Everything is bigger in Texas — including the stakes for this year’s Senate race, in which Republican Sen. Ted Cruz is facing an unexpectedly close re-election battle from one of this year’s top political phenoms, Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
“Our November’s usually aren’t this exciting,” said Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University in Houston.
Democrats usually trail Republicans in Texas by double digits — but the Real Clear Politics polling average has the El Paso congressman down by just 7 points, 51 to 44 percent.
Jones explained the dynamic of the race in football terms: “There’s about two minutes left. Ted Cruz has the ball and is up by a touchdown, which means if Cruz can just sort of keep things going as is, he’s going to win,” Jones said.
The closeness of the race has led to massive media attention lavished on O’Rourke, a Columbia University grad who was once in a small-time punk rock band.
That attention has helped the Democrat raise $70.2 million to just $40.5 million for Cruz.
The contest has become the most expensive Senate race in history.
Such fundraising muscle has made O’Rourke a real threat in the deep red state — where no Democrat has held a major statewide office since 1994 — and even forced Cruz’s former bitter enemy, President Trump, to fly down for a rally in Houston last week ago to save his seat.
Though Cruz and O’Rourke are just a year apart in age — 47 and 46, respectively — the former rocker congressman has put out a more youthful image that has attracted younger voters and celebrity endorsements.
He has appeared at rallies singing with Texas native Willie Nelson and has received donations from the likes of Kyra Sedgwick and John Goodman.
All this is surely making Cruz — who beat his 2012 Democratic opponent by 16 points — sweat. But observers believe O’Rourke will still need a lot of help to actually prevail.
“Beto has to do something monumental to effectively break the status quo,” said Jones.
About three-quarters of Texas’ ballots are cast during early voting, which has been “through the roof,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
“But I don’t think we can assume early voting necessarily means a big increase in Democratic vote,” Henson cautioned.
About 9 percent of early voters have no previous voting record, Henson noted. “And so that’s interesting, but not decisive in O’Rourke’s favor.”
If O’Rourke loses on Tuesday, he has another chance in two years when Sen. John Cornyn, another Texas Republican, is up for re-election.
“It’s not the end of Republican rule, but it’s the beginning of the end of it,” Henson predicted.