The Senate race in Texas is one of the most covered races of this midterm election season. In the debate on October 16, both candidates followed the advice of their strategists—Ted Cruz pushed policy and results, Beto O’Rourke bipartisanship and goal setting. The star power of a young and charismatic liberal has clashed with an experienced conservative incumbent to create a race that has drawn incredible amounts of money and attention from out-of-state citizens and the national media. It is unclear whether that attention is warranted, but as O’Rourke lands spots on Ellen DeGeneres’s and Stephen Colbert’s shows, people’s interest in the Texas Senate race has skyrocketed. Democrats need to temper their expectations for O’Rourke: for all his personal qualities, his candidacy for the Texas Senate seat is fundamentally compromised by his lack of policy experience.
Many Democrats have latched onto O’Rourke as a new face of liberalism, like a modern Kennedy. O’Rourke has not been a significant actor during his term in the House, yet his national popularity has exploded out of left field from his campaign. He was virtually unknown outside of El Paso until this year, but one video that featured his response to the NFL protests went viral on social media and caused the coverage to skyrocket. The Democratic party is still looking for the right 2020 presidential nominee after national losses under Obama and Hillary’s defeat left the party reeling. But the star power of O’Rourke may help revive interest in liberal messages. Only when O’Rourke began hosting rallies—and whispers of a Texas Democrat drawing crowds were heard in DC and on Twitter—did the party start to take him seriously, with the idea of his candidacy for president even being floated around.
In the debate, the candidates’ respective approaches were revealing: Cruz relied on his steady conservative policy record, which Texan voters love, while O’Rourke emphasized his direct contact with citizens and refusal to accept dirty money. O’Rourke further pointed out that Cruz had missed about 14 percent of Senate votes while he ran for president (ten times more votes missed than the average among all other senators) in response to Cruz’s strategy of reinforcing his supposed Senate influence in the minds of Texans. Yet Cruz has a strong voting record (when he isn’t running for president) and history of policymaking in the Senate, neither of which O’Rourke has shown in the House.
O’Rourke’s noticeable lack of tangible policy experience is his greatest weakness in the Texas race. When pushed by the moderator to give a specific plan or reference particular bills, O’Rourke came up empty and instead emphasized the importance of defining goals—and then addressing policy. Pivoting away from these questions is second nature for O’Rourke, as he has almost no history of successful legislation. Emphasizing his bipartisan history, he referenced a total of two bills in the debate, both of which he co-sponsored with Republican representatives. But for a junior congressman, cosponsorship is often done out of necessity more than for the sake of political kumbaya.
O’Rourke has little real muscle on Capitol Hill: only one of his own bills has passed and it was simply about renaming a courthouse. Meanwhile, hundreds of Cruz’s sponsored bills have become law. Cruz has shown Texans that he can produce results, though without the charisma of O’Rourke. As the debate addressed election tampering, Cruz referenced his bill concerning ballot box integrity. Asked about women, he discussed how he showed Christine Blasey Ford respect while on the hearing committee for the Kavanaugh confirmation (although many who watched the hearing would disagree). When pushed on the national debt, Cruz touted his contributions to the GOP’s new tax plan. Every Cruz answer solidified the idea that even though he is an unlikable candidate, he wields substantial power within the GOP and can get things done.
Cruz’s policy answers consisted of conservative buzzwords to curry Republican favor and drive the ballots of undecided voters to the right. Suggesting O’Rourke is like Hillary—a lover of socialized medicine and an extreme leftist—allowed Cruz to put O’Rourke into a liberal box that independent voters tend to shy away from (even if Cruz does so disingenuously). Cruz is exactly the type of representative that traditional Texan voters want in the Senate. By combining his experience with the perception that he is the more realistic candidate, he ensures that the conversation is about results, not ideas. In a race about tangible consequence, the choice is clearly not in O'Rourke's favor. While his opinions and voting record do reflect liberal ideals, he has struggled to create real change in a staunchly red state with deep ties to traditional Republican policy initiatives.
With an insufficient legislative record dragging him down, O’Rourke relies on characterizing Cruz’s absences during the presidential primaries as evidence that Texans do not matter to him. Citing his visits to every county in Texas, O’Rourke pushed his direct interactions with citizens as a reason to vote Cruz out and himself in. His frenetic campaigning and ability to dominate social media with powerful punchlines has been successful, but media pizzaz is no substitute for actionable policy advocacy. Cruz can shroud his policy positions in typical partisan rhetoric, like when he rejected Roe v. Wade by asserting that all human life is a gift from God; painted himself as a rational science-believing politician who nonetheless values Texas’ oil industry over climate regulations; and emphasized costs to voters under current healthcare policies. Each of these answers was a regurgitation of the Republican Party’s well-known platform and Cruz came off as a knock-off of Mitch McConnell—but a knock-off with reliable policy positions.
It speaks to the utter disarray of the party when a three term congressman is suddenly quasi-presidential material. The fact that O’Rourke is conjured up as a champion of the new left is a sad reflection of how lacking the Democratic Party’s platform has been with regards to actual results. While Democrats’ inability to show policy achievements as of late is somewhat understandable, given they have been in the minority in Congress, uplifting new figureheads who lack policy experience is a questionable strategy at best. A candidate lacking in substance is the opposite of what Democrats should prioritize; O’Rourke’s lack of experience is a clear sign that he does not have the wherewithal to incite change at the Senate level.
Are the Americans who have latched onto O’Rourke’s campaign truly interested in seeing him take Cruz’s seat and help Democrats reclaim their Senate majority—a long shot at best—or are they simply starstruck by a handsome politician with compelling rhetoric at an opportune moment? Beto has become a knight in shining armor to those who want to see an inspirational political figure emerge from an unexpected place. Americans who lean left on the political spectrum look at O’Rourke and wonder: how could someone so charming and evocative not be the right choice for Texas? But Cruz is the prototypical conservative Texan that Republican voters want; O’Rourke’s flaws as a candidate cannot overcome that reality, even considering his rapid stardom. Ironically, it seems that in an era where substance often takes a back seat to appearance, the Texas Senate race will favor the former.
The author volunteered for Beto O'Rourke's Senate campaign. Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Gate.