- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says Sen. Ted Cruz faces a "competitive race" in red Texas.
- He is the latest Republican, including Texan and No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn, to acknowledge that Cruz faces a threat from Rep. Beto O'Rourke.
- McConnell also identifies nine Senate races he's watching in this year's midterm elections: Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee, Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia and Florida.
Cruz, a conservative firebrand seeking his second term in the chamber, holds a small but consistent edge over well-funded Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke in public polls. In recent days, more GOP officials have said Cruz faces a real fight to stop Democrats from taking a Senate seat in Texas for the first time in 25 years.
"I think Ted's got a competitive race by all indications," McConnell said at a news conference in his home state of Kentucky. "We certainly expect to win Texas, but I think he does have a competitive race."
The top Senate Republican joins others in his party in casting the race as a legitimate battle for Cruz. Sen. John Cornyn, Cruz's fellow Texan and McConnell's No. 2, recently told Politico that donors need to take O'Rourke's run seriously.
"We're not bluffing, this is real, and it is a serious threat," he told the news outlet. "If Ted does his job and we do ours, I think we'll be fine. But if we have donors sitting on the sidelines thinking that, 'Well, this isn't all that serious,' or 'I don't need to be concerned,' then that's a problem."
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney also recently said "there's a very real possibility" Cruz could lose the race because he may not be "likeable" enough, according to The New York Times. In another sign of Cruz's vulnerability, President Donald Trump plans to campaign for him.
A win by O'Rourke — who has raised gobs of money and had nearly $5 million more on hand than Cruz at the end of June — would give his party a huge boost on a brutal Senate map. While voter enthusiasm favors Democrats this year, Republicans hope to keep or expand their 51-49 seat majority in the chamber as Democrats and independents who caucus with them defend a staggering 26 seats in November.
Cruz's campaign has emphasized the importance of closing the voter enthusiasm and turnout gap. In a tweet Monday, his campaign said "we need YOUR help to turn out every single Republican in the state of Texas to vote."
On Tuesday, McConnell was asked about Texas after not naming it among the "dead even" races he is watching this year. Those are elections in Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee, Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia and Florida.
In six of those races, incumbent Democrats defend seats in states Trump won in 2016. The president carried most of those states overwhelmingly. Retiring Republicans hold two of the nine seats McConnell identified, while a GOP incumbent runs in another.
"All of them too close to call and every one of them like a knife fight in an alley, just a brawl, in every one of those places," McConnell said.
"I hope when the smoke clears we'll still have a majority in the Senate" to, in particular, continue to push through Trump's nominees for judgeships and executive branch offices, the top Senate Republican added. He touted the GOP-controlled Senate's success in confirming judges, which will allow both Trump and McConnell to affect the country's policy for years after they leave office.
In the current 115th Congress, the Senate has confirmed 68 judges. That includes 26 circuit court of appeals judges, a record for this point in a presidency, and conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
The GOP aims to confirm Trump's second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, before the midterms.