says not just Latinos, but also Asians are moving toward the Democrats. “Donald Trump is [the Democrats’] biggest ally in turning out the Latino vote … ICE roundups, etc., are influencing immigrant voters.”
Murray concludes, “Cruz is not a walk-in, but he’s a pretty strong favorite to be returned.” Stay tuned.