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Analysis: Texas hasn’t seen a Senate underdog like Beto O’Rourke since 2012, when Ted Cruz ran

The deck is stacked. Texas is a Republican state. Ted Cruz is an incumbent U.S. senator seeking re-election. Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat, has never run statewide. But the underdog is raising more money. That's news, right?

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso (left), and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. 

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The fight promoters in politics — the media, in other words — are delighted that El Paso U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke raised enough money in the past three months to command U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s attention.

It’s the difference, at least for a moment, between a real contest and the Bambi vs. Godzilla races that have marked statewide general elections in Texas for the last umpteen years.

O’Rourke raised $6.7 million from more than 141,000 people during the last three months, according to his campaign. The official report to the Federal Election Commission will land in a few days.

Without an event, an incident or a dynasty to make a candidate famous — Wendy Davis’ filibuster, for instance, or George P. Bush’s last name — there’s only one reliable way to build a public identity: months of intense campaigning and advertising. It costs money to build a brand name. O’Rourke is raising money rapidly enough to raise eyebrows.

It doesn’t mean he’s going to beat Cruz. Rather, it’s a sign that he’ll have the financial strength to make voters aware that there’s an alternative to the incumbent — that voters will have another name in their head when they go to the polls. That’s not enough to win, as people like Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney can attest. But it’s impossible to win otherwise unless the incumbent has made a very public mess of things.

Cruz hasn’t done that. In a February University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 73 percent of Democrats said they had unfavorable opinions of Cruz, but 72 percent of Republicans had favorable views of him. At the same time, 58 percent of the voters surveyed had no opinion at all of O’Rourke — a clear sign that the challenger has to make himself known (and a signal to Cruz that O’Rourke is more susceptible to negative advertising than a better-known figure would be).

Cruz has helped, however, by building a large profile going back to his upset Senate win in 2012 followed by his attention-grabbing abilities in the Senate — Dr. Seuss! — and in his unsuccessful run for president in 2016.

The latter, in particular, put the state’s junior senator on the public radar. He’s been on Republican primary ballots all over the country now, arguably a plus for his money-raising prospects now and for other national campaigns in the future. It also put him on the Democratic radar. He’s made deeper impressions with Texas voters than U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who was first elected in 2002 and is now the second-ranking Republican in that body; in that recent UT/TT Poll, more than 30 percent of voters had neither a positive nor negative impression of the senior senator, while less than 20 percent could say the same of Cruz.

Attention draws attention. O’Rourke’s fundraising headlines now and in previous reporting periods in which he outraised Cruz draw attention. Donors pay attention to fundraising totals and small contributor counts like those being brandished by the challenger.

Underdogs are big stories. Cruz, whose first election pitted him against a millionaire lieutenant governor, a Dallas mayor and a former football star, knows something about that. His opponents in 2012 complained about the attention given the upstart in their race, but the audacity of his candidacy was a good story.

People in power aren’t crazy about underdog tales, but they usually don’t have anything to worry about in the end. Incumbents start with deeper organizations, more money and more established brands. Their supporters know them, and so do their opponents. As long as they can keep the balance in their favors — that’s the part about not making big messes — they almost always win.

Still, $6.7 million from 141,000 people is a real surprise. With seven months to go before the election, it’s enough to make political people ask a question that the college basketball fans have been asking about their underdogs for the last several weeks.

What if?

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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2018 elections 2018 Texas U.S. Senate Election Beto O'Rourke Ted Cruz