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Is it really that close in Texas?

Senator Ted Cruz in Downtown Houston
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By Manny Fernandez and Mitchell Ferman – nytimes.com – September 11, 2018

Days after a top adviser to President Trump questioned Senator Ted Cruz’s chances of winning re-election, the Texas lawmaker casually stepped into the pinnacle of his hometown’s energy industry on Tuesday — the lobby of the Petroleum Club of Houston, on the 35th floor of a downtown skyscraper.

Mr. Cruz shook hands while holding a cup of McDonald’s coffee. By the end of his remarks to the American Petroleum Institute, the audience rose for two standing ovations. It was not a campaign event, but it might as well have been: Mr. Cruz was relaxed and confident, eager to both attack his Democratic opponent and to poke fun at himself — and his critics.

“When there’s extreme anger and hatred on the other side, don’t respond in kind,” Mr. Cruz told the audience beneath the glittering chandeliers. “Have fun. Be a joyful warrior.” He recalled encountering a Twitter handle, “Ted Cruz ate my son.” “I was really tempted to tweet, ‘He was delicious,’” he said.

Mr. Cruz’s Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso congressman, has been making the talk-show rounds, out-raising Mr. Cruz and reviving the long-suffering spirits of Democrats in one of the reddest states in America. Polls show the two locked in one of the tightest midterm races in the country.

For Mr. Cruz, the pressure has been steadily ratcheting up. On Saturday, Mick Mulvaney, the federal budget director, told Republican donors in New York that Mr. Cruz might lose re-election and suggested that the Texas senator was not likable enough. “There’s a very real possibility we will win a race for Senate in Florida and lose a race in Texas for Senate, O.K.?” Mr. Mulvaney said.

Mr. Mulvaney’s remarks made national news, but they did not shock Texas Republicans. He was voicing a concern shared by numerous Republican strategists and elected officials in Texas — that Mr. O’Rourke’s long-shot candidacy has seemed less like a long shot in recent weeks. It is possible that Mr. Cruz will be defeated, though few believe it’s likely.

Mr. Cruz has been criticized by his fellow party members for squandering time months ago when he should have been active and raising money.

“I think he sort of took it for granted,” one moderate Republican lawmaker, State Representative Lyle Larson of San Antonio, said of Mr. Cruz. “He’s got a dogfight on his hands. I can tell you there’s Beto signs all over my district and there are Beto signs all over deep-red parts of Texas that are unexplainable.”

“What is the saying?” Mr. Larson added. “The wolf climbing the hill is a lot hungrier than the wolf on the hill. You can see that Beto is a lot hungrier than Cruz is in this campaign. Ted has got to get a lot more aggressive.”

Other Republicans dispute any suggestion that Mr. Cruz could lose. Texas, they argue, is not going to send a Democrat to the Senate. Some of its biggest cities are largely Democratic, but the suburbs and rural areas remain Republican, and Democratic voters’ history of low turnout has helped Republicans maintain their grip on power. In the Republican presidential primary in 2016, Mr. Cruz easily won Texas, earning 43 percent of the vote compared to Mr. Trump’s 26 percent.

“Ted Cruz is not in trouble,” said Allen E. Blakemore, a Republican political consultant and the senior strategist for one of the most powerful conservatives in the state, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. “Texas is a reliably red state and is going to continue to be for the foreseeable future. There is not a single statewide race that is in jeopardy.”

If Mr. Cruz is in the fight of his political life, it was hard to see on Tuesday.

“I didn’t give it much thought,” he said Tuesday when asked about Mr. Mulvaney’s comments. “I’m focused on what the people of Texas say. And we’re seeing incredible energy, incredible enthusiasm.” Mr. Cruz said he has been approached by voters who say they are Democrats but are supporting Mr. Cruz now.

“With the election of Donald Trump, national Democrats are just consumed by rage and fury, and they’re embracing extreme positions, like Beto O’Rourke saying he’s open to abolishing ICE, or Beto O’Rourke committing that he would vote ‘yes’ to impeach Donald Trump,” Mr. Cruz said. “I am energetically welcoming conservative Democrats, moderate Democrats, independents.”

Mr. Cruz’s campaign is getting a boost soon from Mr. Trump, his rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Mr. Trump announced on Twitter that he was coming to Texas in October to host a “major rally” for Mr. Cruz. Democrats see it as a sign that Mr. Cruz’s campaign is struggling and needs rescuing.

The trip seemed, in part, to be a response to a meeting in July in Washington between Texas leaders and Mr. Trump’s political staff. The July 25 meeting at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building was attended by Mr. Patrick, who was the Texas chairman of Mr. Trump’s campaign in 2016. Mr. Patrick and others were seeking to encourage Mr. Trump to campaign in Texas, according to a person who attended the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the meeting. The idea was not for Mr. Trump to come to the aid of Mr. Cruz, but for the president to boost Republican turnout to help the races farther down the ballot, the person said.

On the surface, the prospect of Mr. Cruz campaigning with the president seems remarkable. Mr. Trump nicknamed Mr. Cruz Lyin’ Ted during the 2016 campaign, and attacked both his wife and his father. Mr. Cruz called Mr. Trump a “pathological liar” and “a sniveling coward.”

But since Mr. Trump took office, the president and Mr. Cruz have become close behind the scenes. One reason is that about a dozen of Mr. Cruz’s former staffers work in the White House or on Mr. Trump’s campaign. The other is that the two men talk directly and regularly. During the Republicans’ failed effort to repeal Obamacare, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump spoke multiple times per week, according to aides.

Asked how he could work with the president after Mr. Trump went after his family, Mr. Cruz said, “I understand that the media loves to obsess over the political circle — the circus — this attack or that attack. I’ve got a job to do. My job is to represent 28 million Texans. I take that job deadly seriously.”

It was not clear what Mr. Cruz thought of Mr. Mulvaney’s remark that he is not likable. His current and former staff members chuckle at the criticism, pointing to their weekly games of pickup basketball with the senator in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington as evidence that it has no merit.

Yet, being “likable” is something Mr. Cruz has struggled with for most of his life. Growing up in Houston in the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Cruz spent his elementary-school and junior-high years as a “geeky kid” and “the unpopular nerd” who was lousy at sports, he writes in his 2015 biography, “A Time for Truth.”

On Tuesday at the Petroleum Club, Mr. Cruz held forth on a stage, telling the largely Republican crowd how the oil-and-gas industry personifies the state’s independent, entrepreneurial spirit. During the question-and-answer session, the first question from the audience suggested that his political popularity was intact, at least in this room.

“Are you,” a woman asked him to laughter, “going to run for president?”

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Source: In Texas, Ted Cruz Has ‘a Dogfight on His Hands,’ Some Republicans Admit