WASHINGTON — Rep. Beto O’Rourke raised an astonishing $38.1 million in three months, as Democrats in Texas and nationwide showered him with donations for his bid to oust Sen. Ted Cruz.
The haul smashed previous records for a U.S. Senate contest, and assures that the hard-fought race, already the nation’s costliest, remains on top of the 2018 list.
O’Rourke’s tally is more than triple the $12 million that Cruz said he raised from July through September. Combined, the rivals have raised roughly $86 million, but the challenger’s total of $61.2 million vastly eclipses the incumbent’s $24.9 million.
“The people of Texas in all 254 counties are proving that when we reject PACs and come together not as Republicans or Democrats but as Texans and Americans, there’s no stopping us,” O’Rourke said.
Cruz — referring to O’Rourke as “Comrade Beto” — on Friday predicted that his opponent’s gusher of cash wouldn’t translate to the ballot box.
“Liberal, left-wing activists are flooding Texas with cash,” he said at a campaign event in Houston. “But at the end of the day, you can’t buy Texas.”
Fundraising at this pace is typically reserved only for presidential campaigns. And it shows the collective power of many relatively modest donations.
ActBlue, the online Democratic fund-raising platform, makes it easier than ever for candidates to collect small sums from many people, and to prompt supporters for recurring donations. O’Rourke has brought in at least $25 million that way this year, and based on the latest tally, likely far more.
The Democrat’s campaign said its staggering sum came from 802,836 individual contributions, most of them coming from Texas.
O’Rourke said Friday, during a meeting with The Dallas Morning News‘ editorial board, that his funds are being used to get his message on television in expensive media markets. But he added that the bulk of the money is being used to support a voter turnout operation in every corner of the state.
“Much of it’s spent,” O’Rourke said. “We are running the largest grassroots campaign in the history of this state. We have so many field organizers and volunteers and pop up offices, not just in Dallas and DeSoto, but … all over the place. We’re really putting our resources into people.”
The Democrat’s financial edge is now almost certainly insurmountable.
With $38 million, O’Rourke has the opportunity to blanket the airwaves in Texas, clutter every Texan’s Facebook feed with ads, provide a yard sign to anyone willing to plant it, and put an army of volunteers on the streets knocking on doors and prodding voters to the polls. He can also afford a private jet to barnstorm the far reaches of the vast battleground.
Cruz last week predicted the “bad news” that O’Rourke would “report a quarter north of $30 million.” But he told The Dallas Morning News then that his own sizable haul is a “sign that conservatives all over the state of Texas are stepping forward and engaging in this fight.”
“We are raising the resources to turn conservatives out in this election,” he said last week.
Still, O’Rourke’s fundraising prowess has astounded politicos on both sides of the aisle, particularly since the Democrat started the campaign as a relatively unknown figure who had limited fundraising appeal outside of the El Paso area.
Even before the announcement of the challenger’s gigantic third-quarter total, Texas Sen. John Cornyn helped host a fundraiser this week in Washington for Cruz. He said that kind of support was necessary because “what’s been so surprising here is how much money that Beto’s been raising.”
Republican political consultant Bill Miller added on Friday that “by anyone’s measure,” O’Rourke’s $38 million figure is a “colossal figure.”
“It’s beyond surprising,” said Miller, who’s based in Austin. “No one could predict or expect it. It reflects a lot of effort and a lot of support from people around the country. That’s how you get there. You have to be a national figure to attract that kind of money.”
The most recent polls, though, show Cruz with a solid single-digit lead.
A Quinnipiac University Poll released Thursday puts him ahead by 9 percentage points. A New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll that ended Thursday shows an 8 point lead. Other surveys in recent weeks showed a tighter race, and one top handicapper, the Cook Political Report, has rated the contest a toss-up.
More fundamental problems for O’Rourke may be embedded within that polling data.
The Times poll found, for instance, that 51 percent of likely voters in Texas had a favorable view of Cruz, while 42 percent had an unfavorable one. The favorable rating for O’Rourke, meanwhile, was 41 percent, compared to an unfavorable one of 44 percent. Quinnipiac showed a similar dynamic.
A big factor there could be that Cruz and his allies have been catching up in reaching the state’s TV audience, and they’ve been attacking O’Rourke hard, while the Democrat has projected a mostly positive message and image — an approach that makes it hard to put a dent in an opponent’s support.
Political experts generally agree that O’Rourke needs to punch back.
Harold Cook, a Democratic strategist in Texas, said the reality at the moment is that “two candidates are defining Beto, and only one candidate is defining Cruz.” He said O’Rourke is “going to have to present a compelling reason why voters should fire their incumbent.”
“Against a candidate like Cruz, I don’t think it’s even that tough and it doesn’t take that long,” he said, pointing out that Cruz’s hardline approach has rankled some Texans. “But it’s time to do it.”
Miller, the GOP consultant, agreed that “if you want to bring Ted Cruz back to Earth, you’re going to have to go after him.”
He said he didn’t know if that tactic would ultimately succeed, given that time is starting to run short to make a real difference. But he made clear that if O’Rourke doesn’t put his money into a “real aggressive, kind of mean campaign,” then the “race is lost.”
While O’Rourke has gotten this far by often resisting conventional political wisdom, he indicated this week that he will soon tweak his message to combat Cruz’s attacks.
During a recording of Lone Star Politics, a political show sponsored by The Dallas Morning News and KXAS-TV (NBC5), the Democrat said he would make a “sharper” contrast with Cruz going forward on issues ranging from health care to immigration to the economy.
“The people of Texas need to know that they have a very clear, defined choice in this election, and I’m going to make sure I present that contrast,” he said.
The Democrat maybe offered a hint of that approach on Friday, taking what’s been the rare step of him citing Cruz by name to ding the Republican for receiving support from political action committees.
O’Rourke’s haul is “more than three times the amount that Ted Cruz raised, not just in his campaign but all the affiliated political action committees that are contributing to his campaign,” he said, adding that his own effort is “making sure that democracy is powered by people and only people.”
Some Republicans have nonetheless mocked O’Rourke’s massive fundraising numbers, boasting that all that money will end up wasted in a losing effort.
Josh Holmes, a GOP strategist close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said on Twitter Friday that while O’Rourke’s haul was “insanely impressive,”Democrats are “really going to wish this cash bonfire wasn’t in Texas.”
But Cook, the Democratic strategist, shrugged off that attack.
He pointed out that there is no evidence that O’Rourke’s torrid fundraising has come at the expense of other Democratic candidates. Even in Texas, for example, a host of Democratic challengers at the congressional level have filled their war chests with uncharacteristically large amounts of money.
Cook also said that the “faith of those who contribute is a crucial first step” for Texas Democrats’ long-term aspirations, particularly since “you don’t get to communicate with voters for free.”
“Obviously, money doesn’t win elections,” he said. “But being broke sure loses a bunch of them.”