How Ted Cruz barely hung on

Let’s check some hot takes on what happened in the Senate race.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

All in all, Beto improved upon Democratic gains in Texas’ 10 most populous counties, long central to their hopes of turning the state purple. But what about the suburban and more rural areas that make up the rest of the state?

The challenger managed to flip Nueces, Hays and Williamson counties, all which went for Trump in 2016. He even managed to reclaim Jefferson County, which was the only county Cruz lost in 2012 that Trump won in 2016.

Of the 30 most populous counties, Beto won or virtually tied in 14 of them. But Cruz was still able to stave off the challenger.

This comes from Cruz’s Republican base of support from smaller rural counties. Beto’s strategy of visiting all 254 Texas counties was not able to make up enough ground in these heavily red areas to overcome Cruz’s advantage.

Cruz was also able to reclaim some lost ground from 2016. He won back Kenedy County, which Trump lost by eight percentage point in 2016.

It may have been a tighter race than in years past, but Texas is still a Republican state regardless of the urban and suburban areas trending more Democratic.

Kinda lukewarm, actually. Mostly, that’s not nearly specific and detailed enough for my taste. Let’s see what the Observer has to say.

On average, outside the state’s 30 most populous counties, O’Rourke performed 2 percentage points better than Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis in 2014, according to an Observer analysis. While Davis picked up about 22 percent of the vote in those counties — home to 5.8 million Texans — O’Rourke got 24 percent. Hillary Clinton pulled 23 percent of the vote in those counties in 2016, the analysis shows.

In Nacogdoches County, where Davis got 24 percent in 2014 and Clinton garnered 30 percent, O’Rourke pulled 36 percent after visiting the town several times. In much smaller Bailey County, where a woman attending a Muleshoe town hall interrogated him about gun rights and rattlesnakes, O’Rourke nearly doubled Davis’ performance, pulling in 25 percent of the vote. In Abilene’s Taylor County, Beto won 26 percent of the vote compared to Davis’ 17 percent and Clinton’s 22 percent.

O’Rourke moved the needle from the last midterm by 4 percentage points in both Lampasas County, where he packed an event beyond capacity in August (and was heckled by a Trump supporter) and in Cooke County, where O’Rourke said he ate “the best fried pies of my life.” He also saw a 4-point increase in Kerr County in the western Hill Country.

But pockets of rural Texas — some in the Panhandle, West Texas and along the Gulf Coast — resisted Betomania and shifted further right on Election Day compared to 2016. For instance, Dallam County, at the Panhandle’s far northwestern corner, and nearby Castro and Cochran counties, favored Clinton over O’Rourke by a few points.

A bit better, but the problem with talking about percentages is that it gives no sense of the scope. A shift of one percentage point in Harris County this year equates to 12,000 votes, as there were 1.2 million votes cast. Most of those small rural counties that were Cruz’s strength don’t have 12,000 people in them, let alone votes. Kenedy County, cited in the Chron story, was carried by Cruz by the margin of 100 to 77. That’s one hundred votes for Cruz to seventy-seven votes for O’Rourke. I’m sure Ted Cruz is happy to say that he ruled Kenedy County, but I don’t think it was a key to his victory. In Dallam County, there were 1,114 total votes cast in the Senate race. In Castro County, 1,623 votes. There are literally hundreds of individual precincts in Harris County bigger than those. Yes, every little bit counts. I’m just saying these are very little bits, and as such their ability to tell us something about this election is limited.

What about those big counties? I’m glad you asked. Let’s look at this by comparing the 2012 Senate race, in which Ted Cruz beat Paul Sadler, to the 2018 race. It would usually be ridiculous to compare a Presidential year result with an off-year result like this, but as it happens these two years line up quite nicely, with 7,864,822 total votes cast in the former and 8,334,221 in the latter. Cruz defeated Sadler by the score of 4,440,137 to 3,194,927. As of right now, Cruz leads O’Rourke 4,244,204 to 4,024,777. How did the vote shift from one year to the next?

I put together a spreadsheet created from the county by county results for each race. I added columns to compare Cruz’s 2012 vote totals to his 2018 vote totals, and Sadler’s totals to Beto’s. I also added columns to compare the difference between Cruz and his opponent, and the change in those margins from 2012 to 2018. The idea here was to see where Beto gained on Cruz and by how much. A little sorting and summing, and I can present this to you:

Counties with 100K+ RVs: Beto +1,084,260
Counties with 50K to 100K RVs: Beto +13,921
Counties with 10K to 50K RVs: Cruz +58,177
Counties with less than 10K RVs: Cruz + 14,221

Overall, Cruz led Sadler by 1,245,210 votes. He is leading Beto by 219,427 votes, meaning that Beto closed the gap by 1,025,583 votes. Beto acheived all of that and more in the 26 counties that contain at least 100,000 registered voters, gaining 1,084,260 votes over Paul Sadler. He gained an additional 13,921 votes in the 19 counties with 50,000 to 100,000 RVs. Where Cruz gained ground over 2012 was in the 209 counties with 50,000 or fewer RVs, netting a total of 72,398 votes.

So yes, it is true that the smaller counties helped push Cruz forward, and that because there are so many of them, their cumulative effect adds up. But still, their total effect pales in comparison to the biggest counties, which by the way are also the places where the most population growth occurs. Would you rather improve your performance by ten percent in Dallam County or in Dallas County? It’s not even close. I would argue that you could in fact ignore nearly all of those small counties and work on adding to what Beto accomplished this year, and that would provide a clear path to victory. I mean, in 2020 when you could realistically think about 1.5 million votes being cast in Harris County, instead of the 1.2 million we had this year, you’d net another 40,000 votes at Beto’s level of performance. That’s a pretty big chunk of the gap that you have left to close.

Okay, fine, we know about the big urban counties. Democrats have done well in them for years, and while they did extra super well this year, there are still plenty of big suburban counties that make up the backbone of Republican support. Dems still have to overcome that. All right, then have a look a this:

County       Ted 12  Sadler   Ted 18     Beto
COLLIN      189,142  96,726  186,625  164,852
DENTON      154,208  77,314  158,509  134,295
FORT BEND   115,580  98,345  111,190  141,846
WILLIAMSON   92,034  60,279   99,696  105,469
HAYS         30,217  24,795   33,169   45,355
MONTGOMERY  135,276  32,608  137,231   51,124
BRAZORIA     69,497  33,744   65,470   45,068
BRAZOS       36,837  16,404   35,724   27,642
LUBBOCK      62,650  24,299   58,709   31,976
BELL         48,913  33,427   47,279   38,191
NUECES       48,008  43,526   45,875   47,265
MIDLAND      35,202   7,826   31,167    9,085
RANDALL      40,815   7,256   37,767    9,324
GALVESTON    66,912  39,443   66,436   43,858
MCLENNAN     47,075  25,102   45,836   28,426
ECTOR        23,629   7,770   20,958    9,209

What should jump out at you in this chart, which isn’t just suburban counties, is that Cruz’s numbers were at best flat from 2012, while Beto added huge sums to Sadler’s tally. That as much as anything should scare the pants off of Republicans. You can write off Harris and Dallas and Travis if you want, but when you’re also losing Fort Bend and Williamson and getting close to parity in Collin and Denton, that’s a big problem. Sure, Montgomery was still strong, but the advantage went from 103K to 86K. That’s not the direction you want to go. The biggest county that was strong for Republicans and in which Cruz increased his lead while both he and Beto both gained votes was Comal County, which is basically Montgomery County’s younger brother. The total vote grew by about 12K, with Cruz gaining a bit less than a thousand overall. The rate of change is still positive, but not by very much, and not by enough to offset those other losses. To summarize:

Ted 12 total = 1,195,995
Ted 18 total = 1,181,641

Sadler total = 628,864
Beto total = 932,985

In those 16 counties, none of which are the big urbans or the Rio Grande/South Texas area, Ted Cruz lost 14K votes while Beto picked up 304K. Maybe this year was an aberration, and Beto was a unicorn. These trends should still really worry you if you’re a Republican. Speaking as a Democrat, they sure make me optimistic.

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10 Responses to How Ted Cruz barely hung on

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    Looking at our local area, it seems like people are fleeing urban areas into the suburbs, but bringing their voting habits with them. People are also fleeing states like California and ending up in the suburbs, bringing THEIR voting habits with them. This explains how Harris and Ft. Bend flipped, and looking at other areas like Brazoria, how the races got tighter. The Pub vote stayed pretty consistent, but the new voters, the people who moved in for the last 6 years are Dem voters.

    My other observation is, we seem to have undergone a cataclysmic shift. Remember when “it’s the economy, stupid” was how elections were won and lost? I don’t think people care about that anymore. Trump has created an economy that nobody previously thought possible, mainly by reversing things Bush and Obama did. Trump has put people back to work, and created a climate where underemployed people could move up, and voters don’t seem to care. The tribes are polarized, of course, but the people who swing elections don’t seem to feel like that old maxim about the economy applies anymore.

    Trump was rebuked, because obviously, there are other issues more important than the economy.

  2. Mainstream says:

    Whether Beto was wise to visit all 254 counties will be debated. Nixon in 1960 fulfilled a promise to visit all the states, and arguably could have used his time better in the target states like Illinois which he lost narrowly. I think it allows a narrative that the candidate cares about all voters, and many urban Texas voters migrated in from one of those smaller counties, so it may even be a help on balance. It also exposes a candidate to a range of viewpoints which might not happen by campaigning only in populated areas.

  3. Jules says:

    Plus now we all know how many counties Texas has without googling it

  4. Bill Daniels says:


    I’m blaming you for having to wipe up the coffee I spit out while laughing at your post. Good one!

  5. Ross says:

    Bill, just what do you think Trump has done that makes the economy so “great”?

  6. Bill Daniels says:


    The most important thing he has done is, and you’ll like this part, emotional. Before he even took office, his promises of easing regulation, lowering taxes, and fixing horrendous trade deals made American businesses optimistic, and bullish on the future.

    When Trump took office and actually started fulfilling those promises with ruthless efficiency, business responded, by repatriating money languishing overseas and actually investing it right here in America. Turns out that if you let people and businesses keep more of what they own, and make it easier for them to earn that money by ending job killing regulations, capitalism actually does its thing and businesses expand, hire people, and the economy grows.

    Then there’s the snowball effect. America is now the place to be. Foreign companies are investing here, building factories, and employing Americans.

    Trump’s foreign visits are often dual purpose. When he visited China to get help with the North Korean problem, he came away with a business deal to sell them American coal. When he visited Saudi Arabia and other allies, he came away with deals to sell military hardware.

    America elected a businessman, and we’re getting a businessman’s pragmatism with his policies. Look at the Keystone XL and DAPL projects. Instead of figuring out how to stall, hinder, and obstruct those projects like Obama did, Trump says, “how can I help.” It’s a small example of the sea change in government that has unleashed the US economy.

  7. Shawn says:

    I think the post overlooks the dynamics of the individual candidates. Cruz’s initial victory in 2012 over Dewhurst was a truly unusual upset, with Cruz backed by Sarah Palin, Ron and Rand Paul, and other anti-establishment supporters. This is the first time he’s run since then, and voters have had plenty of time to acquaint themselves with his disagreeable personal qualities. Beto, on the other hand, is novel and charming and inspiring. I think it’s a mistake to attribute too much of the 2018 results to general trends about the electorate. I think more of it is about these specific candidates.

  8. Gary Bennett says:

    “Outside agitators” in the Good Ole Days have been translated into “California transplants” today as the bogey man today. The reality, according to exit polls, is that Native Texans voted 51% for Beto, while transplants, including those feared liberal Californians, voted 57% for Cruz. Also: Residents of the Houston, D/FW, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso and Lower Valley, make up something like 22 million out of 29 million Texans; residents of rural and small town counties make up around 3 million, and mid-sized metros (Waco, Lubbock, Amarillo etc) another 3-4 million. The true fight today is over the suburban counties around the larger cities — flip them (and 3 of them, Williamson, Hays and Ford Bend are already flipping) and what Dalhart or Jasper do will become totally irrelevant.

  9. Manny Barrera says:

    One of the few times that the Russian puppet (Trump) tells the truth no one believes him.

    “I’m not on the ballot, but in a certain way, I’m on the ballot,” he said.

    “I want you to vote,” he added. “Pretend I’m on the ballot.”

    I hope he is on the ballot again in 2020.

    There is a pattern as to what needs to followed in Texas, Beto and some of the other Senate Candidates throughout the country showed us how.

    If Trump was not president Beto would not have done so well.

    Bill if not for the economy, Democrats probably would have taken the senate. The economy still matters.

  10. Charlie L says:

    When I saw the section on:

    Counties with 100K+ RVs: Beto +1,084,260
    Counties with 50K to 100K RVs: Beto +13,921
    Counties with 10K to 50K RVs: Cruz +58,177
    Counties with less than 10K RVs: Cruz + 14,221

    I almost immediately thought “RVs” meant “Recreational Vehicles” (appropriate to Texas, eh?).

    So I read “100K+ RVs” meaning “100K voters + (some number of RVs)”

    THAT would be an interesting study: number of RVs in which counties voted ?which way?

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