Cruz vs. O’Rourke: Why this campaign?

By Christopher Hill –

Ten months ago, I told a colleague to take note of the Texas senate campaign between Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Beto O’Rourke. My friend wanted to know why, as there hasn’t been a Democratic senator in Texas since Bob Kruegar – he was appointed to continue Lloyd Bentsen’s term in 1993 – two and a half decades ago.

For me the reason was very simple: At nearly every turn, the two candidates were in clear opposition to each other, beyond their R and D designations.

1. Cruz is coming off his presidential bid ultimately unsuccessful, but in a campaign season that left many established Republicans by the roadside, Cruz remained until the end. He is a national political figure. O’Rourke is a relative unknown on the national landscape having had his first federal election in 2012.

2. Cruz came into the senate as a firebrand counter to President Obama. Now, a few years later, he is a congressional centerpiece of the evolving Republican platform. As the party has drifted to the right, he has become an establishment figure. O’Rourke, as an unknown and a late entrant to politics, defaults to outsider status. With that comes a curiosity from those who feel disenfranchised on both sides of the aisle.

3. Even the type of race they run would become polar opposites of each other. As the unknown, O’Rourke needed to establish a name ID campaign, a long-form strategy that requires time and a few critical and unique differentiators. Taken out of the Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders’ playbook, these campaigns start early and run long. The goal is to get people to know you and your team and to showcase your election as a movement. In contrast, as a national political figure, Cruz has no difficulty with people not knowing who he is. If he wants an appearance on national television, his team simply makes a few phone calls. His campaign will sit silently until the final three months of the campaign, then release an avalanche of pro-Cruz material alongside anti-O’Rourke information.

At nearly every turn, these two are diametrically opposed, giving us a unique and fascinating race to examine.

Can O’Rourke create a movement? Cruz is a known commodity who will not give much attention to the so-called independents. Can O’Rourke take advantage of this and reach disenchanted voters at both ends of the dial?

Can Cruz avoid the alleged “Blue Wave?” It should be noted that in the Texas primaries, more Republicans voted than ever before (1.5 million Republican votes compared to slightly over 1 million for Democrats). What may be more interesting to see is whether there is any lasting Republican distaste for Cruz’s late embrace of President Trump.

Cruz is known as a bruising and ruthless campaigner. Are there October surprises in store for the O’Rourke campaign?

As the Cruz campaign overwhelms the airwaves, can the O’Rourke campaign match its volume and frequency? Will people respond or just hear noise?

The O’Rourke campaign has made a point of not accepting any money from political action committees. As the campaign tightens, will they keep that stand or find a few shortcuts to help their efforts?

All of these questions and many more make this one of the most fascinating campaigns to examine. We spoke to each candidate and tried to detach from the talking points to get to some of these entrancing campaign morsels. In the absence of a presidential campaign, the next tier is usually in the spotlight. In Texas politics, that senatorial spotlight is often heavily favored for Republicans. The polling on this race finds a lingering advantage to the Republicans, but the polls also show a narrowing in the race.

Politically, 2018 is shaping up to be the election no one is really sure about. In fact, the only thing assured is that on the morning of November 7th one of these strategies will win, and for the other, the finger-pointing will begin.   

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz’s 2012 election to the Senate was labeled by The Washington Post as “the biggest upset of 2012 . . . a true grassroots victory against very long odds.” In the six years since, Cruz has gone from being Texas-known to being a national political figure and Republican Party leader. The direct-to-the-point, hardcore constitutionalist rode the Tea Party movement and became a consistent voice for the right. Does he feel he is now an establishment Republican?

“Not remotely. When I ran for Senate in 2012, no one in the state thought we had a prayer. Virtually the entire political establishment was against us,” said Cruz. “We won because a grassroots army came together. That grassroots army remains the people to whom I’m accountable.”

That momentum helped drive Cruz to run for president. As the gaggle of potentials dwindled to a handful, he was there in the final stages of the primary. In his way was the challenger no one saw coming, the man who became president – Donald Trump. In Washington, a new normal has evolved.

“We live in remarkable times,” shared Cruz. “Washington is crazy. The approach that I have tried to take is to ignore the political circus. Ignore the nonstop avalanche of personal attacks and anger and vitriol that we see across the political spectrum, and instead, simply focus on substance.”

That focus, Cruz maintained, has enabled Congress to pass the “biggest tax cut of a generation,” and his work with the president has, in his eyes, ended “job-killing regulations” across the various government departments.

The Issues

Cruz campaigning across the state.

Cruz’s priority is building on that momentum and the impetus in Texas to create more jobs and to lower taxes in a decreased regulatory environment. It is this combination that he believes will continue to drive job growth, higher wages and more opportunities.

The distinctions between Representative O’Rourke and Senator Cruz are at times veiled, while at other times quite stark. Cruz is keen to focus on legislative productivity. While they both entered the Congress at the same time (2012), in that time O’Rourke has had only one piece of legislation adopted in his congressional career: the renaming of a courthouse. In contrast, as a powerful senator, Cruz has been able to win major legislative victories, including billions of dollars for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, as well as multiple space-based bills signed by Presidents Obama and Trump.

One item he has not been able to get on the docket is term limits. Earlier this year, Cruz, along with Representative DeSantis, sponsored an attempt to establish a constitutional amendment requiring term limits in Congress – two terms for the Senate and three terms for the House of Representatives. Risk-aversion in politics is where he sees the difficulty in getting the legislation to the president’s desk.

“There are members of Congress terrified to lose their next election,” said Cruz.  “As a result, for any difficult challenge facing the country, they are afraid to take the big steps, the bold solutions that we need to address the real challenges in our country. I continue to press Republican leadership on bringing up a vote on term limits. It’s the right thing to do.”

In a political season that has seen a large number of Republicans decide not to run for reelection, we wondered if that had crossed Cruz’s mind. It had not.  But what was maybe more intriguing was the question of whether if President Trump gets an additional opportunity to name another Supreme Court justice, he would be an interested nominee. Cruz’s response was this: “I have spent most of my professional life defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as arguing cases for the Supreme Court. A federal judge doesn’t engage in political or policy fights. If I was one, that is what I would do. But I don’t want to stay out of political or policy fights.”

Immigration is another of those fights that will continue to propagate. Cruz understands the importance of immigration, or more importantly, legal immigration. As the son of a legal immigrant, he knows the worth and the exceptionalism that diversity can bring. However, to him, that diversity has but one path: “Legal good. Illegal bad.” His priority is to secure the border, while at the same time celebrate and welcome the immigrants who follow the rules. Cruz sees a clear distinction between his views and O’Rourke’s. Those differences, he believes, are the reason the National Border Control Council, the union representing border agents, has endorsed him in his reelection effort.

Cruz sees the economic success of the past few years as promises kept. As someone who relishes the battles ahead, he views those policy discussions as vital to keeping up the momentum. “If you elect me, I will fight day and night for lower taxes, lower regulations, more jobs and more opportunities,” said Cruz. “I will fight to secure the border and to defend the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I believe I have honored that promise each and every day.”

Beto O’Rourke

By Christopher Hill

On March 31, 2017, a little-known representative named Beto O’Rourke announced his candidacy for the Senate. A collective shrug was the response. After all, he was facing one of the strongest Republican senators in Congress. Senator Ted Cruz had just completed a national campaign for president, which further cemented his transition from a Texas senator to a national political statesman and senator. Whereas Cruz has tremendous financial resources, O’Rourke was stating that he was not going to accept any monies from political action committees (PACs). This wasn’t even David vs. Goliath, because it seemed this David had no stones.

Hands-On Strategy

What O’Rourke did have was time. Cruz was in the Senate and was not concerned about a challenger at this point. He would campaign when he needed to, which wasn’t then. O’Rourke started driving across Texas. Over the next year and a half, he visited every county in Texas, including some counties that hadn’t voted for a Democrat in decades, if ever. It didn’t matter. What he didn’t have in finances and name recognition, he made up for with energy, enthusiasm and a willingness to talk to everyone — friend and foe alike.

“We don’t have a bunch of consultants, don’t have a pollster,” said O’Rourke. Instead, his campaign is about the human-to-human connection, a long-term strategy of creating a relationship with the electorate. By not accepting PAC money, candidates make their days harder on themselves, but if they are able to create a message that resonates, the money comes in from individual donors. This creates an army of passionate voters. The 2008 Obama campaign redefined this strategy for our digital world. Years later, Senator Bernie Sanders marched to a similar beat in his presidential run. Now, Representative Beto O’Rourke is evoking the same tactic, and it has been working. Quarter after quarter has seen his campaign out-fundraise the Cruz campaign. Their emails spoke to the oncoming doom of the Cruz campaign’s “big spend,” but their small dollar victories keep piling up.

Beto has visited every
county in Texas on the campaign trail.

“It’s about getting our democracy back,” said O’Rourke.  “It’s the most precarious it has ever been. It is vital that we govern with the people, not corporations or special interests.”

This fall there has been a lot of talk about a Democratic Party wave that will benefit the more progressive Democrats. O’Rourke appears to be more of a moderate than a progressive, but he’s not a fan of labels. “It’s hard for me to know where I am on the partisan spectrum. To me it is less and less about the party and more about issues. We are interested in what we are going to do – not about what divides us.”

The Issues

And what are the issues that O’Rourke wants to address as Senator? Health care is at the top of the list. “We want people to live to their full potential. People have to be well enough to be able to do this. Texas is the least insured state in the nation. If pre-existing conditions goes away, people will be at risk, and from a business perspective, we will lose quality people that will simply go to other states,” said O’Rourke.

For the campaign, the push is for “Medicare for All,” an expansion of the existing Medicare program for all Americans. “Medicare has a two percent cost overhead compared to the 16 to 17 percent overhead for private insurance,” said O’Rourke.  “It can provide good care and good choice. It’s not perfect, but it is a financially conservative path to pay there instead of paying for services in emergency rooms. We were the state that took the lead in Medicare, and we need to do so again.”

Not surprising in a state that boasts one of the strongest economies, jobs is an issue of high significance. Supporting small businesses means ensuring their access to capital so they can expand and to good schools so they can pull employees from an educated workforce.

As a fourth-generation Irish American, O’Rourke sees the diversity inherent in the state as a strength, and he aims to see realistic immigration reforms that provide the high-skill jobs, as well as the jobs no one wants to do, to grow the economy and maximize the future of Texas. He sees Texas as the “destination of choice for the talent of this planet.”

O’Rourke began his mission to little fanfare. Years and months later, the race to unseat a national political figure has evolved from novelty to real threat. What was truly refreshing was that he didn’t pretend to know every path. He simply wants to find the best path. This was clear when we discussed health care. When I reminded him that President Trump stated that he was going to put together something better than the Affordable Care Act, instead of taking a shot at that ethereal policy or blasting the commander in chief, O’Rourke simply said, “Who can be against better?” Of course, he followed that up with a need to see details, but the fact that he was willing to listen in an era of partisanship spoke volumes about the man.    

O’Rourke has been running across the state to every county, festival and fair. The outcome in a year that may defy traditional outcomes is unclear. To the O’Rourke campaign, though, “What we know is what we believe, and what we do is show up everywhere for everyone – every day.”