"Certainly, it's good for small business." Ask O'Rourke why, then, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Texas Association of Business and many top Texas companies are backing incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, and he has a short answer. “I don't know,” the El Paso ...
WASHINGTON — Ask Rep. Beto O’Rourke what his election to the Senate would mean for Texas’ business community, and he has a long answer.
Better workforce training. Universal pre-K. Increased access to higher education. No more government shutdowns. A fix to the nation’s immigration system, including citizenship for young Texans brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Fierce pushback against tariffs.
“Having a stable, predictable government that’s focused on investments in communities and people is good for us all,” he said. "Certainly, it's good for small business."
Ask O’Rourke why, then, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Texas Association of Business and many top Texas companies are backing incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, and he has a short answer.
“I don’t know,” the El Paso Democrat said, grinning with puzzlement.
Whether O’Rourke can bridge a divide that stretches from Main Street to Wall Street could be a fundamental challenge as he whips up enthusiasm among his liberal base while also seeking to win crossover support for his underdog campaign from moderates on the other side of the aisle.
That’s because the issue could pit O’Rourke, the progressive crusader, against O’Rourke, the pragmatic policymaker.
The candidate who swears off political action committee money, rails against sweeping business tax cuts and sometimes riles the oil and gas industry vs. the one who also touts his small-business experience, stands strong for free trade and champions the energy sector as a key job creator.
Cruz sees only one version, saying that a Sen. O’Rourke would result in “higher taxes and higher regulations” that would be “disastrous for the business community in Texas.”
Key business figures aren’t so negative, particularly since many support O’Rourke’s positions on immigration, trade and other areas. But there’s no mistaking the fact that Texas’ business community, at least in the aggregate, has lined up behind the Republican.
“We have a high degree of comfort with Sen. Cruz,” said Jeff Moseley, Texas Association of Business president. “He does very well on the business issues that our members see as important.”
Cruz business support
Cruz’s list of endorsements and financial support is indeed something of a business who’s who.
AT&T. The Texas Farm Bureau. Exxon Mobil. The National Association of Realtors. American Airlines. The Associated General Contractors of America. Texas Instruments. The American Petroleum Institute. Toyota North America. And on down the list.
One factor could be that companies and industry groups like to support winners, and no Democrat has won statewide in Texas since 1994. O’Rourke likely made a relatively safe bet for them even easier by barring PAC contributions.
The strong business backing could also simply reflect Cruz’s evolution as a senator.
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Even though Cruz once worked as a lawyer on behalf of some major companies, the senator came to Washington as a conservative firebrand who irritated establishment figures with tactics like helping shut down the federal government in 2013.
That episode alone caused U.S. Chamber president Tom Donohue at the time to agree with the assessment that business leaders would like for Cruz to “sit down and shut up.”
Cruz has disputed the notion that he’s needed to rebuild any ties to the business community, telling The Dallas Morning News earlier this year that his No. 1 priority has always been “growing jobs and economic growth.”
Some business brass, however, have nodded at a shift.
“The senator has been around awhile and, seeing a little more pressure at home, has gotten more engaged in trying to collectively strengthen the economy and deal with some of the serious problems we have than maybe he was in his early time,” Donohue said last month.
O’Rourke has sought to capitalize on that sort of reaction.
While the El Pasoan doesn’t serve on the House committees that cover tax policy, financial regulation, energy or other business sectors, he touts his record as one that reflects his experience owning a small technology company in a border community.
O'Rourke praised on trade
One big issue for O’Rourke is trade, an area where Moseley gave him ample praise.
O’Rourke stresses the critical role that cross-border commerce plays in Texas. He notes that he broke with his party in 2015 to give the executive branch the ability to more quickly complete trade deals. He laments that President Donald Trump’s tariffs have harmed Texas enterprises.
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Another major plank is immigration, including O’Rourke’s desire to provide legal status to millions of people who are now in the country illegally.
Mason Ayer, CEO of the Austin chain Kerbey Lane Cafe, cited O’Rourke’s support for a “consistent and clear immigration policy” as a significant factor in earning his backing, explaining that staffing is a massive challenge these days in the restaurant business.
That O’Rourke shared that vision during a personal meeting with Austin business leaders was an added bonus, Ayer said.
“I’m not going to agree with everything that Beto O’Rourke is in favor of, and that’s OK,” he said. “He’s taken the time to listen to us.”
Senate candidate Rep. Beto O'Rourke says his vision for Texas' business community is "focused on investments in communities and people" and that it would be "good for us all." But many business leaders are supporting incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz . (Photo by Loren Elliott/Getty Images)
(Loren Elliott/Getty Images)
Sen.Ted Cruz has the backing of many business leaders, even though he irritated establishment figures early in his career with some of his firebrand tactics. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)
(Louis DeLuca/Staff Photographer)
But O’Rourke has also sometimes clashed with Texas business priorities, even as he last year earned a score from the U.S. Chamber that equaled that of the highest Democratic senator.
He’s criticized the repeal of Obama-era net neutrality rules — a big priority for Dallas-based AT&T. He’s glad that Congress didn’t move forward with a plan to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system — a shift desired by American Airlines and Southwest Airlines.
He’s been at odds with Texas’ powerful energy sector.
Ed Longanecker leads the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association. He does not think O’Rourke outright opposes the industry. But he bemoaned that O’Rourke’s campaign website singles out drilling, fracking and pipeline construction — for “harming the environment.”
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“When comparing the candidates on their grasp and understanding ... of the industry, Sen. Cruz wins by a landslide,” Longanecker said.
Cruz has seized upon that angle, blasting O’Rourke in TV ads and billboards as “no friend of Texas energy.” He’s highlighted, among other things, the Democrat’s vote against a nonbinding measure that opposed an idea to put a $10 per barrel tax on oil.
O’Rourke has defended that vote, saying he wanted to keep open options to fund infrastructure improvements. He waved off the broader attack.
“I strongly support the oil and gas industry and the workers of Texas who have helped to make us far more energy independent and secure, who are creating significant job opportunities and economic growth for our state,” he said.
But nowhere is the business divide sharper than over O’Rourke’s opposition to the $1.5 trillion tax cut that Republicans passed last year.
Cruz offers O’Rourke’s position as proof of a “left-wing activist agenda,” saying the revamp is already paying off for businesses and individuals. Moseley, the Texas Association of Business president, said the Democrat’s vote against the tax bill is likely a deal breaker for many business leaders.
O’Rourke is unmoved, casting the tax cuts as debt-laden gifts that “disproportionately flow to corporations that are already sitting on record piles of cash and the already wealthy.”
“I believe not in investing in corporations and in special interests,” he said last month. “I believe in investing in people.”
O’Rourke explained that corporations “absolutely” can be job creators and provide important goods and services. But he said he’s “with the people who created the value for those corporations,” offering AT&T and its workers as an example.
The telecom giant will “enjoy tens of billions of dollars in savings from this tax bill that was written to their benefit,” he said. Their employees, by comparison, received “measly” $1,000 bonuses, he said, noting that AT&T also laid off hundreds of employees in the overhaul’s wake.
Cruz said O’Rourke’s position smacks of what he called the “elite, out-of-touch perspective” of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi that the bonuses amounted to “crumbs.”
An AT&T spokesman, asked for comment, said that “with tax reform in mind,” the company paid $200 million in bonuses, made an $800 million contribution to the company’s employee and retiree medical trust and donated nearly $100 million to the company’s charitable foundation.
But O’Rourke said the bottom line is that he will stand up for Texas companies in Washington only “if it’s good for their employees, if it’s good for the economy, if it’s good for Texas.”
“I want corporations to be successful,” he said. “But that success has to flow to the people who created the value in the first place.”
The latest in the 2018 Texas Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke
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