Democrats' shocking victory in the Alabama Senate special election undoubtedly has raised their potential list of seats they might win. If they can win in the Deep South, they can win anywhere.
High on the list of reach targets is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is up for re-election in 2018. Hillary Clinton did quite well in Texas, only losing by 9 points (better than she did in Iowa) — as compared to nearly 28 points in Alabama. What's more, Democrats have a solid candidate in the form of Rep. Beto O'Rourke from El Paso.
Victory is a real possibility.
It is true, of course, that Cruz does not have any molestation scandals hanging over his head. But almost unbelievably, his approval rating is actually lower in Texas than Roy Moore's is in Alabama.
Figuring out just why this is necessarily involves a bit of guesswork, as there isn't a lot of polling on the question. But one factor is undoubtedly Cruz's performance at the Republican National Convention, where he pointedly refused to endorse then-candidate Donald Trump in a speech — and then later came around and supported him anyway. Thus did he alienate both the Republican rank-and-file, who love Trump, and the minority of anti-Trump conservatives.
Some of it's probably just Cruz himself, though. This might sound rather petty, but it's simply undeniable that Cruz is one of the most detestable people ever to hold national office in the United States — not in terms of actual bad actions, though God knows Cruz has his share of those, but in purely personal terms. He's a pathological showboater, who has repeatedly undermined the party to boost his own profile, like when he deliberately provoked a government shutdown over repealing ObamaCare in 2013 that the party leadership knew it could not win, then cynically whipped up the base against sellout RINOs in Washington when they lost. His personality is also just plain intolerable — he constantly exudes a smarmy, condescending, debate pedant miasma, like some fog machine programmed by a biochemist to produce maximum possible irritation.
People who have known Cruz for a long time testify he's always been like this. And just like at Princeton, he drives almost everyone up the wall, inspiring unreasoning hatred among his Republican colleagues in the Senate. Indeed, one important factor behind Trump's primary victory was the party elite's bald refusal to countenance the fact that Cruz was their only realistic non-Trump candidate.
A further obstacle for Cruz is the historic unpopularity of the Republican Party. Democrats now have a 15-point advantage in the generic congressional ballot, and Trump barely crests 40 percent approval in Texas. No doubt that is partly the result of Trump's endless scandals and incompetence, and party the result of the god-awful tax bill the GOP is attempting to jam through under cover of secrecy.
All of this combines to make Cruz likely beatable, though particular strategies for winning are going to be necessarily rather speculative at such a chaotic political moment.
One can say a few things, though: First, Texas has a huge Latino population, which has a low rate of voter registration compared to whites. Mass registration drives in Latino communities are one obvious strategy for O'Rourke — and bolstered by credible commitments on immigration reform, education, and good-paying jobs.
The victory of Doug Jones also is instructive. Though Jones is pretty moderate for a Democrat, as Paul Blest points out, he also didn't run a typical Blue Dog conservative-lite campaign — he remained fairly strongly pro-choice, attacked Moore for not supporting the Children's Health Insurance Program, and constantly reminded voters of his successful prosecution of the white supremacist Birmingham church bombers. On balance, Jones is certainly the most left-leaning Alabama senator since Hugo Black, and probably ever.
It's probably not the case that copy-pasting Bernie Sanders' exact playbook is the best way to win in Texas. But it's definitely not true that worn out Blue Dog-ism, with its abortion squishery and its anxious fretting over the deficit and entitlement "reform" is the way to win. Instead, find issues that, unlike austerity and Medicare cuts, will actually help a large majority of the state, and do have significant support — or can also fire up the base voters and organizers that will put in time volunteering, as Jones' volunteers made 1.2 million phone calls and knocked on 800,000 doors.
Winning in Texas will be a steep uphill battle for any Democrat. But as Jones' victory shows, the way to win nationally is by contesting every single race, no matter how implausible — you never know how well you'll do for sure unless you try, and you never know when you might get lucky.
So if O'Rourke can capitalize on Cruz's historic unpopularity, inspire liberals and leftists to turn out, and register a boatload of Latinos, he might just pull it off.