The surprisingly hotly contested race between Texas Senator Ted Cruz and his Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke has been shaken up once again. A new poll, a sudden change of heart and an August surprise have upended the race that Cruz had once been assumed to win in a walk.
The first shock came with the release of a new poll on Monday that showed Cruz with only a one-point lead over O’Rourke. The Emerson College poll of 550 registered voters found Cruz with 38 percent and O’Rourke with 37 percent. The race is well within the poll’s margin of error of 4.4 points. It should be noted that the sample size of the poll is small and registered voter polls are less credible than polls of likely voters.
The poll found that voters disapprove of Cruz by 38 to 44 percent. Cruz has only 25 percent approval among independent voters (57 percent disapprove) and O’Rourke leads by 20 points among independents. Cruz is suffering from a generation gap. Younger voters overwhelmingly prefer O’Rourke while older voters favor Cruz by large margins.
Shockingly, the poll found that 21 percent of voters were undecided. This is not good news for Ted Cruz since he is an incumbent with 99 percent name recognition. As pollster and pundit Dick Morris often points out, undecided voters often break for the challenger. Morris uses the analogy of marriage, saying that if you are undecided about whether to keep your spouse, that’s not a good thing. Being undecided on whether to rehire your senator also likely means that you have a problem with him.
The good news for Ted Cruz is that the other two shocks to the race are bad for Beto O’Rourke. First, O’Rourke announced on Monday that a proposed August 31 debate with Ted Cruz “is not going to happen.” In July, Cruz challenged O’Rourke to a series of debates. O’Rourke accepted the challenge, but proposed revisions to the Cruz schedule.
On Monday, O’Rourke told the Texas Tribune, “Friday in Dallas is not going to happen, but I'm convinced we will debate. I'm convinced there will be a number of debates.”
O’Rourke accused the Cruz campaign of attempting to micromanage the details of the debates, saying, “We're working through those differences, and we're trying to introduce more of a collaborative style to the negotiations than he may be used to. And so we're confident that out of that, we're going to come to something good.”
A spokesman for the Cruz campaign fired back, “[O'Rourke] begged for debates, but when Sen. Cruz invited him to five debates all across Texas, suddenly O’Rourke seemed to get scared” and added that "except for when he has to be in DC for his work in the Senate, Cruz is ready and excited to debate O’Rourke, including this Friday.”
It’s possible that O’Rourke’s reversal on the debate challenge is related to an August surprise published in the Houston Chronicle this morning. A Chronicle investigation confirmed that O’Rourke was arrested in the 1990s for DWI and burglary. O’Rourke was arrested on two separate occasions. The first was in 1995 for “attempted forcible entry” on the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso and in 1998 for DWI. The university decided not to press charges for the first incident and O’Rourke completed DWI school as a result of the second charge.
The O’Rourke campaign said that the candidate has acknowledged both arrests multiple times. In fact, the arrests have been public knowledge since 2005 when O’Rourke’s opponent in a race for the El Paso city council ran an ad describing the incidents. O’Rourke eventually won that race.
In 2005, The El Paso Times quoted O’Rourke’s description of the arrests. “I've been open about that since the very beginning,” O’Rourke said. “I have owned up to it and I have taken responsibility for it.”
With respect to the burglary arrest, O’Rourke said, “That happened while I was in college. I along with some friends were horsing around, and we snuck under the fence at the UTEP physical plant and set off an alarm. We were arrested by UTEP police. ... UTEP decided not to press charges. We weren't intending to do any harm.”
At a campaign stop in San Antonio, O’Rourke called his DWI a “far more serious mistake,” saying, “I drove under the influence of alcohol. There’s no justifying that.”
In a close race, O’Rourke may regret his decision to bow out of his debate with Ted Cruz. The decision gives the Cruz campaign an opening to attack him and make him look weak and unprepared on the issues. At this point, O’Rourke may well feel that debating Cruz can only slow his momentum.
Likewise, O’Rourke’s arrests may be old news in El Paso, but they will be new to many Texas voters. Even though the arrests happened 20 years ago, they may lead voters to question O’Rourke’s character and fitness for office.
The bad news for O’Rourke at least partially offsets Ted Cruz’s negative approval rating. Polling over the past few months has shown O’Rourke closing slowing on the senator. The Cruz campaign and its surrogates will undoubtedly hope that the revelations about O’Rourke shift the momentum towards Cruz.
In any case, the race is certain to go down to the wire. Texas tends to be deep red so the race is still Cruz’s to lose. Nevertheless, if the senator returns to Washington for the next Congress, it won’t be because he cruised to reelection.
[Photo credits: Beto O'Rourke/Flickr and Micheal Vadon/Wikimedia]