Billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer keeps the door open to backing Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate battle against Ted Cruz

Key Points
  • Billionaire Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer has not ruled out backing an upstart Democratic candidate against conservative Sen. Ted Cruz in the red state of Texas.
  • "We are intrigued by Texas, and we are aware what we have to do in order to have an impact on a state that big," Steyer tells CNBC.
  • Recent polls show Democrat Beto O'Rourke closing the gap with Cruz while outperforming the Republican on fundraising.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Ted Cruz
Sergio Flores | Bloomberg | Getty Images; Getty Images

Billionaire Tom Steyer, one of the leading Democratic megadonors in the 2018 election cycle, suggested he could get involved in a Senate battle brewing in the red state of Texas.

In an exclusive interview with CNBC, the founder of nonprofit group NextGen America said he has not ruled out backing Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat, running against conservative Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz.

"We are intrigued by Texas, and we are aware what we have to do in order to have an impact on a state that big. We need a lot of resources, but we have not made a decision to be involved with it," Steyer said.

The billionaire donor's consideration about jumping into the fray is the latest bit of intrigue in the race. O'Rourke is starting to creep up in the polls while raking in cash in his bid to defeat Cruz, who had sought the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. A Democrat hasn't held a U.S. Senate seat from Texas since 1993.

"The idea that Texas is even in play is sort of mind boggling," Steyer said.

A Quinnipiac poll from last week showed Cruz with a 3-point lead over O'Rourke, a difference that's within the margin of error. However, 53 percent of respondents said they did not yet know enough about the underdog Democrat to form an opinion of him.

O'Rourke has been winning in the fundraising battle.

He more than doubled the amount Cruz raised in the first quarter of 2018, bringing in $6.7 million. The Republican raised $3.2 million during that period.

Backing away from Pelosi

A Steyer contribution to O'Rourke's growing campaign war chest could be what he needs to pull off an upset.

Steyer and his wife, Kathryn, have contributed more than $16 million so far in 2018 to campaigns through a variety of committees and nonprofits, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That makes them the second-biggest individual donors this cycle so far, behind Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein and his wife, Elizabeth, who have given $25 million.

O'Rourke, 45, also appears to be following Steyer's model of differentiating himself from the Democratic establishment.

Hedge fund billionaire, Democratic mega-donor and environmentalist Tom Steyer holds a news conference regarding his political future and plans January 8, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Getty Images

This was evident last year, when he started running for the Senate. O'Rourke has insisted that he does not want House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on the campaign trail with him.

"No, I don't want Nancy Pelosi to come to Texas to campaign with me," O'Rourke said during an interview at The Texas Tribune Festival in Austin. "I don't want anybody from outside of Texas to come to Texas. I just want to meet with Texans," he added.

O'Rourke has a history of opposing Pelosi. He supported Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Pelosi as minority leader.

A representative for the O'Rourke campaign did not immediately return requests for comment.

Cruz's possible Trump problem

Cruz, 47, could also be running into another problem: his strong alliance with President Donald Trump.

According to the Quinnipiac poll, 52 percent of Texas voters disapprove of Trump's job as president and 43 percent say the commander-in-chief will not have an impact on how they vote.

The Texas Republican, meanwhile, is embracing his links to Trump, despite the acrimony between the two former 2016 presidential rivals. Cruz wrote an ode to Trump as part of Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people.

"President Trump is doing what he was elected to do: disrupt the status quo. That scares the heck out of those who have controlled Washington for decades, but for millions of Americans, their confusion is great fun to watch," Cruz wrote.

A spokesman for Cruz did not immediately return requests for comment.