Texas Republicans say they aren’t scared of a Democratic wave in 2018. They’re scared Republicans will stay home.
Seven months before the election, GOP Washington lawmakers are scrambling to deliver results on a long list of campaign promises that fueled their party’s rise in Washington two years ago.
Without progress on top priorities like border security and spending cuts, Texas Republicans readily acknowledge their base could stay home in November — a much bigger concern than the impact of liberal enthusiasm already sweeping Texas’s largest cities.
“We will see very high turnout from the far left in November,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters Tuesday night. “The good news is there are more conservatives than there are liberals in Texas... we need to do everything possible to turn [them] out.”
On conservative media earlier that day, Cruz was more dramatic.
“If conservatives are complacent… we could see every statewide official in [Texas] becoming a Democrat,” the senator warned on “The Hugh Hewitt Show.”
Democrats’ chances of flipping any statewide offices in Texas this year are still considered slim. Cruz, the most vulnerable statewide Republican, is still the favorite in his re-election bid against Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, who easily notched his party’s nomination Tuesday night. Cruz won the GOP primary overwhelmingly.
But languishing Republican enthusiasm, combined with a fired up Democratic base, is the nightmare scenario for Republicans who haven’t lost a statewide race in Texas in two decades.
“[Democrats] are not going to win simply on great Democratic turnout… they’re going to have to have some Republicans staying home,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
At a GOP forum in Denton recently, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, outlined the stakes for Republicans in his deep red district, which gave 61 percent of its votes to President Donald Trump in 2016.
“Ted Cruz is depending on us to deliver an oversized number of votes here to offset what might happen in South Texas,” said Burgess. “They are depending on us in a red county like Denton to deliver. We have to be organized.”
Cruz is pushing his party hard to make sure Republicans have something to show.
Last month the Senate voted down four different proposals to increase border security – an issue Texas Republicans rank a top priority. The Senate also failed repeatedly last year in its effort to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Republicans control 51 Senate seats. Sixty are usually required to advance major legislation.
Cruz wants to get rid of the legislative filibuster, which requires 60 votes to cut off debate. He’s also urging colleagues to employ legislative tactics that allow Republicans to act on their own.
Senate Republicans used a budget rule to do that last year, helping them pass a massive tax overhaul they plan to campaign on this year.
Cruz said Monday he’s urging Trump to take advantage of a similar strategy to rein in government spending. Cruz wants renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement to include a provision requiring Congressional approval for expensive regulations -- something Congress can pass with an up-or-down vote.
“It’s a tool to get around a Democratic filibuster and enact regulatory reform that would have a profound impact in terms of continuing the economic growth that we're seeing in Texas," said Cruz.
Speaking to an audience of Texans in Washington last month, Cruz reasoned: “I can’t go home to Texans and say, ‘Well gosh, Democrats are opposing everything so we’re going to do nothing.’”
That approach could anger some moderate Texas Republicans.
“That anti-Cruz vote could end up helping O’Rourke,” said Duffy.
Republicans acknowledge their challenge steepens if the party fails to make meaningful strides on Trump’s agenda.
“The president made some promises, and they really need to be kept, or all Republicans, politically, are going to be in some trouble,” said Ron Wright, a Republican running for Congress in Texas’s Sixth Congressional district.
“The [border] wall is one of them,” Wright added. “Movement toward that is going to need to happen this year.”
Trump asked Congress to fund his promised border wall in exchange for protecting the legal status of young immigrants brought into the country illegally by their parents. A proposal to do so exists in the House, but leaders haven’t said whether they’ll take it up. The Senate has moved on to other priorities.
“We have to get serious about border security,” said Tarrant County Republican Party Chairman Tim O’Hare. But, he added, “we have a president who seems to be serious about it… and most of the things he gets serious about addressing end up getting addressed.”
O’Rourke, meanwhile, is benefiting from an enthusiastic Democratic backlash to Trump.
Cruz has $6 million on hand. But O’Rourke, a little-known Democratic Congressman, has roughly $5 million for the race, and outraised Cruz, a former presidential contender, nearly three to one in the first months of 2018.
O’Rourke is also drawing big crowds of new activists eager to show their opposition to the president. More than 500 supporters weathered a thunderstorm to see O’Rourke in Roanoke last month – one of a handful of packed campaign events in red territory that weekend.
“I sat alone in Trophy Club for ten years thinking I was the only [Democrat],” said Heather Thornton, a leader of the Grapevine-area Indivisible club, an activist group formed to oppose Trump. “I can’t believe the number of people coming out of the woodwork.”