ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Podcast. We’re taking a closer look at key races around the country as part of our expanded coverage of the midterm elections, and tonight we turn to the Lone Star State, Texas, which hasn’t been a true battleground for years but is slowly perhaps inching its way back to being competitive.
Joining us tonight from Austin is Evan Smith, host of PBS’s Overheard with Evan Smith and CEO of the Texas Tribune.
The potential of Texas becoming a blue state is due in part to changing demographics. The state’s major cities, like Dallas, are increasingly Democratic, but a Democrat hasn’t been elected to statewide office since 1994. In this midterm, some Republican candidates are finding themselves in unexpectedly close races. Vice President Mike Pence was in the state Monday to boost candidates for House and Senate, and Republican Representative Pete Sessions and Ted Cruz were among them. Sessions is running for an 11th term. He’s in a very tight race with former NFL linebacker Colin Allred, who worked in the Obama administration. Senator Cruz, who was elected to the Senate way back in 2012 and boosted by the Tea Party, is facing Democrat Beto O’Rourke, a member of the U.S. House. Our guest, Evan Smith, recently interviewed O’Rourke for the annual Texas Tribune Festival.
EVAN SMITH: Not since Ann Richards ran for governor have Texas Democrats nominated for high office someone so charismatic, empathetic, and articulate. This campaign verges on being a phenomenon. Please join me in welcoming the keynote closer to the 2018 Texas Tribune Festival, Congressman Beto O’Rourke. (Cheers, applause.)
What’s going on here? Why is this the way it is, and what is the cause if there is a cause for optimism?
REPRESENTATIVE ROBERT “BETO” O’ROURKE (D-TX): (From video.) The fact that people are energized around not who they dislike, not the other party that they want to defeat, but the great things they know that we can accomplish if we just put our minds to it, that’s what’s animating this campaign.
MR. COSTA: O’Rourke has generated a lot of buzz as the anti-Trump, anti-Cruz candidate; so many profiles out there. And this race is tight. But Cruz has a strong base of conservative voters all throughout Texas and really the country, and he’s ahead by nine points according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. What’s happening in Texas and what it might mean for the midterms and beyond, those were the questions on my mind when I went to visit Evan in Austin last month, and they’re still lingering, Evan. Welcome to our discussion here on Washington Week and the podcast.
MR. SMITH: Hi, Bob.
MR. COSTA: Great to have you, Evan. I’ve been looking forward to this discussion because Texas, you got to wonder if there’s a blue wave out there, does it really – though the ripples, did the wave come up to Dallas and Houston – is it coming to Texas?
MR. SMITH: Well, it’s going to have to be tsunami if not a sharknado. When I see sharks flying through the air, Bob, then we’ll know that something has happened politically. Texas, as you say, has not elected a Democrat statewide since 1994. Our congressional delegation is about two-third Republican, a third Democrat. And while there are many more competitive races at the congressional level than we’re used to, it is an uphill battle for any Democrat – even one who raised, as was reported today, $38 million in the third quarter, obliterating the previous record for a Senate candidate in one quarter – even for a candidate with that much money, it’s an uphill battle to get elected in Texas. And the political environment may be more favorable, but the outcome we’ll only know on Election Day.
MR. COSTA: What’s your real read on Beto O’Rourke? I mean, the congressman was drawing thousands around the Texas Tribune’s festival. He was there with Willie Nelson. As you said, he raised nearly $40 million in the third quarter. I mean, if any candidate has a shot, it seems to be Beto O’Rourke.
MR. SMITH: Well, he’s drawing amazing crowds, not just at our festival or at that rally with Willie Nelson – where there were 55,000 people along Town Lake in Austin who turned out for him – but if you go to red counties around the state of Texas, it’s like The Beatles landing at JFK – old people fainting, young girls screaming. I mean, it’s a viral phenomenon the likes of which we’ve not really seen since, as I said, Ann Richards.
But the reality is, as articulate and as charismatic and as empathetic as he comes across, as energetic as he is, he’s got to not only turn out many more Democrats than typically turn out in a midterm election, he has to hope that the political environment keeps some Republicans home. With all the talk of a blue wave in the primary and all the talk of how Democrats were marshaling their forces to turn out, by primary day in March, Bob, Republicans had still turned out 500,000 more voters than Democrats. So while the enthusiasm may be there, I do believe the answer is the oldest cliché in the world: It’s all down to turnout. Tell me who turns out and I’ll be able to tell you if he has a chance to win.
I do think the polls that we’ve seen, which show this to be a mid-single-digit to mid-high-single-digit race, are probably right. Typically, someone like Ted Cruz would win a race like this by double that margin. But you know what you call a Republican who wins by only single digits? Senator.
MR. COSTA: Right.
MR. SMITH: And so from the Republicans’ perspective, even if this race is closer, they’re going to take the win.
MR. COSTA: And has Senator Cruz gotten the Republican voters to come home? We remember the Republican convention in 2016 where he had a real tension with then candidate Trump. But now he seems to have embraced President Trump and President Trump is probably going ahead to Texas to rally behind the senator.
MR. SMITH: Well, he’s promised to hold a rally for Senator Cruz in the largest arena he could find, he tweeted, which is certainly going to be a football stadium, it may even be a high school football stadium if the Cowboys’ stadium is occupied.
Look, Ted Cruz lines up on the issues with Texas Republicans. There’s a lot of talk about whether Ted Cruz is the most likable guy in the world. I mean, no less a Washington figure than Mick Mulvaney, the president’s budget director, was captured on tape, reported by The New York Times, questioning whether Ted Cruz was likable and whether that would in turn create a problem for him in November.
If you believe that this election is “Senator Snark” versus “Congressman Charisma,” as the Democrats would like you to believe this election is, then that might be one conversation. But what Ted Cruz has going on for him really are the issues: immigration, the economy, things that line up with traditional Republicans. So even those Republicans who may not be super enamored of Ted Cruz personally, they like him from a substantive standpoint. And in the end, it’s going to be issues that drive this race in all likelihood.
MR. COSTA: So if Cruz wins perhaps and the Democrats can’t win statewide – final thing, Evan – could the Democrats have some pickups in the House races?
MR. SMITH: Oh, definitely. So you mentioned Dallas and Houston. In Dallas, the Sessions-Allred race; in Houston, the race between Democrat Lizzie Fletcher and Republican John Culberson. These are two districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, even though the Republican incumbent was reelected in 2016. Democrats have put a lot of effort into trying to win those races. As you said, Vice President Pence was there to campaign for Congressman Sessions in Dallas this week. The president has tweeted his endorsement of Congressman Sessions not once, but twice just to be sure we heard him the first time.
And those are very close races because those counties are really the blue outposts in Texas. Congressman O’Rourke could lose the Senate race by a slimmer margin than normal, but because he turns out more Democrats than typically would show up at the ballot box, he may help Allred and Fletcher and a couple of other Democrats around Texas get across the finish line. It would be a pyrrhic victory, but a victory for Democrats nonetheless.
MR. COSTA: Evan Smith, CEO of The Texas Tribune and host of Overheard with Evan Smith on PBS, thanks so much for joining us. We really appreciate it, Evan.
And that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Podcast. I’m Robert Costa. We’ll see you next time.