Lately I’m stuck trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance between two positions:
1. It’s Texas and O’Rourke is a loud-and-proud liberal. I don’t care how much money he’s raised or what the polls say. This race isn’t in doubt.
2. Cruz sure does seem to be acting like he thinks this race is in doubt.
It’s one thing for him to have spent the past week posting tweets and running ads about O’Rourke and the NFL anthem demonstrations. That reeks of desperation but he’d be a fool not to call it to voters’ attention in a red state. But the fact that an incumbent Republican senator apparently wants — needs? — the Republican president of the United States on the trail for him this fall in farking Texas is the one of the most ominous signs yet of a frightful blue wave gathering.
I will be doing a major rally for Senator Ted Cruz in October. I’m picking the biggest stadium in Texas we can find. As you know, Ted has my complete and total Endorsement. His opponent is a disaster for Texas – weak on Second Amendment, Crime, Borders, Military, and Vets!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 31, 2018
The first reply to that on Twitter is “Why would you do a rally for the guy whose dad killed JFK? #SAD” That’s another reason a Trump rally for Cruz is surprising. It’s not just that POTUS hitting the trail in the reddest of states (where he’s not even super-popular) suggests a November wipeout, it’s that it’s an invitation to the media to revisit all of the bad blood between him and Cruz. Will that produce more positive or negative headlines for Cruz on balance?
Nor is it just Trump Sr who’ll be in Texas this fall:
Another question mark: Will the Trumps stumping for Cruz do more to turn out Texas Republicans or Texas Democrats? If you assume that Texas Dems are already as motivated as they can be by Betomania, then it makes sense as a turnout motivator on the right. If you believe, however, that a meaningful number of centrists are open to voting Cruz but are leery of POTUS, then maybe it backfires. Cruz is calculating that there aren’t a meaningful number — which is probably true. Given his embrace of Trumpy talking points like the NFL protest controversy, anything that those fabled centrists dislike about Trump is probably something that they dislike about Cruz too. Instead Cruz is going to follow the Bannon strategy and try to maximize turnout among the Republican base, including and especially among Trump fans who might still have hard feelings towards him for not endorsing Trump at the 2016 convention. Bygones will be bygones by election day.
One theory I was toying with when I saw Trump’s tweet was this is actually just a fundraising ploy by Trump and Cruz, with no intention of holding a rally. Cruz has been nudging his donors lately to kick in, alarmed by the size of O’Rourke’s war chest, but some rich Republicans are no doubt struggling with the same cognitive dissonance I am. It’s Texas. He’s not going to lose! Cutting him a check would be wasted money. How can Cruz communicate to them that he really does need big bucks to stay competitive under those circumstances? Well, scheduling a rally with Trump is one way. That’s a red alert for the race with a siren blaring “COMPETITIVE! COMPETITIVE!” If the cash starts flowing in, maybe they’ll end up canceling the rally after all believing that the announcement served its purpose.
There’s another scenario, though: What if something happens, whether Russiagate-related or otherwise, to damage Trump’s popularity next month? There’s a nonzero chance that having him on the trail will be a net liability after all. Would Cruz dare cancel the rally under those circumstances? If he does, Trump might be pissed and in turn his fans will be pissed, damaging Cruz’s “base” strategy. If he goes ahead and holds the rally, though, then he’s saddled with whatever baggage is saddling Trump himself at the time. It’s strange that they would scheduled and announce the rally so far in advance given how unpredictable Trump’s political fortunes are (and how unpredictable Trump himself is).
Exit question: What happens to Cruz’s political future if O’Rourke wins? What I mean is, I’ve been operating on the assumption that if Cruz ends up unemployed, he’ll land somewhere else in the government — maybe as Sessions’s successor as AG, maybe as Noel Francisco’s successor as Solicitor General, maybe as … Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s successor on the Supreme Court. No doubt Trump would consider him, but there’s a wrinkle in that scenario. If O’Rourke wins, it’s highly likely that Democrats will win elsewhere in November and take back the Senate. How the hell is Ted Cruz getting confirmed for anything in that case? I’d be curious to know from statisticians what the probability is that Beto pulls the upset but Republicans win elsewhere and hold the Senate narrowly again next year. It’s certainly not zero: O’Rourke is something of a phenomenon on the left, particularly with his fundraising, and might prevail in a close race where other Democrats nationally fall just short in theirs. What are the odds of that? Twenty percent, maybe?