BARTONVILLE, Texas — The crowd inside Marty B’s barbecue place here in Denton County, north of Dallas, began practicing its Ted Cruz chants long before the candidate arrived here Sunday afternoon for an outdoor rally.
It used be that audiences would yell a drawn-out “Crooooooz!” when the junior senator from Texas arrived on the stage. But some Republicans, including members of Cruz’s own team, had started to worry lately that the chants sounded too much like “Boooooo!”, especially on television. And that wasn’t the best soundtrack for Cruz, now engaged in what he has described as the political fight of his life against Democrat Beto O’Rourke in the state’s surprisingly close Senate race.
So Jane Nelson, a bubbly state senator and former teacher, took the stage here and tried something new.
“When I say ‘Ted’, you say ‘Cruz!’” she yelled in a sing-song voice. “Ted!”
“Cruz!” the crowd responded.
“Ted!” she yelled.
“Cruz!” they replied.
When Cruz arrived a few minutes later, there were no “Crooooooz!” chants, just wild cheers from a crowd of 1,000 or so Republican faithful, many of whom showed up in what has become the uniform of Cruz events lately — bright red Make America Great Again hats and Trump 2020 shirts. There were just a handful of Cruz campaign signs, including one held by a man who said he brought it from home because Cruz paraphernalia has been so hard to find at the senator’s events.
“I am here to celebrate prosperity, to celebrate peace through strength, to celebrate hope and to celebrate the great state of Texas,” Cruz began. “I am here today to talk about victories — victories that we are winning together for the people of Texas.”
“Veto Beto!” a woman shouted. Cruz paused and nodded with a smile, as the crowd cheered.
While the mood was jubilant, many voters here expressed anxiety about the election, where polls have shown Cruz and O’Rourke in a dead heat heading into the campaign’s final stretch. While Denton County has voted reliably Republican in recent elections, not unlike other suburban counties in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, O’Rourke has attracted huge crowds, voter registration had surged and turnout in early voting had been more than double what it was in the last midterm elections — the enthusiasm pproaching that of a presidential election. And Republicans, while hopeful, were starting to worry.
Asked if he thought Cruz would pull out a victory, one local GOP official here clasped his hands and took a deep breath before replying. “I think so, but I honestly don’t know,” he said. “The other side is so fired up. All I can do is pray that every single person on our side shows up, if they haven’t already.”
While Cruz firmly reassured his supporters here that “we will win this election,” there have been signs of uncertainty. Last week, Republicans close to the campaign said internal GOP polling showed Cruz leading O’Rourke by “6 or 7 points,” but in recent days, those officials have acknowledged turnout models, while still favorable to Cruz, may not be fully reflective of the potential number of young voters and “non-voters” that O’Rourke has been courting and who are believed to be behind the massive surge in early turnout.
Cruz has always said the race would be close, urging Republican voters not to be “complacent.” “If conservatives show up, we will win,” he has said. But in recent days, he’s shuffled from message to message, seemingly trying to find the right one to appeal to the voters he needs for victory.
Last week, Cruz campaigned heavily on immigration — linking O’Rourke to the much-publicized caravan of Central American migrants making its way north through Mexico en route to the U.S. southern border. He told voters O’Rourke had encouraged the group to come and joked that migrants knew where to go for help: houses with O’Rourke campaign signs out front.
But on Friday, he hit that message even harder, accusing O’Rourke of using campaign contributions to help fund the caravan, which is still thousands of miles from the U.S. He based his allegations on a video posted by the conservative activist group Project Veritas that suggested staffers of O’Rourke’s campaign had used campaign funds to help migrants.
“I thought it was a joke until video broke this morning of his campaign staffers taking campaign money and apparently using it to give to people coming here illegally,” Cruz said at a campaign event in Fort Worth. In a subsequent message on Twitter, he called on O’Rourke to answer whether the caravan should be allowed to cross into the U.S., and if his “campaign dollars” had helped them.
O’Rourke’s campaign said the money had gone to an El Paso charity, and accused Cruz of “scare tactics.” “Cruz pushes fear and paranoia because he wants to divide and mislead Texans four days before this election,” O’Rourke said Friday.
Over the weekend, Cruz appeared to have retooled his stump speech, dropping his accusations about the caravan. Making his closing pitch for another six years in the Senate, Cruz argued that jobs, freedom and security are on the line in Tuesday’s election — and warned that O’Rourke’s “radical” approach to policymaking is a threat to all three. But while Cruz hammered his Democratic opponent, his message was largely more positive and more focused on casting him as a team player with Trump, and emphasizing the booming economy in Texas and other “incredible victories” that Republicans have delivered in the last six years.
“We have a good thing going,” he declared. “Who in their right mind would want to screw it up?”
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