Politics & Government

Texas’ O’Rourke wants Texas money in his bid to topple Cruz

Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, of El Paso, Texas, speaks at the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson, Texas.
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, of El Paso, Texas, speaks at the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson, Texas. AP

Progressive donors fired up about President Donald Trump’s election have been raising big sums of money for red state Democratic congressional candidates this year – but Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke doesn’t want their help.

O’Rourke, an El Paso area congressman, faces long odds in his Senate bid against well-funded incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Yet analysts find the race offers Democrats their third best opportunity to pick up a Republican-held seat next year, and a net gain of three seats would flip control to Democrats.

But O’Rourke wants to run his race without out-of-state help, which he says could heighten the national party’s influence in a state where national Democrats aren’t popular. He also wants to attack Cruz for spending time out of state when he sought the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

So even though O’Rourke says he’ll need to raise tens of millions of dollars to make the race competitive, he is carefully aiming to keep those efforts in state.

Cruz has a formidable $6.4 million stockpiled for his re-election, but O’Rourke has rivaled the senator’s fundraising pace since joining the race in March.

He outraised Cruz by about $500,000 in the second quarter of 2017, and trailed him by $300,000 in the most recent quarter, which ended September 30. Cruz’s total in that quarter included his leadership PAC and some other funds.

Cruz’s campaign did not announce what percentage of his money came from inside the state, but O’Rourke boasted 76 percent of his contributions came from Texans.

“The vast majority of what we’ve raised has come from Texas and will continue to come from Texas, as it should be,” O’Rourke told the Star-Telegram in an interview Tuesday.

“I’d much rather it come from Texas, and people in Texas want to know I’m independent of any real or perceived connections that would get in the way of ensuring that I’m delivering for Texas,” he added.

Texas Democratic strategist Matt Angle estimated O’ Rourke will need about $40 million to be taken seriously as a candidate. And Cruz, an ever-polarizing figure to the left, could be a prime target for progressive donors across the country.

Other Democratic candidates running in red-state special elections since Trump took office in January have raised millions from a national donor network that’s helped tighten what had seemed to be routs. Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff outraised his Republican opponent Karen Handel by almost $20 million, largely thanks to donors in New York in California.

But that help has come with drawbacks. Republicans attacked Ossoff relentlessly for his out-of-state money, and he lost in a close race featuring ads saying California was trying to buy a Georgia congressional seat.

“Jon Ossoff should serve as a cautionary tale of what happens when candidates fly themselves around the country introducing themselves to the liberal glitterati,” said Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist who serves as president of the American Action Network Super PAC, which spent millions of dollars attacking Ossoff. “It was in almost every ad we ran,” he added.

O’Rourke is sensitive to that dynamic. He’s turning down most national television requests that candidates such as Ossoff used to expand their donor network, while giving his cell phone number out to local reporters.

“A conversation with the Star-Telegram is 10 times as valuable as a conversation with the New York Times or somebody else,” O’Rourke said.

He did hold a fundraiser in California’s Silicon Valley this month, according to an invitation obtained by the tech news site Recode. And his campaign is doing online fundraising outside Texas, a tactic of Ossoff and others, drawing in 76,237 contributions for a total of $2,403,164.

O’Rourke won’t have a choice whether national Democrats try to influence his race, particularly if polls start to show a close contest next fall. That could potentially muddy O’Rourke’s message. Running in bright red Texas, he likes to highlight a legislative record of working across the aisle.

“Most of what I’ve been able to accomplish, I’ve been able to do with Republicans and Democrats, so I don’t really define myself against another party,” said O’Rourke.

Cruz’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch