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Democrats eye Sen. Ted Cruz's seat in Republican-dominated Texas as a possible flip

FILE - Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, ask a question during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Feb. 9, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Mariam Zuhaib
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AP
FILE - Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, ask a question during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Feb. 9, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Democrats are facing a tough U.S. Senate map next year. The party will need to hold on to some vulnerable seats in Republican states, as well as potentially flip a seat or two if they lose any of those closely watched races if they hope to remain in control of the chamber.

One of the seats they are hoping to flip is in deep-red Texas, where Republican Sen. Ted Cruz faces reelection in 2024.

Alex Morgan, the president of the Progressive Turnout Project, a political action committee that mobilizes Democratic voters during elections, says when his group first started preparing for next year, Texas' seat in the U.S. Senate was not on his radar.

"It is a tough state," he says. "It is a big state that requires a lot of investment."

But then Democratic Rep. Colin Allred — an attorney and former NFL linebacker — announced he was jumping into the race to oust Cruz.

FILE - Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 24, 2020.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
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AP
Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 24, 2020.

Allred flipped a congressional district outside Dallas in 2018, a year that Democrats did particularly well in the midterms. He's kept the seat ever since.

Morgan says Allred's announcement got him excited about the odds of Democrats flipping this seat.

"You know because he's battle-tested, well-known and well-liked in the state," he said. "So, he really makes it now where Texas becomes probably our best pickup opportunity across the country next year."

Democratic state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a key voice in the state pushing for tougher gun laws after the Uvalde school shooting, recently announced he's also running.

There are a couple of reasons why some Democrats are optimistic

For one, the last time Cruz was up for reelection he only won his race against former Rep. Beto O'Rourke by less than three percentage points. It remains one of the closest statewide races in Texas in recent history.

FILE - This combination of Sept. 21, 2018, file photos shows Texas U.S. Senate candidates in the November 2018 election from left, incumbent GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, left, and former Democratic U.S. Representative Beto O'Rourke.
Tom Fox / AP
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AP
A combination of photos shows Texas U.S. Senate candidates Ted Cruz, the incumbent (left), and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke facing off in a debate in Dallas on Sept. 21, 2018.

But Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser says he thinks that race was a fluke more than it is a sign that a Senate seat from Texas is really within reach for Democrats.

"Without Beto O'Rourke on the ballot, it's going to be harder for Democrats to take the seat," he predicted. "O'Rourke caught lightning in a bottle. He came out of nowhere. He raised $80 million plus. And he made a huge impact on the race and energized a lot of voters."

Steinhauser says he doesn't think Democrats in Texas are going to be as motivated next year as they were in 2018.

But Sawyer Hackett with the Lose Cruz PAC — a group of Democratic strategists working to get Ted Cruz out of office — says there's some other big reasons he might be vulnerable next year.

"Ted Cruz is deeply unpopular both in Texas and nationally," Hackett said. "He consistently ranks as one of the most disliked senators serving in the caucus. But especially in Texas he has had underwater approval ratings since he took office."

Another liability, Hackett says, is the backlash Cruz got in 2021 when he went to Cancun to escape a deadly winter storm in Texas that left large swaths of the state without power and water for several days.

"I think if you ask people to name one thing that they know about Ted Cruz, the first thing that they would say is Cancun," he said.

But Steinhauser says that he thinks Cruz did a good job of handling that scandal.

"I think he saw that as a mistake and kind of admitted as such and worked to repair some of that damage," he said. "That's one weekend, if you will, versus a whole lifetime and a whole career of work that I think he is going to point to and say, 'on the issues that you guys care about the most, I am with you and here is how and here is why.'"

James Henson with the Texas Politics Project at UT Austin says he also doesn't think Cruz is as vulnerable as Democrats hope he is.

He says Democrats have long thought that Cruz's likability problems and baggage would eventually cost him during elections.

"But you know Cruz has proven fairly resilient," he explained. "I think he is going to have challenges this time. You know but I think you still have to figure that the odds are in his favor, albeit perhaps less so than they've been in the past."

While the state has changed demographically very quickly in that time, that hasn't actually manifested into any big changes politically. At least not yet. Henson says statewide elections are slowly getting closer in Texas, but Democrats are still on a long losing streak.

"There has not been a Democrat elected statewide since the 1990s," Henson said. "And Republicans' electoral success in the state could fairly be called uniform. That is, Republicans have controlled all three branches of state government here for the entirety of the 21st century."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.