SUGAR LAND — Texas Republicans, confronting long-building Democratic enthusiasm, are pressing to make up the deficit as early voting begins for the November elections — and President Donald Trump heads to the state Monday.
A slew of surrogates descended this weekend on the Houston area — historically a battleground — to boost U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in his tough re-election campaign and galvanize party faithful for down-ballot candidates. Democrats, meanwhile, prepared to turn out in force for a day many have been looking forward to since Nov. 9, 2016, with Cruz’s Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, carrying most of their hopes at the statewide level.
Cruz’s race against the El Paso congressman was the main attraction over the weekend, and the senator basked in two rowdy crowds Saturday, first in Houston and then in Beaumont, as he campaigned with Fox News host Sean Hannity and Rick Perry, the U.S. energy secretary and former Texas governor.
“What have they been writing about — a blue wave?” Cruz asked in Beaumont, where well over a thousand people filled an airport hangar. “I think it’s more like wave bye-bye to the blue.”
O’Rourke continued to draw massive crowds, packing a hotel ballroom Sunday evening in Sugar Land, his last campaign event before the start of early voting. The audience got an energetic reminder when O’Rourke brought onstage Rhonda Hart, an activist whose daughter was killed in the Santa Fe High School shooting earlier this year.
“Less than 12 hours — I can tell you I have never been more freaking excited to vote for this guy," she said, drawing the longest cheers of the evening.
The Houston-area blitz unfolded ahead of what Republicans believe will be their biggest enthusiasm booster yet: Trump's visit to the city on Monday to rally for Cruz, Trump’s former bitter rival in the 2016 presidential race. Trump’s campaign announced Sunday afternoon that the demand for tickets was so high — over 100,000 requests online — that it was adding a “Big Texas Tailgater” before the rally.
O’Rourke shrugged off the rally’s effect on the race while speaking with reporters before taking the stage in Sugar Land.
“I don’t know that Texans care too much one way or another what someone from outside of Texas thinks,” O’Rourke said. “This is a decision that will be decided by and for the people of Texas, and I feel really confident in that.”
O’Rourke will also be in Houston on Monday, making several stops throughout the area to lead groups of supporters to the polls. O’Rourke said he had planned to be in the area before Trump’s rally was announced and that it was “just a happy coincidence.”
GOP alarm about Cruz’s race has somewhat eased in recent weeks as polls have shown him expanding his lead to the high single digits. But Republicans remain concerned that a closer-than-usual outcome at the top of the ticket could spell danger down ballot and see little room for complacency — which Cruz has long billed as his No. 1 challenge.
On the sidelines of Cruz’s events over the weekend, Republican voters and officials pointed to the battle over Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court as a turning point in their push to catch up to Democratic enthusiasm.
“Honestly, the Kavanaugh hearings, I think, really got things started,” said state Sen. Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway, who chairs the Texas GOP’s Victory 2018 effort. “I think it fired up the base and it fired up those more independents and some of those other folks who said, ‘You know what? The Democratic Party’s not for me. I’m voting Republican.’”
Kavanaugh was a reliable applause line for Republicans over the weekend, but in a sign of how much political oxygen the Senate race has consumed, O’Rourke appeared to be even more energizing as Cruz and his surrogates pummeled the congressman on the stump. Hannity ridiculed O’Rourke for his 1998 drunk-driving arrest, Perry blasted away at O’Rourke for his “Hispanic nickname” and Gov. Greg Abbott denounced O’Rourke as “hostile to Texas values” during an appearance Sunday afternoon in Houston with Cruz and endangered U.S. Rep. John Culberson.
Cruz himself found new territory to mock O’Rourke over: the thousands of Hondurans fleeing their home country in a caravan that arrived at the Mexico-Guatemala border over the weekend.
"There's a caravan right now marching north,” Cruz said Saturday in Houston. “I'm just waiting to see Beto O'Rourke come down and start leading the caravan.”
To put a finer point on how omnipresent the Senate race was, a propeller plane circled the city over the weekend with a banner featuring a cross-out sign over “Beto” followed by “BECAUSE SOCIALISM SUX!”
The political focus on the Houston area was welcome news for Democrats like Sri Preston Kulkarni, who is mounting a serious challenge to U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, in a solidly red district that few would have thought of as competitive two years ago.
“All these people coming in — Trump coming in — what does that do?” Kulkarni said in an interview after O’Rourke’s stop in Sugar Land. “That increases attention right here. There’s more attention. There’s more awareness. When more people come out to vote, we win — point blank.”