KATY — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke kicked off their post-Labor Day campaigns Saturday in Harris County, rallying supporters for the two-month home stretch of their race in the state’s biggest battleground county.
Cruz made two boisterous stops in the Republican-friendly suburbs of Houston, while O’Rourke, an El Paso congressman, staged a massive rally in the city. The events were the first in Texas by Cruz and O’Rourke since Labor Day, the traditional ramp-up time ahead of the November elections.
“Whatever you’re doing do, please do more of it,” O’Rourke told supporters packed in to the Houston Stampede Event Center, a 12-mile drive from where Cruz first campaigned Saturday in the area. “Not a single one of us wants to wake up with anything other than a hangover from celebrating a victory on the 7th of November."
Harris County — home to the state's most populous city, Houston — has long been regarded as a battleground in Texas politics, though it swung solidly Democratic in the 2016 presidential election, when Hillary Clinton routed Donald Trump there by 12 points. The county previously delivered much closer margins in statewide elections, including Cruz's 2-point win there over Democratic opponent Paul Sadler in 2012.
“Harris County is a battleground,” Cruz told reporters after an early afternoon stop at a barbecue restaurant in Humble, noting he grew up in Houston and currently calls it home. “I love campaigning throughout the state of Texas, but campaigning in Houston is always special.”
As for the county’s decisively blue shift in 2016, Cruz said it was “clearly a warning sign.”
In Humble, Cruz offered a fitting message for Harris County, spending at least the first 10 minutes of his speech recognizing the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey and the area's resilience in the year since the storm battered it. Texans "took a hard hit," Cruz said, "and yet Texans have come back."
O’Rourke also touched on the Harvey recovery at his event, recalling a recent visit to neighborhoods struggling to bounce back from the hurricane a year later. He told supporters that “people who have worked their lifetimes to build those homes or to pay the note on the mortgage, who are unable to rebuild right now and are at wits’ end, are selling for pennies on the dollar.”
For Cruz, the return to the campaign trail capped a week of confirmation hearings in the Senate for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Throughout the day, Cruz riffed on what he described as a circus-like atmosphere created by Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, singling out New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker's insistence that he was having a "Spartacus moment" with his push to release confidential Kavanaugh documents — even if it meant being expelled from the Senate.
Cruz also got his turn in the spotlight questioning Kavanaugh, and his supporters seemed well aware. “You kicked ass!” one yelled out as Cruz was discussing the hearings.
"Thanks for that, by the way," Cruz replied before deadpanning, "Listen, I was no Spartacus."
(Coincidentally, Booker was also in Houston on Saturday, campaigning for congressional candidate Lizzie Fletcher. He was set to travel to Austin in the evening to headline a state party dinner.)
Throughout the day, Cruz reprised all his usual hits on O’Rourke, portraying him as too liberal for Texas, while pressing his long-running warnings about Democratic enthusiasm in the age of Trump. In Humble, Cruz told supporters that the Democratic Party “is angry, is unified and is trying to burn down the White House.” In Katy, Cruz's comments about the opposition took a quirkier turn as he said Democrats want "us to be just like California — right down to tofu and silicone and dyed hair."
At his rally, O'Rourke continued keeping his talk of Cruz to a minimum but alluded to the attacks on him — on TV and otherwise — that have kicked into high gear since Labor Day. Recounting the latest fundraising numbers in the race, O'Rourke said Cruz's money has already been "deployed in the most cynical fashion, seeking to scare you about me, to make us afraid of the future."
O'Rourke has spent a not insignificant amount of time in Harris County as he has crisscrossed the state for the better part of two years. For example, on his recent 34-day road trip across Texas, he held seven events in Houston and four more in other cities within Harris County or touching it.
Cruz's stops Saturday in Harris County held some sentimental value. His second event brought him to Faith West Academy in Katy, where he went for some of high school and played on the basketball team. But he spent a lot of time on the bench, he noted, and took glee in returning to the school as a U.S. senator, finally greeted by a cheering crowd in the gymnasium.
In Humble, Cruz was in the company of the Kingwood TEA Party, among the groups that helped fuel his underdog 2012 campaign. Before Cruz spoke, the husband-and-wife duo that co-founded the group, Jim and Robin Lennon, took turns recalling Cruz’s transition from Trump's bitter rival in the 2016 presidential primary to one of the president's closest allies in the Senate.
"It was a bruising primary," Jim Lennon said, "and [Cruz] was insulted — his family was insulted — but he forgave for the good of country and started working closely with the president for the good of the country."