Both parties haven’t fully come to grips with how much the political map changed in last year’s presidential election. To pull off his unlikely victory, President Trump made massive gains in small-town America even while ceding turf in the fast-growing suburbs. Republicans lost ground in traditionally conservative exurban strongholds, while making major inroads in the blue-collar Rust Belt.
Those trends are only accelerating, but strategists are still inclined to look at the pre-2016 map in formulating their tactical judgments. That divide is clearest in how party officials view the Tennessee and Texas Senate races—the two red-state contests that could determine whether Democrats retake the upper chamber or fall just short.
Democrats have been burned so often by overhyping their candidates in many Texas elections—paging Wendy Davis!—that they’re understandably reluctant to brag about their chances with a little-known congressman running against Sen. Ted Cruz. By contrast, when Democrats landed popular former Gov. Phil Bredesen to run for the seat of retiring Sen. Bob Corker, pundits proclaimed the path to the Senate majority ran through Tennessee. The Cook Political Report immediately declared the race a toss-up.
But these calculations are reliant on the pre-Trump political universe, when Democrats would have a chance at competing in rural parts of Tennessee while suburban Dallas and Houston were rock-ribbed Republican turf. The new reality is that Tennessee is one of the most Republican states in the country—Trump’s performance there was nearly identical to that in neighboring Alabama—and that Texas is becoming sneakily competitive because of the suburban swing towards Democrats and the potential for renewed Hispanic engagement in this year’s midterms.
That doesn’t mean Cruz is likely to lose, but if there’s a political wave, he’s got a lot more to worry about than advertised. Texas is a more plausible Senate sleeper in this analyst’s estimation than Tennessee.
There’s plenty of evidence suggesting that Cruz will be facing a serious challenge running for a second term. His Democratic opponent, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, outraised him in the just-completed fundraising quarter by a significant margin. The congressman raised $2.4 million compared to Cruz’s $1.9 million in the last three months of last year—after nearly outraising him in the previous fundraising period. All told, O’Rourke has cut Cruz’s cash-on-hand advantage to $2.7 million—a much-less imposing advantage than anyone expected. The notion that O’Rourke won’t have enough money to compete is now outdated, and his fundraising would accelerate if Cruz suddenly looked vulnerable.
The limited polling from Texas shows the possibility of a competitive race. A recently released partisan poll commissioned by a group supporting O’Rourke found the congressman trailing Cruz by only 8 points (45 to 37 percent). Cruz’s campaign released its own poll giving the incumbent an 18-point lead (52-34 percent). Either way, horse-race polling isn’t all that predictive this far out before an election.
Most importantly, Texas has suddenly turned into a much more competitive state over the past year. A Gallup survey tracking Trump’s popularity in all 50 states throughout 2017 found Trump’s job approval at 39 percent in Texas, in the bottom third of the pack. It’s a worse showing for Trump than in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Cruz is in better shape with a 50 percent job approval rating, according to a Morning Consult survey testing all senators, but that’s vulnerable to change when the campaign heats up.
Adding to Republican concerns is that at least three GOP-held House seats—held by John Culberson, Will Hurd, and Pete Sessions—will be top Democratic targets this year. Outside Democratic groups will be pouring in money to turn out partisans in the Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio markets—three areas that don’t typically see much spending on political advertisements. Cruz can’t count on typically depressed Democratic turnout this year, especially when the charged issue of immigration could drive many Hispanic voters to the polls.
The obstacles for Democrats in Texas are still formidable: It costs tens of millions to run a serious campaign, which Democratic groups may be reluctant to invest in just one race. Cruz retains strong support from his base, and O’Rourke may end up being too liberal for the state’s tastes. But Cruz hurt his standing with some Trump partisans when he declined to endorse the president at the 2016 convention—before meekly supporting him later in the campaign. He’s been a lower-key voice in Congress ever since that rift, and his fundraising numbers are lower than expected from a conservative icon with a national network of donors.
Democrats could now win back a Senate majority without winning Texas or Tennessee, thanks to their shocking upset last month in Alabama. If they don’t run the table elsewhere, their pathway to a Senate majority still would run through the South. Tennessee may look like the more intriguing race, thanks to the Democrats’ high-profile recruit. But it’s Texas that has a better shot of being the true shocker of 2018.