Ted Cruz vs. Beto O'Rourke called the 'marquee race in Texas'

John C Moritz and Madlin Mekelburg, El Paso TimesPublished 9:59 a.m. MT Oct. 20, 2017



The winner of next year's race for the U.S. Senate in Texas will be an Ivy League-educated guy in his mid-40s with a picture-book family — the similarities end there. Wochit


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(Photo: Ruben R. Ramirez/El Paso Times)


AUSTIN – The likely winner of next year’s race for the U.S. Senate in Texas will be an Ivy League-educated guy in his mid-40s with a picture-book family and a reputation for seeking political office even when the odds of winning have been stacked against him.

But that is where the similarities between first-term Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic upstart U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke end. The candidates’ contrasting styles, dissimilar backstories and divergent political philosophies will likely make the matchup the year’s most watched campaign in Texas and perhaps among the most compelling races nationwide.


“This race is really the marquee race in Texas”
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

Cruz, a Princeton graduate and debate champion who parlayed his improbable victory in the 2012 Senate race into a second place finish in the GOP presidential contest just four years later, aligns himself with his party’s conservative tea party wing.

O’Rourke, who started a web design company after earning a degree in literature from Columbia, is a prominent figure in El Paso politics who likes to drop F-bombs to punctuate his policy statements during political rallies.


“On Saturday nights in high school, Beto O’Rourke was out playing in a band,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “Ted Cruz was at home memorizing the Constitution.”

The 2018 political season formally begins next month when candidates file for office with their respective parties.
Several lesser-known candidates have indicated they plan to throw their hat in the ring, including former Corpus Christi Mayor Dan McQueen in the Republican primary and Sema Hernandez, a mother of four from Houston who calls herself a "Bold Progressive Berniecrat" in the Democratic primary.

Most observers see the contest next year as Cruz. vs. O’Rourke, though both still have to make it through their respective primary elections on March 6.


"This race is really the marquee race in Texas," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.


More: Former Corpus Christi mayor looks to fund Senate run with short ribs and essay contest


Cruz, 46, begins his bid for a second six-year term as perhaps the best-known Senate candidate in the nation. Almost as soon as he joined the Senate, he picked fights not only with Democrats but with members of his own party.


He breached senatorial courtesy by calling Republican Leader Mitch McConnell a liar during a floor speech and angered Sen. John McCain, his party’s 2008 presidential nominee, with his manner of questioning witnesses during committee hearings. He even tried shutting down the government as a way of cutting off funding for the Affordable Care Act.

And then he ran for president.

O’Rourke, meanwhile, launched his campaign as a relative political unknown outside his hometown. He won a seat on El Paso’s city council in 2005 and then catapulted from local politics to the national stage in 2012, when he beat longtime U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat, for his seat in Congress.


More: Q&A with Congressman Beto O'Rourke

Buy Photo Congressman Beto O'Rourke addresses supporters that came out to his "Rally for Relief," held at Ode Brewery Thursday night after touring Texas for the past 34 days. (Photo: RUBEN R. RAMIREZ/EL PASO TIMES)


He serves on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Committee on Armed Services, but captured national attention when he expressed an interest in challenging Cruz and again when he and his House colleague Will Hurd, R-Helotes, decided to drive from El Paso to Washington D.C. when a storm canceled their flights back to the Capitol.

The pair used Facebook’s live video feature to stream almost the entire drive — dubbed the “bipartisan road trip” — inviting viewers to watch as they discussed politics, took phone calls from loved ones and sang along to Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.


More: O'Rourke says Texas road trip crosses party lines

O’Rourke, 45, has spent much of the past six months behind the wheel, driving across the state to hold town halls, meet and greets and campaign rallies in major cities and rural counties.

Since his campaign launched in March, he’s held more than 70 of these up close and personal meetings, livestreaming almost all of them to his Facebook followers. He also shares videos of more human moments on the campaign trail, including a morning workout with his campaign staff and a haircut at a barber shop in Killeen.

“We’re traveling the state and showing up in person to listen to and understand the people that we want to serve,” O’Rourke said in an interview. “It is in very direct contrast to what people have seen from Ted Cruz over the last five years.”


Perhaps because it’s early in the cycle or perhaps because of the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey, Cruz’s recent appearances have been spared the kitsch of campaigning.

There have been no bands, banners or bumper stickers.



U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke took some time Friday to discuss VA wait times, DACA and North Korea. Ruben R. Ramirez / El Paso Times


During stops over the past six weeks along the hard-hit Coastal Bend and the flooded neighborhoods around Houston, Cruz has adopted the standard uniform of an elected official during disaster recovery: denim Levis, a military-style khaki shirt with rolled-up sleeves and well-worn cowboy boots.

And instead of talking about how he’s tried to control spending and stiff-arm Democrats as he did during his first campaign, Cruz talks about working with colleagues regardless of party to bring home as much federal cash as possible to help Texas recover from the storm.


More: Corpus Christi Caller-Times Hurricane Hub


The original Harvey relief package, he said at a recent stop near Houston, “came out of the House of Representatives at $7 billion.”


“I teamed up with (fellow Texas Sen.) John Cornyn and the two of us were able to double that at $15.25 billion,” he added, even offering praise for Texas congressional Democrats who supported the aid package.


"The degree of bipartisan unity among the Texas delegation has been incredible," Cruz said. "It's been remarkable."

Despite these efforts, a new poll from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune shows that 45 percent of Texas voters have an unfavorable opinion of Cruz, compared to the 38 percent who have a favorable opinion.

Recent events suggest Cruz is taking steps to soften his sometimes abrasive persona. Cornyn, the state's senior senator, did not endorse Cruz in 2012, or in his run for the White House. But heading into the upcoming campaign, Cornyn made clear he is backing his colleague.


“I think it’s really important, particularly in light of the challenges brought by this huge natural disaster, that we stand together as a Texas delegation," Cornyn said at a joint appearance with Cruz in Austin last month. "And there’s no space between Sen. Cruz and me when it comes to doing work for our state."


Meanwhile, the UT/Texas Tribune poll found that 16 percent of voters said they have favorable opinions of O'Rourke but 69 percent said they had no opinion or are unfamiliar with him.


O'Rourke was born and raised in El Paso, where his dad Pat Francis O'Rourke served as a county commissioner and a county judge. Melissa O'Rourke, his mom, is a small business owner in the city.



U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz fielded questions about NAFTA, toured the border on a helicopter and met with U.S. Border Patrol agents in El Paso on Thursday. Aaron Bedoya / USA Today Network


Beto O'Rourke graduated from El Paso High School before heading to New York to attend Columbia University. In the early 1990s, he joined the punk rock band Foss. The band's drummer Cedric Bixler-Zavala went on to play in At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta, which won a Grammy in 2009.

In 1999, O'Rourke moved back to El Paso and started a company called Stanton Street Technology, which offers web design and internet marketing services.


Cruz was born in Calgary, Canada, and grew up in Houston where he attended two private high schools. According to a 2015 profile in USA Today, his association with a conservative education nonprofit helped him hone his public speaking and debating skills as part of a traveling team called the Constitutional Corroborators.


More: Ted Cruz talks 2018 election, border, NAFTA in El Paso


Those skills would serve him well when he reached Princeton and became a champion debater, but as a teenager he worked to overcome his geeky image among his peers.


“Midway through junior high school, I decided that I’d had enough of being the unpopular nerd,” Cruz writes in his memoir, A Time For Truth.


He branched out, performing in school theatrical productions and making the varsity teams in soccer and basketball.


Matt Mackowiak, a Republican operative who has worked in both Austin and Washington, said the morphing of Cruz from firebrand to inside player is both expected and essential.


"He ran as an outsider, so obviously for the first two years, he could be the bomb-thrower with Obama as president," Mackowiak said. "Then he ran for president and did exceedingly well – finished second. He came back to the Senate, focused on committees, focused on disaster recovery, did the things you do to be a good senator."


“You can only be an outsider once,” Mackowiak said.


Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes U.S. Senate races nationwide for the Washington, D.C.-based Cook Political Report, said polling one year out suggests 2018 could be a surge year for Democrats because of Trump’s failing polling numbers and his penchant for picking fights with his fellow Republicans.


But none of that might matter in a state like Texas, which hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide in a generation, Duffy said.

"O'Rourke is an interesting guy, but House members don't have much of a track record when they run statewide in a state like Texas," Duffy said.


O’Rourke surprised political observers earlier this year when he outraised Cruz during his first fundraising quarter of the campaign, pulling in nearly $2.1 million to Cruz’s $1.6 million.

Raising $2 million more than a year ahead of an election is a rare feat, even rarer for a non-incumbent.


More: Expert predicts O'Rourke's PAC promise, donation numbers make win over Cruz impossible


One of O’Rourke’s central campaign promises has been to reject money from political action committees, making his person-to-person campaigning all the more important.


“We’re walking the walk, we’re not just talking about the pernicious influence of special interests in politics,” O’Rourke said.


Despite an impressive first showing, O’Rourke needs to shore up his campaign war chest if he has any hope of bringing his party the victory they’ve been waiting for, according to Rottinghaus.


“He is the only water carrier for the Democrats when they are all extremely thirsty,” Rottinghaus said.


John Moritz and Madlin Mekelburg are reporters with the USA Today Austin Bureau. They can be reached at

John.Moritz@caller.com and mmekelburg@elpasotimes.com. You can follow them on Twitter @JohnnieMo and @madlinbmek.


Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz


Republican

  • Profession: Attorney
  • Date of Birth: Dec. 22, 1970
  • Hometown: Houston
  • Education: Bachelor’s degree from Princeton University; law degree from Harvard School of Law.
  • Political career: U.S. senator from Texas, 2013-present; solicitor general of Texas, 2003-2008; policy adviser to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and part of the legal team during the Florida recount.
  • Family: Wife, Heidi; children Caroline and Catherine.
  • Of note: While in law school, Cruz was a clerk for then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He also argued nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was on the winning side twice and the losing side four times. Mixed verdicts were handed down in the other cases.


Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke


Democrat

  • Profession: Businessman
  • Date of birth: Sept. 26, 1972
  • Hometown: El Paso
  • Education: Bachelor’s degree from Columbia University.
  • Political career: Congressman from Texas’ 16th District, 2013-present; El Paso City Council, 2005-2011.
  • Family: Wife, Amy; children Ulysses, Molly and Henry.
  • Of note: While serving on the El Paso City Council, O’Rourke and council colleague Susie Byrd co-authored “Dealing Death and Drugs,” which examined the cost of battling the marijuana trade in Juarez, Mexico, and concludes the so-called war on drugs is ineffective and has resulted in the dealers becoming billionaires and the death of those who get in their way.


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