Ted Cruz’s Democratic challenger is working overtime to drive a wedge between the senator and his base on one of his central issues — criminal justice reform.
Over the past six months, Rep. Beto O’Rourke has reached out to members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus to collaborate on the issue, hosted a Facebook Live event with them to talk marijuana policy, and sought support from the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks for a criminal justice bill he introduced in the House.
While O’Rourke is no stranger to working with Republicans on issues relevant to his El Paso district, the lawmaker’s recent focus on criminal justice reform is part of a push to boost his profile for the uphill bid to unseat Cruz in the Senate in 2018.
“I’ve had more correspondence with Beto O’Rourke’s office than most of the Republicans [in the Texas delegation],” said Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks.
Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide since 1994, and O’Rourke will need a significant number of Republican votes to unseat Cruz next year. By carving out a path on criminal justice reform, the 44-year-old hopes to open a line to younger and libertarian-minded Texans – the type who might have aligned with former Texas Rep. Ron Paul in the past.
The opportunity is certainly there; while Cruz has long been a leader on criminal justice reform, which draws unusual bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, he disappointed some advocates by opposing a sentencing reform bill during the 2016 presidential primary.
FreedomWorks is still solidly aligned with Cruz in the 2018 Senate race. But the group signed a bipartisan coalition letter supporting O’Rourke’s Better Drive Act, aimed at helping nonviolent drug offenders keep their drivers’ licenses so that they can get to work.
O’Rourke has also made some inroads with conservative colleagues in the House. In an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he described Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, as a “principled, courageous” colleague who he admires and with whom he works closely.
My philosophy is that the only way that anything you do in Congress is really meaningful is if you do it with Republican colleagues.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas
O’Rourke said he approached Amash on the House floor this past spring to talk about criminal justice reform, and Amash helped get him on a bill with another Freedom Caucus member, Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett, to end the federal prohibition of marijuana. All three men, along with Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer, participated in a Facebook Live discussion about marijuana in O’Rourke’s congressional office last month.
“Our drug laws have made it really hard on a lot of Texans and a lot of communities,” O’Rourke said of the efforts. “Maybe folks describe that as libertarian issues. I think that’s just Texans maintaining our independence.”
Tea Party leaders in the state say O’Rourke will need to do a lot more than that to peel off support from Cruz.
“We believe in second chances, so it is important… but people who are interested in criminal justice reform are also interested in a variety of other issues,” said JoAnn Fleming, executive director of East Texas-based group Grassroots America. “We absolutely agree with him on one issue, but he’s really bad on a whole host of other issues.”
Cruz, who has a law degree from Harvard, has long been a champion for conservatives’ criminal justice reform efforts. He was an original sponsor of the Senate’s bipartisan sentencing reform legislation in spring of 2015, alongside conservative ally Mike Lee and Democrat Dick Durbin. But in the fall of that same year, while Cruz was campaigning for president, he surprised colleagues by coming out against a similar bill introduced by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley.
Cruz’s office said the senator had concerns about how Grassley’s bill would have impacted violent felons and submitted an amendment to address the problem. The amendment didn’t pass, and he ultimately voted against the bill in committee. A Cruz aide said “sentencing reform remains an important issue to” the senator “that he’s committed to working on.”
“It was pretty striking because the bill that he ended up opposing was actually less far-reaching than the one he originally supported,” said Jacob Sullum, senior editor for the libertarian-leaning Reason magazine and a Dallas resident.
Sullum called the move, in the middle of the presidential primary, a “nakedly political” attempt to woo a GOP base that preferred a tough-on-crime approach. But, he cautioned, “I just don’t know how much of his appeal is wrapped up in that.”
Though O’Rourke’s work with Amash and Garrett is relatively new, his work with Republicans in general is not. Despite beating a member of his own party to win his heavily Democratic congressional district in 2012, about a third of the bills he has cosponsored in the House were introduced by Republicans, according to GovTrack. He recently made headlines for a trip he took across the country with fellow Texas Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican from San Antonio.
O’Rourke also has some personal experience with the criminal justice system. He’s been arrested twice, once for breaking and entering, and once for drinking and driving. In 2011 he wrote a book about the war on drugs, based on his experience as an El Paso city councilman.
“My philosophy is that the only way that anything you do in Congress is really meaningful is if you do it with Republican colleagues,” O’Rourke said. “When folks ask me to give them some hope about what’s going on in Congress right now, I often point to criminal justice reform as a point where both sides seem to be coming to some common ground.”
Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch