Ted Cruz might lose.
Walk that around on your tongue for a bit. Chew on it a minute and see how it tastes.
The deep-red state of Texas has not sent a Democrat to the Senate in 30 years and has not seen a Democrat win statewide office since 1994, but a former city councilman from El Paso named Beto O’Rourke is looking to make some new history, and he just might do it. O’Rourke, currently the Democratic representative for the state’s 16th congressional district, has been running an aggressive, unabashedly progressive campaign against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz in all 254 Texas counties, and the margin has become razor close.
The stench of panic permeating RNC headquarters is thicker than the fog beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. No lesser light than GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has sounded the alarm about this race to his colleagues and donors. GOP Sen. John Cornyn called the O’Rourke campaign “a serious threat,” and even Rick Tyler, Cruz’s former campaign strategist, is worried. “We’re not bluffing,” said Tyler on MSNBC, “this is real, and it is a serious threat.”
How is this brazen defiance of known political gravity even possible? First and foremost, Ted Cruz is about as popular as toenail fungus. His GOP colleagues all remember with grim clarity Cruz’s grandstanding anti-ACA “Green Eggs & Ham” filibuster debacle of 2013, when he comprehensively failed to understand the moral of a children’s story on live television. The main problem congressional Republicans have with Ted Cruz is the fact that he is a shameless self-promoting carny huckster just like they are, but he is wildly obvious about it, thus blowing their cover.
Time and again, when Cruz didn’t get what he wanted out of McConnell and the leadership, he would go rattle the cage of the bomb-throwers in the House Freedom Caucus and then return, with clever gimlet eyes downcast, and say “Gee, Mitch, looks like there’s trouble with the base.” Cruz is as subtle as a car accident in his quest for self-promotion. The other Republicans know this, and they despise him for it.
In a recent closed-door meeting with donors and party officials, Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney painted a dire portrait of Cruz’s re-election chances, stating Cruz might not be “likable” enough to win. Coming from Mulvaney, himself a graduate of the Tea Party Academy Class of 2010, the judgment had to sting. Cruz dismissed the federal budget director as “some political guy in Washington,” but you have to believe Mulvaney’s comments cut to the quick.
Which is why the narrow margin in Cruz’s re-election race is so joyfully amusing. Ol’ Ted has spent the last six years driving the Republican Party up the wall, and now he needs its help to survive. Under normal circumstances, the leadership would stand back and let Cruz fend for himself. It’s Texas, after all; what could go wrong? These, however, are not normal circumstances, and the most delicious part of all this is that McConnell needs Cruz as much as Cruz needs McConnell.
Cruz’s re-election has become central to the GOP’s increasingly desperate attempts to stave off total calamity and keep their slim Senate majority intact. What looked to be a safe bet six months ago has become a klaxon scream of panic as race after race grows tighter or even out of reach, and now Republican money and support has begun pouring into Texas to try and pull Cruz’s irons out of the fire.
Donald Trump himself — who nicknamed Cruz “Lyin’ Ted” in the 2016 primaries and all but accused his father of having a hand in the assassination of JFK — has endorsed Cruz and will soon headline a rally in Texas to try and bolster the campaign.
Ah, yes, the other factor — the giant orange elephant in the room, the Donnybrook himself — is not making life any easier for the likes of Cruz and McConnell. Picture in your mind a giant craps table with the entire Republican leadership surrounding it. In pursuit of a trillion-dollar tax giveaway for their wealthy donors and a pair of Supreme Court nominees, they placed all their 2018 political chips on the red felt square marked “Trump” and flung the dice. The dice bounced here, rattled there, banged the back rail … and came up snake eyes.
Donald Trump’s latest approval ratings are down to 36 percent, and that was before he claimed the 2,975 Americans killed in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria existed only as a put-up job by Democrats to make him look bad. That was before Paul Manafort cut a deal with Robert Mueller to avoid another ruinous trial. That was before whatever he does today, and whatever he will do tomorrow.
By hitching its election wagon to Trump’s blinkered star, the GOP has fashioned itself as the last holdout of the “He’ll change” crowd, which mostly went extinct last year for lack of sustenance. He won’t change, they know it now, and they are stapled to that walking frenzy of a president all the way to the first Tuesday in November. “Ugly” doesn’t begin to explain the outlook. The Republican Party married a werewolf, and the moon is on the rise.
However, the low character of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump do not come close to explaining the success currently being enjoyed by Beto O’Rourke and candidates like him on all points on the national compass. Progressives in race after race are running as exactly who they are — progressives, with progressive platforms and policy proposals — and are finding success even in the unlikeliest of places.
Earlier this year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a teacher and activist with no political experience, defeated 10-term congressman and Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley by almost 15 points in New York’s 14th district. Ocasio-Cortez will face Republican nominee Anthony Pappas in the general election, and as Pappas is not actively campaigning, her victory is all but assured.
A similar story played out in the recent Democratic primary for the 5th district in Massachusetts, where Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley defeated another 10-term incumbent, Mike Capuano, in a historic victory. Pressley is currently running unopposed in the general election and, unless the creek rises, will be a member of the House of Representatives come January.
In Georgia, Stacey Abrams is seeking to become the first Black woman elected governor in the history of that state. She will face Trump clone Brian Kemp, who infamously claimed in a campaign ad that he owned a big truck “just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ‘em home myself,” in the general election. Polls show the race is a dead heat at 45 percent.
The other big southern-state governor’s race is in Florida, where progressive candidate Andrew Gillum will face another Trump clone, GOP Rep. Ron DeSantis, to replace Rick Scott. DeSantis made the race even more famous on the day Gillum won his primary by warning Florida voters his Black opponent would “monkey up” the economy, which inspired a flood of racist robocalls from white supremacists. The latest Florida Chamber of Commerce poll has Gillum leading DeSantis by four points.
The winds of change are blowing even here in granite-conservative New Hampshire, which since 2004 hasn’t been as reliably conservative as many previously assumed. In Concord’s Ward 8, a blue-collar neighborhood speckled with fast-food joints, long-time state representative and former city councilor Dick Patten was defeated in the Democratic primary by a 27-year-old former Afghan refugee named Safiya Wazir, who had never before run for office. Wazir won in a rout, 329 votes to 123.
On September 29, music legend Willy Nelson will headline a rally in Texas for Beto O’Rourke. In his entire career, Nelson has never once done a public concert for a political candidate. “My wife Annie and I have met and spoken with Beto and we share his concern for the direction things are headed,” said Nelson in a press release. “Beto embodies what is special about Texas, an energy and an integrity that is completely genuine.”
There’s something happening here, to quote another musician, and it ain’t all Trump. When progressives actually run as progressives, when voters are given candidates who have discarded the thoroughly discredited empty vessel that is tepid “third way” Republican-lite centrism and offer genuine and workable policy alternatives, those candidates do very, very well.
Even in Texas, where Ted Cruz might lose.