We may just have ourselves a Senate race in Texas. A new poll from Quinnipiac University shows incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R) just barely ahead of his Democratic opponent, Rep. Beto O’Rourke — 47 percent to 44 percent.
And though polling of this contest has been sparse this year, and Cruz remains the favorite in the red state, this result seems to cement the Texas race as a top target for Democrats as they battle to retake the Senate in 2018.
Though Trump won Texas, his margin of victory over Hillary Clinton was only 9 percentage points — the closest Texas had been in a presidential election for two decades. And the Quinnipiac poll finds that the state’s voters aren’t particularly thrilled with Trump’s performance in office — 52 percent of respondents disapproved of it, while 43 percent approved.
O’Rourke’s fundraising numbers have been impressive too — powered by grassroots small donors who seem to really want Ted Cruz gone from the Senate, O’Rourke raised more than twice as much money as Cruz did in the first quarter of this year and has a comparable amount of cash on hand to the incumbent senator.
However, Quinnipiac also found that O’Rourke still wasn’t particularly well-known statewide, with 53 percent of respondents saying they didn’t know enough to form an opinion of him. Cruz will seek to take advantage of this situation by trying to define his opponent. (He’s already embarked on an odd effort to cast aspersions on O’Rourke for using the nickname “Beto.”)
The bigger picture is that though Democrats face a tremendously unfavorable map in trying to regain the Senate — they’re defending 26 seats to Republicans’ nine, with many of their own seats located in states Trump won — their chances appear to have improved in a few different places of late.
The party’s top two targets have long been Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) and the Arizona seat vacated by the retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). If Democrats won those two seats, they’d retake control of the chamber — if they held on to all of their own seats up this year, which could be quite difficult with red-staters like Joe Manchin (WV), Claire McCaskill (MO), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), and Joe Donnelly (IN) on the ballot.
For Democrats’ odds to improve, they needed to expand the number of competitive GOP-held races to some redder states — like the Tennessee open seat in which former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) is polling ahead of Marsha Blackburn, the Mississippi special election in which Republicans are dealing with intraparty tensions, and Cruz’s seat in Texas. They’ll face difficulties in all three races — but it does appear that they’re in the hunt.