AUSTIN – U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, raised nearly $2.1 million between April and June for his Senate campaign, outraising incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz by nearly half a million dollars.
O’Rourke is an underdog in the statewide race in Republican-dominated Texas, but political experts say these fundraising numbers could give him a fighting chance against Cruz.
“If you’re Senator Cruz, you have to take O’Rourke’s candidacy seriously,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “He’s a popular member of Congress and he’s raising enough money to run a professional campaign. That alone puts him head and shoulders above every other candidate who has even expressed an interest thus far in running a statewide race in 2018.”
Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for the Republican incumbent, said Cruz raised $1.6 million during the same time frame.
O’Rourke, 44, announced his fundraising total in an email and video to supporters Thursday morning.
He is in his third term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He officially launched his campaign for Cruz’s seat at the end of March and remains the only Democrat in the running.
O’Rourke had $1.8 million in his campaign bank account at the end of June. Cruz had $5.7 million, Frazier said. She declined to comment on O’Rourke’s fundraising.
U.S. Senate and House campaign finance reports from the second quarter of 2017 must be filed with the Federal Election Commission by Saturday.
Of the $2 million O’Rourke raised, 81 percent came from Texas, according to his campaign.
“It confirms that this is possible and that, I think, is an open question for a lot of people in Texas,” O’Rourke said in an interview with the USA TODAY Network. “Fortunately or unfortunately, what you raise and how many people contribute is an indicator of viability and I think this shows that we have a significant base of support from which to start, and we’re only three months in.”
Raising $2 million in a quarter this far from a Senate election is rare, especially for a non-incumbent, according to data from the FEC. Several incumbent senators up for re-election in 2018 candidates so far to have announced raising more money than O’Rourke between April and June, but O’Rourke’s is the highest total announced so far for a non-incumbent. Many candidates have not yet said how much they brought in.
In the 2016 election, when 34 Senate seats were contested nationwide, only two non-incumbent Senate candidates in the country raised more than $2 million between April and June 2015, records show.
“I think that is a big enough number that it will demonstrate the credibility he needs to be able to show he can raise money but also run a grassroots campaign,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “I would say this makes him a credible challenger and I think that was still a question for a lot of people.”
Since the beginning of his campaign, O’Rourke pledged not to take money from political action committees. The $2 million he raised this quarter came from 46,574 individual contributors, who on average gave $44.40.
Jones said refusing PAC contributions gives O’Rourke an edge as a challenger in a tough campaign.
“The reality is that PACs aren’t going to be stumbling over themselves to give him money anyway, so it was a smart political move to take the high ground,” Jones said.
Grassroots campaigns that rely on contributions from individual donors as opposed to big-dollar political groups can be a challenge to run, Rottinghaus said. He said efforts like O’Rourke’s depend on self-motivated individuals who are willing to seek out a candidate and donate.
“This campaign is sustainable for the right kind of candidate and I think he is that kind of candidate,” Rottinghaus said. “He has appeal to the base and I think Democrats are looking for someone they can invest in, and he is providing that opportunity. If the idealism that he has put out in the first months of his campaign hold up and more people learn about who he is and what he has done, there’s a good chance he can sustain that.”
O’Rourke still has a tough road ahead, Jones said. Texas has some of the most expensive television markets in the country and O’Rourke will be competing for national dollars with Democrats running for House and Senate seats in smaller states, where a donation can stretch a lot farther.
“While $2 million is a nice start, it still leaves quite a long way for Representative O’Rourke to go amass a war chest to allow him to compete on anything close to an even playing field with Senator Cruz in the fall of 2018,” Jones said
Cruz has remained fairly quiet about O’Rourke, although a fundraising email from his campaign earlier this year called the congressman an “unabashed liberal.”
Before Cruz announced his second quarter fundraising total, Rottinghaus had predicted that O’Rourke might raise more money than Cruz. He said that while Cruz can recover quickly, he should be careful not to take the race for granted.
“It’s not the $2 million the Cruz camp is going to be worried about,” Rottinghaus said. “Ted Cruz could pull that out the back pocket of his tailored suit, but it’s what it represents that’s the real potential scary figure.”
Madlin Mekelburg may be reached at 512-479-6606; [email protected]; @madlinbmek on Twitter.
This story has been updated to include fundraising numbers from Sen. Ted Cruz.
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