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Liberal groups wade into pricey Texas Senate race

Democrat Beto O’Rourke speaks to supporters at a rally in Johnson City, Texas, August 5, 2018.
Democrat Beto O’Rourke speaks to supporters at a rally in Johnson City, Texas, August 5, 2018. Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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Inside the Texas Senate race

Go behind the scenes of the race between Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Beto O’Rourke.

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Washington liberal groups are gearing up to help Democrat Beto O’Rourke — stoking fear among some national Democratic leaders who warn the expensive Texas race could become a drain on their party’s resources to retake the Senate this fall.

The first investments have so far been modest: trackers, digital ads and door knockers, compared to millions of dollars outside groups are already spending on TV ads for candidates in other states.

The groups’ leaders say more ambitious plans could come later this fall, however, as the El Paso congressman continues to draw national attention to his uphill quest to upset Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

“[O’Rourke] doubled up [Cruz’s] fundraising last quarter,” said one national Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s a beautiful thing to see, but if you’re a donor, your money is sorely needed elsewhere if we’re going to flip the chamber.”

Democrats are defending 24 Senate seats this election cycle, including 10 incumbents representing states that President Donald Trump won.

They’re also targeting a Republican incumbent in Nevada, a state Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, as well GOP-held seats in Tennessee and Arizona, where sitting senators aren’t running for re-election, in their quest to break a 51-49 Republican Senate majority.

O’Rourke raised north of $10 million between the months of April and June this year — more than any other Democratic Senate candidate in the country.

He says roughly 70 percent of the money came from donors in Texas, and that he’s asked leaders of Democrats’ Senate campaign arm to spend their resources on other contests this November.

O’Rourke isn’t accepting money from political action committees, and has asked them to stay out of his race.

“If you look at this trajectory of this campaign over the last year and a half, every single day we are making up ground,” O’Rourke told supporters in Kerrville, Texas, earlier this month. “Far more powerful than any television ad, any attack ad, any of that negative small stuff, is the big, bold, beautiful, confident strong people of Texas.”

That’s not stopping outside groups that want to help O’Rourke’s campaign, some of which are already laying out plans to go into expensive Texas.

This summer the Democratic research group American Bridge dispatched opposition trackers to start following Cruz around Texas — something they also did during Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Staff from End Citizens United, a group pushing for campaign finance reform, plans to knock on doors with O’Rourke’s campaign as a part of a bus tour this month, spokesman Adam Bozzi told the Star-Telegram this week. End Citizens United has already commissioned several polls of the race, something the O’Rourke campaign says it doesn’t plan to pay for on its own, and is still weighing whether it will go on TV for him this fall.

NARAL Pro-Choice, which endorsed O’Rourke in his race against Cruz, plans to run digital ads targeting suburban women for the contest, political director Nicole Brener-Schmitz told the Star-Telegram on Friday.

That group’s president, Dallas-native Ilyse Hogue, also recorded a video ad for an anti-Cruz super PAC earlier this month.

A fourth group, Ultraviolet, which is focused on reproductive and LGBT rights, this week included Cruz as part of a modest, multi-state digital ad campaign, attacking him on women’s health.

“Some of our biggest investors are based in Texas,” said Shaunna Thomas, president and co-founder of the group UltraViolet, which teamed up with American Bridge for digital ads against Cruz.

“We have heard a lot of appreciation from people on the ground in Texas for spending resources [there],” Thomas told the Star-Telegram. “So I would not be surprised if we see more activity [from other groups].”

Texas donors are some of the biggest financiers of both parties’ political efforts.

Last election cycle a single major donor pressured one Democratic outside group to invest millions to help his favored candidate in a Democratic primary in Maryland — drawing complaints from party leaders who would have preferred the money be spent against Republicans.

Wednesday night, Texas actor and director Ethan Hawke hosted a fundraiser for O’Rourke in Fort Worth, with tickets ranging from $125 to $250, according to an invitation shared with the Star-Telegram.

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She can be reached at; @andreadrusch
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