Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is hoping to avoid a reprisal of his 2018 close call as he preps for a potential general election challenge from Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) in what could be one of the most expensive races on the Senate map next year.
Democrats are hoping the race emerges as a rare competitive contest for a GOP-held seat in 2024. But Cruz, the two-term conservative firebrand, is looking to make his narrow 2018 win in a knockdown, drag-out fight the exception and not the rule.
“I feel very confident about this election,” Cruz told The Hill in a brief interview. “I fully expect for the Democrats to spend $100 million in nasty attack ads because today’s Democrat Party is angry, and they want to express that rage. But for my end, I’m going to keep the race about our substantive records and our visions for the state of Texas.”
Thankfully for Cruz, the situation has changed drastically from 2018 to this cycle. Heading into his first reelection campaign, Cruz was fresh off of his 2016 presidential bid and his high-profile wars with former President Trump, all of which put him behind the eight ball back home.
The polling shows as much. According to the University of Texas’s tracking of his job approval, Cruz is sitting at 45 percent, a figure that has remained relatively static throughout his second term. Throughout the 2018 cycle, Cruz was mired between 38 and 40 percent.
He also had a uniquely strong opponent that year in then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who married a message of unity, an anti-Cruz sentiment among Democrats and independents, and a fundraising prowess that was unmatched to create a perfect storm against the Texas senator.
Cruz survived, but he won by less than three percentage points, virtually ensuring he won’t be caught flat-footed as a battle with Allred looms ahead.
“I think the $80 million that Beto raised from small-dollar contributions in a relatively short amount of time kind of snuck up on Ted. That’s not going to happen this time,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “I told him, ‘You’re going to win, but this may well be the most expensive Senate race in Texas history — again.’”
Allred, an ex-NFL player, laid out his opening argument in a rollout video last week and targeted Cruz for his push to overturn the 2020 election results and for traveling to Cancun in February 2021 while the state was paralyzed by a deadly winter storm.
“Ted Cruz only cares about himself,” Allred said.
Allred flipped what was then a competitive district from red to blue in 2018, and the nonpartisan election forecaster Cook Political Report shifted the Senate race from “solid Republican” to “likely Republican.”
However, Cruz and Texas Republicans have a number of arrows in their quiver heading into the 2024 contest.
Texas remains a right-leaning state, as evidenced by the party’s success across the board in 2022 and headlined by Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) 11-point reelection victory over O’Rourke. The GOP has also been buoyed by increased support across South Texas.
Republicans also argue they have an issue advantage heading into the 2024 cycle because the most important items in the state remain the border and the economy.
“The concern I’d have if I’m Allred is that the most important issues in Texas aren’t a lot of Democratic issues,” one Texas-based Republican strategist said, noting the leading topics are those two “and not much else.”
“He’s got a math problem in the state, and he’s got an issue problem when two-thirds of voters are saying border and the economy. … I’m trying to see what his issue lane is going to be other than attacking Ted relentlessly,” the strategist continued. “Ted would have to do something Cancun-ish to start a snowball effect. I just don’t know that he’s going to fall into a trap like that.”
Cruz’s team has already seized on Allred’s record and party-line support for President Biden. They argue he is not the moderate he is trying to portray himself as. Allred’s team is quick to mention he is one of the few members to have been endorsed in recent cycles by the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Democrats in the state recognize they don’t just have a problem at the border, but also a problem with how they talk about it. Changing that, they say, is crucial to fixing their political woes in Texas.
“We have got to talk about the border. It’s not the same thing as immigration. We may see the issue as being connected, but [voters] see immigration and border security as being two different, and we can’t ignore it, and we can’t pivot to immigration without talking about the border,” said Ed Espinoza, an Austin-based Democratic operative.
“If we don’t figure out how to talk about the border, we are going to see the same results we always see, and it’s never good,” Espinoza added.