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Quinnipiac poll finds Democrat Beto O’Rourke within striking distance of Republican incumbent Ted Cruz
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
AUSTIN (CFP) — The last time a Democrat was within striking distance in a U.S. Senate contest in Texas, Ronald Reagan was president, people rented movies from a store and tweeting was only for the birds.
Since the last Democratic victory in 1988, the party’s nominees have lost nine Senate races in a row, all by double digits. The average size of their loss? 19 points.
But a new poll shows Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke is closing in on Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, cutting Cruz’s lead in half since May and raising the specter of seeing something this fall that hasn’t been seen deep in the heart of Texas for 30 years — a truly competitive Senate race.
A close race in Texas could also have national implications, as Republicans try to hang on to their slim one-vote majority in the Senate.
A Quinnipiac University poll released August 1 put Cruz at 49 percent and O’Rourke at 43 percent among registered voters in the Senate contest. With a sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percent, that means that, statistically, Cruz’s lead is small enough to be the result of sampling error, rather than an actual lead.
But perhaps the most alarming bit of data in the poll for the Cruz campaign is that his 6-point lead now is down from an 11-point lead three months ago, and Cruz is now below 50 percent, a danger sign for an incumbent.
“O’Rourke has done a good job making the race competitive,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac Poll in a statement. “He is clearly in contention. A Democratic victory in the Lone Star State would be a serious blow to GOP hopes of keeping their U.S. Senate majority.”
The poll of 1,118 registered voters found Cruz leading among men and white voters, while O’Rouke was leading among women and African-American voters. O’Rourke has a 12-point lead among Latino voters, and the two men are running even among voters who describe themselves as independent.
The poll found Texans generally have a good opinion of Cruz — 50 percent approve of his job performance and view him favorably, while 42 percent disapprove and view him unfavorably. However, he is polling far behind the Republican running in the other marquis statewide race, Governor Greg Abbott, who had a 13-point lead over his Democratic challenger, former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez.
By contrast, 43 percent of voters surveyed said the didn’t know enough about O’Rourke to offer an opinion of him, which means he remains something of an unknown quantity. And that could give the Cruz campaign an opening to try to define him negatively with voters over the rest of the campaign.
The poll also found that President Donald Trump’s approval rating in Texas was mixed, with 46 percent approving of his performance and 49 percent disapproving, which was within the margin of error.
The Quinnipiac poll surveyed registered voters rather than likely voters, making the results somewhat less indicative of what might happen on election day. However, two other polls taken in July that surveyed likely voters — by the Texas Lyceum and Gravis Marketing — also found Cruz’s lead in single digits.
Federal Election Commission reports also show that O’Rourke has been competitive with Cruz in fundraising. As of the end of June, he had raised $23.6 million to $23.4 million for Cruz and had $14 million in cash on hand, compared to $9.3 million for the incumbent.
The last time Cruz ran, in 2012, he outraised and outspent his Democratic opponent by a 2-to-1 margin, on his way to a 16-point victory.
O’Rouke, 45, has represented metro El Paso in the House since 2013, after serving on the El Paso City Council. Although he is Irish and his given first name is Robert, he was nicknamed “Beto” — a Spanish nickname for Robert — from childhood.
Cruz, 47, was elected to the Senate in 2012 on his first try for political office. In 2016, he made an unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination, carrying 12 primaries and caucuses and finishing second in the delegate count behind Trump.
The Texas race is one of six Southern states with open seats in 2018; the others are Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi, where both seats are on the ballot.
Four of those races are shaping up to be competitive — Florida and West Virginia, which are currently held by Democrats, and Texas and Tennessee, held by Republicans.