The simple truth is now out there. Ted Cruz’s reelection as a Republican U.S. Senator is in trouble because a lot of people think he’s a jerk.
OK, so they don’t use that word in polling. But one recent survey found 41 percent of Texas’s registered voters have a negative opinion of Cruz, while another put his unfavorable rating at 42 percent. The worst of the surveys, a recent Emerson College poll, found Cruz upside down with a 38 percent positive rating and an unfavorable rating of 44 percent—jumping to 57 percent unfavorable among self-identified independent voters.
That these bad rating numbers reflect personality and not policy was driven home over the weekend when President Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney told a Republican gathering that the party might lose the Texas Senate race because the party’s nominee is not likeable.
“Do people like you? It’s a really important question. It’s a very important question. There is a very real possibility we will win a race for Senate in Florida and lose a race in Texas for Senate. I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s a possibility,” he said. “How likable is the candidate? That still counts. When you’re voting for president, you’re voting for . . . the big issues. When you’re voting for your member of Congress, you want to have looked that person in the eye and decide whether you like that person or not.”
Ted Cruz was the man Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had in mind in 2016 when he said the Republican Party had gone “batshit crazy” by going too hard to the right. “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you,” Graham said. And liberal former Senator Al Franken once wrote, “I like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues, and I hate Ted Cruz.” Graham has since apologized, and Franken resigned from the Senate amid sexual harassment allegations, but they weren’t the only ones to dish doubt on the junior senator of Texas.
Former House Speaker John Boehner called Cruz a “miserable son of a bitch,” and the late Senator John McCain called Cruz one of the “wacko birds.” Add to that the thoughts of former President George W. Bush of Texas: “I just don’t like the guy.”
Cruz pollster Chris Wilson disputes the notion that Cruz is widely disliked by the Texas voters who will actually cast ballots in November. For one, Wilson says the public polls are of registered voters, not likely voters. There are about fifteen million registered voters in Texas and less than 40 percent are likely to turn out in this election. A national survey by Morning Consult earlier this year had Cruz at 48 percent positive and 35 percent negative. Wilson said Cruz’s performance in elections is more telling than media surveys. He said Cruz was not expected to defeat sitting Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst to win his seat in the Senate and then came from the back of the pack to finish second in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries behind Donald Trump. “For a guy that nobody likes, they sure keep voting for him. There are a lot of people who may not like the fact that Ted Cruz is not going to adjust his position on issues just to make friends,” Wilson said. “I would put Morning Consult and our numbers up against John Boehner any day of the week.”
There’s a lesson from Texas political history that applies to the Cruz re-election campaign. Democratic Governor Ann Richards began her 1994 re-election campaign with a positive rating of 55 percent to 39 percent, and by Election Day her personal favorables were up to 61 percent positive to 28 percent negative. But Republican George W. Bush defeated her easily. As one Democratic friend said, the people of Texas wanted to see Richards on the Tonight Show, not in the Governor’s Mansion.
Part of the reason for this is the Bush campaign early on decided they would have to defeat Richards with a series of issues. If they engaged in a personality contest, Richards would win.
Cruz and his campaign have allowed his challenge from Democrat Beto O’Rourke to turn into a personality contest. O’Rourke often is compared to a member of the Kennedy family of Massachusetts, and substantial portions of his campaign financing have come from out of state, about $2.5 million from California and New York combined. On the other hand, Cruz gets compared to Grandpa from the old TV show “The Munsters.” Cruz is pedantic and presents himself with a hard-core, knee-jerk conservatism that has a certitude that is irritating to those who do not agree with him completely.
O’Rourke appears on the talk shows of Ellen DeGeneres and is scheduled to appear with Stephen Colbert. Cruz is on Fox News. One of those is like a fun confectionary. The other is boiled spinach.
At a rally Saturday in Katy, Cruz fired up his crowd by telling them Democrats are angry and ready to show up at the polls.
“We’ve got a fight on our hands. The extreme left, they’re angry, they’re energized, and they hate the president,” Cruz said. Then he over-estimated O’Rourke’s out of state fundraising. “We are seeing tens of millions of dollars flooding into Texas from all over the country who desperately want to turn the state of Texas blue. They want us to be just like California, right down to tofu, silicon and dyed hair.”
He immediately admitted that his wife, Hedi, is a vegetarian from California. That’s OK, he said, because he got her to move to Texas. Making fun of California may not be as good of an idea as Cruz thinks. The San Diego Tribune reported earlier this year that the majority of the people leaving California for Texas are young people on the lower portion of the income spectrum—in short, the kind of people who usually vote Democratic. To see Cruz’s statements, go to 19:11 in this video.
The biggest advantage Cruz has now—besides the fact Texas voter turnout still favors Republicans—is that about a third of the state’s voters still don’t know enough about O’Rourke to have an opinion of him. Cruz’s campaign can shape that opinion with negative ads, such as a new web piece on O’Rourke’s role as an El Paso city councilman in pushing controversial redevelopment plans for a historic barrio. But every time any politician attacks an opponent, the negatives also go up for the attacking politico.
In Cruz’s case, this can be made worse by attacks like the one his campaign leveled against O’Rourke last week over flag burning. A video of O’Rourke was selectively edited to make it look like O’Rourke supported flag burning instead of the constitutional right of protest. The Cruz attack came off looking like a lie. Not good when the one insult President Trump rally managed to make stick to Cruz in the 2016 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination was “lying Ted.”
Politico is now reporting that Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick interceded with the White House in July to set up the president’s planned visit to Texas to campaign for Cruz in October. Trump remains very popular with Republicans in Texas, even if his numbers fade with independents and angry Democrats. But for both O’Rourke and Cruz, an off-year election is about stirring up the partisan base. As Cruz said at the Republican Party of Texas convention in June, it comes down to “turnout, turnout, turnout.”