SMITHVILLE — As Ted Cruz took questions at a Republican women’s event here Saturday evening, Bastrop retiree Ronnie Ann Burt wanted to know: Should she really trust the growing barrage of chatter online that the senator’s re-election bid is in peril?
Cruz’s response: Believe it.
“It’s clear we have a real and contested race where the margin is far too close for comfort,” said Cruz, who’s facing a vigorous, massively funded challenge from U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso.
Cruz’s stop in this small Central Texas town was part of a return to the campaign trail Saturday in which the incumbent cranked up his long-building warnings that Democratic enthusiasm in the era of President Donald Trump should not be discounted, even in a state as red as Texas.
The timing couldn’t have been more fitting: A trio of polls came out this week showing Cruz’s race tightening and a national political forecaster shifted the contest in O’Rourke’s favor. Meanwhile, Cruz launched his first TV ads Friday, including three targeting O'Rourke, and the challenger moved quickly to turn them into a fundraising boon for him.
Appearing Saturday afternoon at the conservative Resurgent Gathering in Austin, Cruz delivered a nearly 10-minute assessment of the uncertain political landscape he faces in November.
“The biggest challenge I have in this race … is complacency,” Cruz said. “People say all the time, ‘Oh, come on, it’s a Texas re-elect. How could you possibly lose?’ Well, in an ordinary cycle, that might be true. But this is not an ordinary cycle. The far left is filled with anger and rage and we underestimate that anger at our peril.”
Cruz added that there is reason to be skeptical of the polls — his campaign has criticized their methodologies — but the trendline “ought to be a cause for concern for everyone.”
After the Resurgent conference, Cruz headed to a meeting with supporters and home school families in east Austin, where he continued to press the argument that the GOP base cannot take November for granted. Cruz said Travis County was the "base of the support" for O'Rourke but other "bright red" counties like Denton, Tarrant and Collin need to turn out hard as a counterweight.
"There are a lot of good, strong conservatives [in Travis County] too — you're outnumbered, but it does make you sturdier when you're withstanding criticism and abuse," Cruz said. "What [Democrats] are doing is to find every liberal in the state of Texas and get them energized and get them to show up."
Cruz’s remarks at events Saturday came a day after Gov. Greg Abbott offered a more reassuring forecast for November while addressing the Resurgent conference. He dismissed the idea of a “blue wave” in November as media hype that “sells papers” and reminded the audience that he ended up defeating his much-ballyhooed Democratic opponent, Wendy Davis, by over 20 points in 2014.
“Texas is going to stay red,” said Abbott, whose Democratic opponent, Lupe Valdez, has not caught traction in the way O'Rourke has against Cruz.
Cruz did not sound as sure as Abbott on Saturday — and his supporters appeared to get the message.
“I think what Sen. Cruz said is true: The Democrats are unhappy that they lost [the 2016 presidential election] because they never anticipated it, and so they’re coming out in force, and I see it in my own county,” said Jeanne Raley, vice president of the Lost Pines Republican Women group that hosted Cruz in Smithville. “That just means we have to work harder.”
“Complacency will kill any of us,” she added.
O’Rourke spent Saturday in the border city of Del Rio, the latest stop on his 34-day tour of the state during the August congressional recess. Holding an evening town hall there, O’Rourke geared up supporters for a final three months of the race with momentum on their side.
“They say there are two points that separate us, the campaign we’re running and Ted Cruz — two points is all we’re down right now,” O’Rourke said. “There are 94 days to go in this election. We can totally win this, but it is 100 percent on us."
O’Rourke’s campaign continued to show momentum Saturday afternoon, when it said it had raised more than $500,000 over the last 24 hours in response to Cruz’s commercials. The campaign has set a goal of topping $1 million by the end of the weekend.
Cruz got a taste of the opposition several minutes into his appearance at the Resurgent Gathering, when a protester interrupted with a sign reading, “Russian Bootlicker,” called Cruz a coward and used an expletive to denounce the crowd before breaking out in chants of “Beto!” Speaking afterward, Cruz wasted little time turning the incident into a rallying point for the fall.
“That anger, by the way, is dangerous,” Cruz said. “Every one of us needs to be taking this November election deadly serious.”
Sydney Greene contributed to this report.