After declining to endorse Donald Trump at the Republican convention in 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz laid low for a while. The conservative firebrand meekly returned to the Trumpian fold, while keeping a much lower profile in Washington after Trump’s victory. He lost some support from his base, while trying to navigate a new political world where—at least in 2016—Texas was a more competitive state for Republicans than Iowa.
But Cruz’s early pugnacious strategy for his reelection campaign hints that Texas isn’t changing as much as optimistic Democrats believe. Despite energized Democratic turnout in the state’s primaries, Republicans also saw a healthy uptick in turnout compared to 2014 and maintained their sizable partisan advantage. Cruz locked down 85 percent of the GOP primary vote and received nearly twice as many votes as his Democratic opponent, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a sign that base voters are still standing by their man. And most importantly, Cruz’s early message in the general election suggests that taking a hard line against immigration reform and gun control is still a winning strategy in Texas.
Cruz’s first ad—a radio buy designed to draw outsized media attention—is filled with the rhetorical staples that play to his base. “Liberal thought is not the spirit of a Lone Star man,” the jingle begins. It then accuses O’Rourke of supporting “open borders” and “tak[ing] our guns away.” Any hints that Cruz would be moderating his positions to capture support from disaffected suburbanites in Dallas and Houston were quickly erased.
And despite signs that support for gun control is on the rise after the Florida school shooting, Cruz has not felt any need to moderate his position. After winning his primary, Cruz relished in scrapping with two cable news hosts—MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and CNN’s Chris Cuomo—over gun control. Democrats, meanwhile, are concerned about veering too far left: In one of the pivotal House battlegrounds, party leaders are working aggressively to stop progressive activist Laura Moser from winning a suburban Houston primary. They’ve argued she’s unelectable because of past writings about rural Texas, but her unapologetic anti-gun posture is surely another challenge for persuading swing voters.
In the three most competitive House races in the state—the reelection campaigns of Republican Reps. John Culberson, Pete Sessions, and Will Hurd—the GOP news was also encouraging. Republican turnout exceeded Democratic turnout in two of the three districts, even though Democrats were the ones with competitive primaries. Despite their warnings, Democrats failed to stop Moser from placing in a runoff in the Houston-area Culberson district, raising the odds that Republicans hold an otherwise vulnerable seat.
Republicans in Texas also showed some good judgment in choosing candidates. In a Houston-area seat, they backed a Navy SEAL with an inspirational story (Dan Crenshaw) over an ill-prepared candidate endorsed by the governor who spent millions of her own fortune (Kathaleen Wall). The front-running Republican for the seat of retiring Rep. Lamar Smith is Cruz’s former chief of staff (Chip Roy), an experienced legislative player.
Not all waves are created equal in every part of the country. In their 2010 landslide, Republicans dominated in the Midwest and South but failed to win key Senate races out West. Similarly, Democrats could win back the House by scoring big in the Northeast and California alone, while simply doing adequately everywhere else. Georgia’s special election last year proved the limitations Democrats will face in Southern suburbs where Republicans traditionally dominated before Trump’s arrival on the political scene.
The results from Texas show Democrats making important inroads, but that won’t necessarily translate to many victories come November. Democrats look well positioned to win a House majority in November—but don’t expect Texas to be turning blue anytime soon.
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