By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press
RICHMOND, Texas (AP) — If Texas is changing under his feet, Ted Cruz doesn’t see it.
The Republican senator, locked in a closer-than-expected re-election battle, insists he’s not worried about America’s largest, reliably red state slowly turning blue. That’s despite a booming Hispanic population and top firms bringing thousands of employees from more liberal locales.
Cruz, who built a career as a Capitol Hill tea party troublemaker and fierce Donald Trump foe, now staunchly defends the accomplishments of the Republican-controlled Congress and White House. He says there’s a “commonsense supermajority” of conservatives backing him and that his opponent Beto O’Rourke, a rising Democratic star, is too liberal even for Texas independents and moderate Democrats.
“We are going to win this election and I’ll tell you how I know, because this is Texas,” Cruz told supporters who gathered for a recent rally in an American and Texas flag-draped atrium of a furniture store in the suburban Houston community of Richmond. “And, in Texas, it is in our DNA to defend liberty.”
O’Rourke counters that he’s going to win for many of the same reasons. Even though Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994, he says it already has embraced new values that it’s willing to fight for such as impeaching Trump, decriminalizing marijuana, combating global warming and implementing universal health care. O’Rourke even has suggested the state can become a model for gun control and relaxed immigration policies.
“This state, this people, can be the ones to lead the way,” O’Rourke said after climbing a stepladder with a megaphone to address a crowd outside an Austin middle school last week. “Everything that we care about in this country is on the line.”
Next week’s election may prove who is right. But how each side is framing the argument provides insight into just how far their race has come.
Polls that this summer showed O’Rourke climbing to within a few points of Cruz now suggest the senator is maintaining a modest lead. Cruz insists that’s no accident.
“What has really changed in this race that’s been important is the silent majority in Texas, the commonsense conservatives, have become engaged,” Cruz told The Associated Press after the Richmond event. He also says he’s wooed Democrats who see the positions of O’Rourke and other top liberals as too extreme: “For a whole lot of conservative and moderate Democrats in Texas, they feel like they don’t have a home in that national party anymore and we are welcoming them with open arms.”
On paper, the race was never supposed to be even close.
A three-term congressman and onetime punk rocker, O’Rourke was virtually unknown outside of his hometown of El Paso before challenging Cruz. The charismatic candidate’s calls for bipartisan optimism and willingness to visit all 254 Texas counties — even deeply Republican areas that Democrats gave up on decades ago — made him the toast of national liberal circles.
It also sparked speculation that O’Rourke could use an upset of Cruz, or even a close loss, to run for president in 2020. And it helped him shatter Senate campaign fundraising records, including raising an astounding $38-plus million just in the three-month period from July through September.
Cruz dismisses that, saying “Texas won’t be bought” and blaming the “hard left” which he says is “filled with rage” against Trump. He says there are more Republicans than Democrats in Texas, so if he can avoid conservative complacency, he’ll win easily.
Still, according to U.S. Census estimates, Texas leads the nation in population growth, adding more than 3 million residents since 2010 alone. Hispanics, who tend to favor Democrats, are driving that boom. There also are more people moving to the state than leaving it, many of whom bring more liberal values from such places as California or New York.
O’Rourke isn’t just relying on demographic shifts, though, saying anyone willing to vote for him “cannot be too Republican, too Democrat or too much of a non-voter.” The last bit is important since Texas usually ranks among the nation’s worst in voter turnout, despite strong early voting returns suggesting that may not be the case this cycle.
Cruz, meanwhile, sees no irony in his transformation from political insurgent who drew the ire of both parties in the Senate, and a bitter rival of Trump’s during the final days of the 2016 Republican presidential primary, to staunch defender of the president and GOP political status quo.
“I think I’m in an unusual, if not unique, position of being able to speak with real credibility to conservatives but also being able to speak to moderates, to leadership, to the president, to the administration and trying to find common ground,” he said.
The senator says the massive Houston rally Trump staged on his behalf last week means “we’re seeing tremendous Republican unity” and that it’s his opponent who now wants to sow political chaos by impeaching Trump.
“It would devolve Washington into a partisan bloodbath,” Cruz said. “It would paralyze the federal government for two years.”
For AP’s complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections: http://apne.ws/APPolitics