The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, Beto O’Rourke’s insane $38 million fundraising haul does not mean he can win Texas

Beto O'Rourke, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas, at an event in Austin in September. (Erich Schlegel/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

No doubt about it: Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) is a Democratic star the likes of which the party hasn’t seen in a Senate candidate in years. But is he too hot for the Democratic Party’s own good?

On Friday, his Senate campaign announced it raised $38 million in just the past three months.

That will go down in history. What O’Rourke raised in three months is what some presidential campaigns raise. It blasted through a fundraising record ($22 million in one quarter) that no Senate candidate has been able to touch in 18 years.

To put that money in perspective in Texas, $38 million was more than half of what O’Rourke — who was already raising insane sums of money — raised during the rest of his entire campaign. The $62 million he has raised so far is more than twice as much as his opponent, incumbent GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, has.

'It’s an astonishing number — and done with all people, no PACs," said Adam Bozzi with the End Citizens United PAC, which supports candidates like O’Rourke who have said no to political action money from special interests. O’Rourke’s campaign didn’t share much detail about his fundraising, but he did say the contributions averaged $47 from roughly 802,000 people, about half of whom were in Texas.

In Fort Davis, Tex., population 1,201, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) campaigns for the U.S. Senate and draws a crowd wanting political change. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

But that does not mean O'Rourke will win a Senate seat in Texas. He's still behind in the polls, and the fundamentals of the conservative state suggest it might not be ready to elect a Democrat to statewide office.

And if a fired-up Democratic base is so willing to pour money into big Senate races, you could argue that at least some of that money would be more useful going to fellow Democratic candidates in red-leaning states like North Dakota and West Virginia and Montana and Tennessee, all of whom have a much better chance of winning than O’Rourke does.

The Texas Senate race is still remarkably competitive. But let’s put this $38 million — and O’Rourke’s chances in Texas — in perspective.

He’s behind in the polls: O’Rourke hasn’t led in a single high-quality public poll since this race began. Some polls this spring and summer had the race too close to call. But since September, Cruz has been well ahead. A new Quinnipiac University poll shows Cruz ahead of O’Rourke by 9 percentage points, mirroring Republican private polling showing Cruz ahead. Polling closer to Election Day tends to be more accurate since more likely voters start paying attention.

Money can mean momentum, but it doesn’t always equal momentum: In 2014, Democrat Wendy Davis launched a buzzy run for governor in Texas. At one point she outraised her Republican opponent (though not nearly as much as O’Rourke is outpacing Cruz), earning her lots of national headlines and even more buzz.

She ended up losing the governor’s race by 20 points. It was the worst showing of a Democratic candidate for governor in the state in 16 years.

That’s not to say O’Rourke is going to lose as Davis did. But that a Democrat in Texas can raise tens of millions and still lose badly underscores our next point, that:

The fundamentals in the state still favor Republicans: There is plenty of evidence that Texas Democrats are motivated to vote in November — not an easy thing to do in a state where general elections are usually foregone conclusions for the Republican.

In this spring’s primary, Democrats doubled their turnout from 2014 to 2016, breaking 1 million voters. At the state level, Democrats are challenging Gov. Greg Abbott (R), 14 of 15 state Senate seats and nearly 90 percent of the state’s 150 state House seats. Texas Democrats haven’t put up that kind of defense in a quarter-century.

“The energy in the Lone Star State is palpable,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said.

But Republicans set their own primary vote record with 1.5 million votes. And they didn’t have to stretch that much to do it; 1.5 million votes was a slight uptick from the last midterm election cycle. Cruz got twice as many votes in his Republican primary than O’Rourke did in the Democratic one. And O’Rourke ceded 38 percent points to two much lesser-known, less-hyped challengers.

Democrats in Texas say that if the state votes like it looks (meaning minority and younger voters vote Democratic and vote in high numbers), it can be blue. But so far there’s little evidence that’s happening, at least to the degree Democrats need.

Signs of the blue wave in Texas? Not so fast.

There are a lot of other places this money might be more useful: One GOP operative calculates that what O’Rourke raised in three months is more than three times what Democrats have spent in North Dakota so far. It’s more than double what Democrats have spent in Tennessee and West Virginia.

Not every state is created equal, of course. It costs more to buy TV ads in Dallas than in, say, Fargo, N.D. But those three Senate races all have something in common that O’Rourke’s doesn’t: The Democrat is more likely to win.

Texas doesn’t even make the top 10 of the Fix’s latest rankings of the most competitive Senate races. Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen in Tennessee are all on the list. Some of those candidates, especially Heitkamp, are fighting for their political careers. And their races are crucial to helping Democrats take back the Senate.

Why is Heidi Heitkamp voting against Kavanaugh?

Republicans to whom The Fix spoke couldn’t be happier to see so much Democratic money go into Texas instead.

“Every dollar that’s going to Beto," said one Republican operative watching the race closely and granted anonymity to speak candidly, “is a dollar that is not going to Florida or Montana or North Dakota.”