Beating on Beto: The Logic of the Cruz Campaign’s Negative Turn in the Texas Senate Race

Over the last week and a half, the Ted Cruz campaign and its allies have stepped up their negative attacks against Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke (though with a bit of a stumble out of the blocks). The Cruz campaign’s blows against Beto have gotten both tougher and more voluminous as the campaign sees close public (and perhaps internal?) poll numbers and, within that polling, a large share of Republican voters seemingly unaware of the threat to their party’s hegemony skateboarding their way.

So, gone are the messages of just a few weeks ago, when Cruz wondered aloud to reporters at the fact that people think he’s no fun. “I like to have fun. I enjoy life. I like to make jokes,” he told Christopher Hooks for his GQ piece last month. The short-lived “Ted Cruz is fun” message is nowhere in evidence in the barrage of advertisements focusing on Beto’s use of salty language on the campaign trail, a vote he took against Hurricane Harvey tax relief, and in what a Dallas Morning News’ parsing showed was  a “heavily spliced” spot built on O’Rourke’s responses to questions about protests of police brutality by NFL players (among others) and the burning of the U.S. flag. (This was a second attempt after their first ad critical of O’Rourke’s response probably gave the challenger too much unedited airtime and made O’Rourke look thoughtful rather than unpatriotic). The Club for Growth, shortly after indicating a large ad buy to support Cruz in the fall, also released a spot criticizing O’Rourke’s (seemingly temporary) position on eminent domain while on the El Paso City Council. 

Beyond the truism that the real campaign begins after Labor Day, two factors likely explain the timing of this escalation by the Cruz campaign on O’Rourke. The first and most obvious reason is that spring and summer polling have consistently shown a tight race for Senate in Texas, worrisome even if early polling has historically tended to overestimate Democratic support relative to election outcomes (see here, and here for elaboration of that point).

But more importantly, it’s something underneath the trial ballot results that are likely driving the push to tar O’Rourke as soon as possible:  the comparative lack of established attitudes toward O'Rourke among Republicans evident in the available public polling.

The most proximate comparison in this context is the situation of Wendy Davis in 2014. While many Democrats think they have a generational candidate in O’Rourke, his favorability rating in June 2018 University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling is remarkably similar to Wendy Davis’ ratings at the same point in time in her losing campaign against Greg Abbott. O’Rourke is viewed favorably by 37 percent of registered voters, Davis was viewed favorably by 34 percent in June, 2014. Their ratings among Democrats are almost indistinguishable (73 percent favorable, 3 percent unfavorable, 25 percent no opinion for O’Rourke; 69 percent favorable, 4 percent unfavorable, 26 percent no opinion for Davis in the same pair of polls).

Most importantly, by this point in the 2014 race, Republicans had developed an almost universally unfavorable opinion of Davis (74 percent) in the wake of withering attacks on her, with only 19 percent declining to offer an opinion. O’Rourke, by contrast, is unknown to almost half of Republican voters as of June (49 percent), with only 42 percent expressing an unfavorable opinion. The relentlessly negative portrayal of O’Rourke first and foremost is meant to fill this void in GOP attitudes, not to change the minds of those already under Beto’s spell. 

Loading chart...
Very favorable48%9%3%
Somewhat favorable25%18%5%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable11%22%18%
Somewhat unfavorable2%7%14%
Very unfavorable2%17%29%
Don't know/no opinion14%28%32%

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Very favorable49%7%1%
Somewhat favorable20%11%4%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable10%22%9%
Somewhat unfavorable2%8%11%
Very unfavorable2%30%63%
Don't know/No Opinion16%23%10%

Republican candidates assume a reliable crop of voters who, under normal circumstances, give their statewide candidates a cushion of approximately 900,000 votes (sometimes more, rarely less). Given the lack of evidence that either candidate is trying to persuade the other's core voters to shift parties, the campaigns are left with relatively clear tasks: the Democrats need to mobilize more voters in order to erode the Republican advantage, and the Republicans need to at least match their historical turnout in order to absorb any success the Democrats have in their efforts.

Recent Top of the Ticket Election Outcomes in Texas
Year Race Republican Vote Total Democratic Vote Total Republican Vote Total Advantage Republican Vote Share Advantage
2016 President 4,685,047 3,877,868 807,179 +9
2014 Senator 2,861,531 1,597,387 1,264,144 +27
2014 Governor 2,796,547 1,835,596 960,951 +20
2012 President 4,569,843 3,308,124 1,261,719 +16
2012 Senator 4,440,137 3,194,927 1,245,210 +16
2010 Governor 2,737,481 2,106,395 631,086 +13

For the most part, O’Rourke appears to have dispensed with the Democratic fantasy of luring moderate whites into their column, instead focusing on turning out Democratic and Democratic-leaning groups at higher rates by staking out unambiguously progressive or liberal positions on issues of interest to Democrats. This strategy has implications for the Cruz campaign. The difficulty of significantly increasing turnout among low-propensity voters means that the Cruz campaign may need only ensure that all of the Republicans whom they expect to vote in a midterm election continue to perform their civic duty. A big part of that push is introducing O’Rourke to those GOP voters who haven’t yet formed an opinion, and establishing three linked messages: O’Rourke is a ideologically anathema to their views, he’s making a race of it, and so they need to vote.   

O’Rourke continues to find ways of generating earned media attention, even if, or maybe especially if, some of that attention is almost embarassingly over-the-top. While Governor Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Patrick can spend much of the fall ignoring their challengers lest they give them more airtime than they could generate on their own, Cruz faces an opponent with resources and a demonstrated capacity for campaigning in the contemporary media environment. While Cruz ultimately is (very) likely to benefit from the latitude Abbott has in using his considerable resources, he still occupies a fundamentally different and more difficult position than the rest of the statewide ticket.

Republican voters, content with their control of Congress, the White House, and a seeming lock on all statewide offices, may not recognize any local threats to their party’s position in Texas. Some, perhaps ambivalent about the national political climate, may even be directing their attention away from politics and voting. The recent salvo of negative attacks on O'Rourke, udoubtedly the first of many, aims to rouse Texas Republicans with images of a threat close to home.