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Could RFK Jr. hurt Ted Cruz in Texas?

The prospect of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. qualifying for the Texas ballot is fueling speculation that he could hurt Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) reelection chances.

Kennedy announced earlier this week he gained more than enough signatures to compete in the Lone Star State, a major advancement for the independent candidate, who appears to be drawing support from both President Biden and former President Trump. 

The development has also prompted questions about how Cruz could be impacted, with some observers arguing that voters who turn out to support Kennedy will likely back the senator’s Democratic challenger, Rep. Colin Allred (Texas).

“This is definitely not good for Cruz,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University who has polled the Senate race. “Kennedy’s presence on the ballot could actually help Democrats.”

Kennedy’s campaign announced earlier this week that roughly 245,000 people had signed onto his effort to make it on the ballot. The Texas Secretary of State confirmed it had received the candidate’s petition but did not confirm the number of signatures.

It’s the latest sign that Kennedy is growing the number of ballots on which his name will appear in the fall. And while much of the hand-wringing over the independent candidate is focused on how he will sway the presidential race, some pundits have noted he could impact down-ballot races in certain states, as well.

One of those states that has come up repeatedly in recent weeks is Texas, where Cruz is seeking a third term in office. Allred, a former professional football player, won the Democratic nomination for Senate back in March and will go up against the incumbent in November.

Cruz found himself locked in a surprisingly tight battle for reelection back in 2018, when he ran against former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) and ultimately prevailed by just a few percentage points.

Some observers argue that Kennedy — a wild-card candidate who has shown appeal with young and independent voters — could give Allred a boost by motivating people who might otherwise sit out the election entirely.

“RFK Jr. is likely to mobilize a group of voters to turn out and vote in the presidential race who, absent his presidency, would not have participated,” Jones said. “Once those voters are through casting a vote in the first race as president, they’re going to start to go down the ballot.”

“There’s a set of demographics that Kennedy is likely to bring out that are going to help Allred more than Cruz,” he added.

An environmental lawyer and member of the most famous dynasty in American politics, Kennedy has polled with certain groups but has generally hit a ceiling in the low double-digits nationally.

A New York Times/Siena College poll released earlier this week found that Kennedy drew slightly more support from Trump than from Biden in key battleground states, with 8 percent of the former president’s backers supporting the independent and 7 percent of Biden’s backers supporting him.

Meanwhile, Cruz is the clear favorite to win the Texas Senate race this year. An average of polls shows him leading Allred 47 to 40 percent.

Still, there have been some warning signs for Cruz as Kennedy seeks to make inroads in the state. A recent survey from the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation found that 46 percent of Kennedy’s supporters in the state preferred Biden, compared to 29 percent who supported Cruz. But that same poll found Kennedy trailing Trump and Biden at just 9 percent.

The poll also found Cruz leading Allred, 46 percent to 41 percent.

Most political operatives acknowledge the uphill climb Allred faces and doubt Kennedy’s presence on the ballot will have an outsize impact on the Senate race.

“[Cruz is] the front-runner, and I seriously doubt a Democrat can take the Senate seat in Texas in 2024 regardless of Kennedy’s independent presidential candidacy, especially given how terrible the Biden Administration is on border security,” said Brandon Bolin, a lawyer based in Austin who’s backing Kennedy.

Republicans are equally dismissive of the prospect of Kennedy hurting the GOP senator’s chances.

“We expect Kennedy to take more votes from Democrats than from Republicans as Texans are excited to vote for Senator Ted Cruz,” Texas Republican Party Chair Matt Rinaldi told The Hill. 

“From the Rio Grande Valley to the Panhandle, Texans have seen the devastating effects of Joe Biden’s extreme liberal agenda and are ready to make America great once again.”

Indeed, Texas has repeatedly been a source of heartbreak for Democrats. After losing the Senate race against Cruz in 2018, O’Rourke challenged Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a strong ally of Trump, in 2022, leading some in the party to hold out hope that they could still turn the state blue. In the end, though, Abbott prevailed by more than 10 points, even as Democrats defied odds and rode to victory elsewhere in the country.

And Cruz, despite his sizable lead in polling, has craftily acknowledged the possibility of a formidable challenge on Election Day. He warned his supporters last month that Democrats had their sights set on the state, and he has made a show of bipartisanship in recent weeks by leading the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration.

But the sheer unpredictability of Kennedy in the race has nonetheless led some to sound the alarms for the senator.

“If [Kennedy] can increase the turnout of Gen Zers by a couple of percentage points, two thirds of that vote or more goes to Colin Allred,” said Jones, the pollster. “Also, when independents come out to vote, that’s an up for grabs group. We also see he has strong support among Hispanic women.”

But there’s another challenge Democrats have to contend with in Texas: Biden’s low approval ratings and Trump’s enduring popularity. An aggregate of polls from the presidential race in Texas finds Trump leading the president, 46 percent to 36 percent, while Kennedy garners 10 percent.

“Republican enthusiasm for Trump is through the roof in Texas and those voters will go to the polls,” said Sherry Sylvester, a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, who added that Cruz has higher favorable numbers this year than in prior years.

“Even if some younger Democrat voters turn out at higher-than-expected rates to vote for Kennedy — and that is a big if, for a number of reasons — there won’t be enough of them to impact Cruz even if they go down ballot to vote in the U.S. Senate race after clicking the box for president,” she said.

At least one of Kennedy’s allies agrees.

“The economy and the border are the two most important issues on voters’ minds this year,” said Bolin, the Austin-based attorney. “I do not see how these issues play well for Democratic challengers this year, especially in Texas.”

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