WASHINGTON — A weird and wild U.S. Senate race could be shaping up in the state of Texas next year.
Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a conservative stalwart who came in second in last year's raucous fight for the Republican presidential nomination, is poised to face off against Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a former punk rocker from El Paso.
But it's the two men's worlds-apart approaches to campaign finance that could be what sets their race apart nationally and play a role in whether key national Republican and Democratic organizations choose to invest in the race next year.
U.S. Senate races are typically expensive beasts that fit into a complicated, multi-state strategy run out of Washington. Typically, a candidate in a competitive Senate race is expected to raise at least a million dollars a quarter. Earlier this month, both O'Rourke and Cruz reported raising nearly identical amounts, about $1.7 million apiece, with Cruz raising an additional approximate $300,000 through a joint committee and a leadership PAC.
In the context of one of the most expensive media markets in the country, that’s small change. Yet that O'Rourke can keep up with the incumbent shows an early enthusiasm for him that Democrats hope to see snowball in the coming months.
Aside from a candidate's direct fundraising, U.S. Senate candidates usually hope to draw support from three other groups. First, there’s the Senate's campaign arms, known as the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which may book millions in television advertising behind candidate if they view such efforts as worth the investment.
Then there’s political action committees and, added to the mix in recent years, an entire network of Super PACs that have no limit on donations and are often bankrolled by one or a few super-rich donors.
O’Rourke has made campaign finance reform a central part of his platform. He has vowed to not take any money from PACs, prompting derision from some campaign veterans who argue he's giving up any serious chance of defeating Cruz, who proved in his 2016 presidential run to be a fundraising juggernaut.
But in an interview with The Texas Tribune, O'Rourke took his hard-line approach to campaign finance reform a step further, insisting that he hopes no millionaires or billionaires form an unaffiliated super PAC to sway the race for him.
“I’ll say that right now to anyone watching or listening: I don’t want super PACs involved." he said. "I don’t want their help.”
“No candidates can coordinate [with super PACs], but they can raise money, but I will make a commitment to you right now that I won’t be a part of supporting, helping, fundraising, or a tacit endorsement of super PACs or people who try to work in an unaccountable way outside of the political process.”
That's likely to set a sharp contrast from Cruz, who rose to power, in part, with support of super PACs and is expected to draw strong support from such groups next year. Groups like the Club for Growth Action super PAC spent big on his long-shot 2012 race for a U.S. Senate seat that catapulted him onto the national stage.
During his 2016 presidential run, a highly organized super PAC apparatus backed him, raising nearly $54 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
While it's not clear national Democrats or other groups will bolster O'Rourke's bid, Cruz is framing the race to supporters as if such involvement is inevitable.
"The Democrats want to win this seat so they can make Chuck Schumer majority leader," Cruz said at Republican conference Friday in Dallas, referring to the Democrats’ leader in the Senate.
Speaking with the Tribune after the speech, Cruz pointed to the recent fundraising success of some Democratic candidates in Texas.
“The hard left is angry, and they’re energized,” Cruz said. “I think that underscores the need for Republicans to take seriously the electoral challenges.”
Is this a race?
Despite the enthusiasm around O'Rourke's bid, a Texas Democrat hasn't won statewide since 1994 and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and many like-minded national groups remain unlikely to invest in it. So is this even a race?
“A year out from an election, there is no need to declare an election over,” said Nathan Gonzales, the nonpartisan analyst with Inside Elections.
“2016 has taught us to leave our mind open to possibilities, but just looking at the map, there are arguably better and cheaper Democratic opportunities than Texas.”
Gonzales currently classifies Texas as “solid Republican” – his strongest rating in favor of the GOP.
Most outside observers agree this is not a competitive race. Plenty of national Democratic operatives and strategists say as much. Most Republicans underscore that “no” with emphasis: Heading into 2018, GOP operatives say they may be facing political problems in multiple states, but Texas ain’t one of them.
But some Democrats are watching O’Rourke and wondering: What if it is a race?
It's fair to say former state Sen. Wendy Davis knows the usual Texas donors, going back to her 2014 race against now-Gov. Greg Abbott. She recently saw signs at an Austin fundraiser that O'Rourke's campaign could fare better than her 20-point loss.
“I didn’t recognize a lot of people in there,” she said. “To me, that was a really good sign that people are stepping up."
Yet even if O'Rourke can hold his own against Cruz in terms of fundraising, Democrats have not fielded a serious candidate for governor, and Abbott has tens of millions of dollars to support his re-election bid.
And Cruz is a former presidential candidate who raised more than $90 million in $2,700 or smaller increments. While he surely stumbled among his party's base last year when he refused to endorse Donald Trump for president at the Republican National Convention, he’s made strides since then to consolidate support. In a change of pace from past campaigns, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a fellow Texan and the second-ranking Republican in the chamber, endorsed Cruz for re-election last month.
For now, Cruz only has a handful of mostly unknown Republicans either running or threatening to challenge him, including North Richland Hills-based Christian television executive Bruce Jacobson.
Chris Wilson, a Cruz operative who specializes in data analytics, argued against a major source of so much Democratic optimism – Trump’s win in Texas by a slimmer-than-historically-normal nine points.
“The difference between 2016 and 2018 is that there was not a statewide Republican campaign effort made in 2016 by Donald Trump or anyone else.”
A former Trump White House official, Steve Bannon, has promised to back a primary challenge against every Republican in the Senate except for Cruz. That's created a volatile atmosphere in Washington. Democrats say they see strong indications that the GOP’s civil war and anti-Trump sentiment could put normally safe red states into play.
That could, actually, hurt any chance of O’Rourke earning unsolicited outside help.
This is the hardest map for Senate Democrats in recent memory. Florida, in particular, is expected to develop into an obscenely expensive battle to protect Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Democrats are already telegraphing that if they invest money in trying to flip Republican Senate seats, their key targets will be in Arizona and Nevada – far less expensive states than Texas.
O’Rourke, for his part, shrugs off the possibility of institutional Democratic support from Washington.
“I don’t know that there’s anything the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee can bring to this that the people of Texas can’t bring to this,” he said.
Gonzales, the political analyst, is watching the Texas race, but skeptically. What would it take for him to soften that “solid Republican” rating?
“An abundance of survey data that Democrats have a real opportunity,” Gonzalez said. “The senator can’t take the race for granted. O’Rourke’s going to run a credible campaign, but that doesn’t mean he’s on the cusp of victory.”
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.
Read related Tribune coverage: