The challenger skateboards in fast-food parking lots and wears his shirttails over scruffy jeans. He sang in a punk band. Some of his campaign events feature bounce houses.
The incumbent usually wears a dark blue suit with a red tie. The word “liberty” is liberally sprinkled in his campaign materials.
Both candidates are courting young voters in the red state of Texas that, as support for Democrats strengthens, could be turning purple.
But will Democrat Beto O’Rourke, 45, a three-term U.S. congressman, defeat Republican Ted Cruz, 47, the junior U.S. senator, in November?
Millennials only recently elbowed baby boomers to become the largest generation of voters in the United States, according to a Fact Tank study by the Pew Research Center published in June.
O’Rourke has energized a young generation of Democratic voters in the once staunchly Republican state by focusing on topics and behaviors relevant to them. The race has tightened in recent weeks after Cruz, who ran for president in 2016, enjoyed an early lead.
Last week, a Quinnipiac University poll found Cruz leading O’Rourke by 9 percentage points among likely voters. An online poll by Reuters- Ipsos showed O’Rourke 2 points ahead. Last Friday in Dallas, Cruz and O’Rourke engaged in the first of three planned debates. Political analysts are calling the race a toss-up.
O’Rourke, a former businessman, is a different candidate in many ways. His campaign does not accept money from political action committees (PACs) and has raised $26 million in individual donations between Jan. 1 and June 31 — $8 million more than his opponent.
“Not taking PAC, not taking corporate money, is really appealing to people,” Houston campaign volunteer Clara Goodwin, 25, told VOA. “A lot of people my age feel like we don’t have much of a voice, and that’s partly because politicians are listening to corporate interests more than us.”
That admission was a revelation for O’Rourke.
“I was surprised to hear time after time from young people that the fact that we don’t take political action committee money — no corporate help, no special interest contributions — is the reason that they are part of this campaign,” O’Rourke told VOA at the opening of his Houston campaign headquarters, a festive event packed with 20-something volunteers eating barbecue and registering voters.
Put simply, PACs are financial contributions pooled from donors that are used to elect and defeat candidates or legislation. Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, corporations, which are banned from directly donating to campaigns, are allowed to contribute through PACs.
‘Showing up’ for young people
O’Rourke said the fact that he is “showing up where young people are” is more important than how he raises campaign funds.
“I would never ask any young person to vote for anyone if no one has shown up to ask what’s on their mind, what’s important to them, to hear about the most important issues in the country from their perspective,” he said, noting that his campaign has done many events at universities across the state.
Cruz, too, has attracted young supporters who are showing up to hear his message.
Karl Schmidt, a 19-year-old Cruz volunteer, said he has supported the incumbent senator since he spoke at his high school in 2014.
“The first time I met him, he came to my high school, and he just felt like a really real guy, you know?” Schmidt told VOA, after controlling a post-rally crowd of Houston supporters waiting to get their photo taken with Cruz.
Schmidt said he cares most about tax reform and health care, specifically opposing the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, because those issues have affected his family the most. He said Cruz’s plan to address tax policy and health care most closely aligns with his views.
Deep divide on taxes, health care, economy
Cruz supported the Republicans’ trillion dollar tax cut, and drafted a bill that would make those tax cuts permanent. He championed Republican efforts to repeal the ACA, popularly known as Obamacare, and has called for “meaningful reforms” of the U.S. health care system, including expanding health care savings accounts and permitting the sale of health insurance across state lines.
O’Rourke opposed the tax cut, and has focused on creating jobs through increased spending on infrastructure and apprenticeship programs, government deregulation, and expansion of rural broadband service. He favors strengthening the ACA, extending Medicaid to more low-income Texans and eventually creating a universal health care program throughout the U.S.
Despite Cruz’s reputation as a divisive politician who is unpopular on Capitol Hill, some younger voters say they like his proposal to increase economic growth through a bill he introduced in 2015 called the American Energy Renaissance Act. The legislation seeks to remove federal restrictions on energy production and create jobs.
Cruz’s young supporters also applaud his calls for spending cuts in Washington, which they say take precedence over social issues.
Max Louman, 21, a student at New York University, said he’s “more of an economic voter” and would support Cruz in the midterm elections, even though he doesn’t agree with all of Cruz’s positions on social issues.
“I believe the Republican policies for economics help encourage growth more,” Louman said, after attending a Cruz town hall meeting.
According to Pew Research, the top voting issues for all voters in 2016 were the economy, terrorism, foreign policy and health care, in that order.
Like Louman, Cruz said he believes his and Republican economic policies are ultimately better for young people.
“The agenda of the left wing, the agenda of socialists, is absolutely devastating to young people,” Cruz told VOA.
O’Rourke cited a number of issues that he said young people have told him are important to them.
“Making sure that the internet is open and works for everyone, regardless of your ability to pay,” he said, referring to net neutrality. “Making sure that we have universal health care. Or making sure that we deliver on our promise for leading the conversation on immigration. Or ending gun violence in our schools and in our communities.”
Power of the vote
Regardless of political party, many young people advocate open discussion and voting. Just 51 percent of millennials — born between 1981 and 1996 — voted in the 2016 elections, compared to 61 percent of the general electorate, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Houston resident Elvonte Patton, 29, created “The Young and the Politics,” a nonpartisan political organization that encourages young people to register to vote.
“Go exercise your right to vote. That’s all that matters to me,” he told VOA at a local O’Rourke rally where his organization registered new voters. In March, Patton ran for a seat on the Harris County Board of Education and was defeated in the Democratic primary.
Cruz supporter Schmidt said his friends were too young to vote in the most recent elections in 2016. This time, he said, he’s “definitely going to make sure all my friends go out and vote.”
“I think the young people are going to predict this race,” said Patton, who said he is confident that voter turnout, particularly among young people, will grow in the 2018 midterm elections. “Honestly, whoever the young people go and vote for, that’s who will win this race,” he said.