Cruz and O'Rourke face off in testy Texas Senate debate

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, left, and Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke during their first debate in Dallas on Sept. 21, 2018. (Photos: Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)

Seeking to regain the edge in a race that has been surprisingly competitive, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz faced off with his Democratic opponent, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, for the first time Friday evening, in an hourlong debate that was marked by sharp differences on policies like immigration and law enforcement and some pointed personal attacks.

The fireworks began almost immediately onstage at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where the candidates met for the first of three scheduled debates in the coming weeks in Texas’s closely watched Senate race in which Cruz, the one-term incumbent, has struggled to stay ahead of O’Rourke, a rising star Democrat whose candidacy has attracted large crowds and celebrity support.

Cruz, a champion debater going back to his college years at Princeton, seemed more comfortable at the podium, and more confrontational. But he has struggled to overcome a style some voters (and fellow senators, including in his own party) consider condescending, and was occasionally caught by the camera in a smug smirk while O’Rourke was speaking.

The debate itself drew an unusual degree of national attention for a statewide race. Texas has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988, but Democrats have been eyeing it as a possible pickup in their long-shot drive to retake the upper chamber.

O’Rourke, a three-term congressman who represents El Paso, began the debate by calling for an overhaul in the nation’s immigration policies, including allowing a pathway to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children.

“Sen. Cruz has promised to deport each and every single Dreamer,” O’Rourke said. “That cannot be the way that Texas leads on this issue.”

Cruz didn’t dispute it, instead repeating a line he regularly uses on the campaign trail to explain his approach to immigration. “My views on immigration are simple, four words: legal good, illegal bad,” he said.

And in a tactic he deployed regularly throughout the night, Cruz jabbed back at O’Rourke, timing his remarks for the part of the format where the congressman was not allotted time to respond. He fired back that O’Rourke’s focus “over and over again … seems to be fighting for illegal immigrants.”

The two clashed over O’Rourke’s call to fire Amber Guyger, the Dallas police officer who shot and killed Botham Jean, an unnamed black man, in his apartment on Sept. 6. Cruz accused O’Rourke of frequently siding against law enforcement, saying that he had called police officers “the modern Jim Crow” and calling it “offensive.”

The fireworks began almost immediately onstage between Cruz, left, and O’Rourke at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where the candidates met on Sept. 21, 2018, for the first of three scheduled debates in the coming weeks. (Photo: Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)

Cruz appeared to be referring to remarks O’Rourke made at a town hall Wednesday at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college northwest of Houston, where he voiced concerns about racism in the criminal justice system, including racial profiling and police shootings of people of color. The remarks, widely circulated on conservative blogs in recent days, echoed a recent column O’Rourke wrote about criminal justice reform in the Houston Chronicle.

O’Rourke did use the phrase, although he applied it to the justice system generally,  not police officers personally. “That injustice, to many more people here than I know firsthand, continues to persist today,” O’Rourke said at the college, according to a video clip of the speech. “That system of suspending somebody, solely based on the color of their skin, searching that person solely based on the color of their skin, stopping that person solely based on the color of their skin, shooting that person solely based on the color of their skin, throwing the book at that person and letting them rot behind bars solely based on the color of their skin, is why some have called this, and I think it is an apt description, the new Jim Crow.”

In the debate Friday, he accused Cruz of twisting his words, saying: “This is your trick in the trade: to confuse, and to incite fear.”

Asked if he had concerns about the number of police shootings involving people of color, Cruz dodged the question, saying he believed that “everyone’s rights should be protected” and that he’s been to “too many police funerals,” which he partially blamed on inflamed rhetoric against law enforcement.

The two also clashed on issues including gun control, drug legalization and Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Asked if there was anything Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, could say that might lead him to oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination, Cruz replied, “Absolutely,” but did not elaborate.

O’Rourke held his own against Cruz’s rhetorical jabs, but didn’t quite hit back. At several points, he accused the Republican of lying and twisting his words. But when challenged by Cruz, he refused to repeat the words he said Cruz was misquoting — an intentional tactic he had practiced in advance, not wanting to give Cruz or his allies the opportunity to take his words out of context and use the clip against him in a political ad.

At one point, Gromer Jeffers, a Dallas Morning News reporter who served as one of the moderators, asked Cruz about his relationship with President Trump and the personal attacks Trump had waged against Cruz’s father and wife during the 2016 campaign. He asked Cruz to respond to those who said he had lost his “dignity” by aligning himself with Trump.

Cruz said he had put aside “hurt feelings” from the campaign to work with Trump because it was his job to do so. “I’ve got a responsibility, which is to fight for everybody here and every person in this state,” Cruz said.

And he attacked O’Rourke for prematurely expressing support for impeaching Trump, noting it would make it hard for him to work with the president. O’Rourke replied that Texas needed a senator who would oppose Trump on issues like trade and tariffs, which have been devastating to the state’s farming and manufacturing sectors.

In the final minutes of their first debate on Sept. 21, 2018, when each man was asked to name something they admire about their opponent, O’Rourke said that even though they disagree politically, Cruz was fighting for what he believed, and he respected that. (Photo: Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News/Pool via Reuters)

O’Rourke reminded the audience numerous times that he had campaigned in every one of the state’s 254 counties. He said voters were wondering where Cruz has been.

“We need a junior senator who will stand up to this president,” O’Rourke declared.

Cruz remains the favorite in the race. While he has been outraised by O’Rourke, allies who helped fund his 2012 campaign and his 2016 bid for the White House are preparing to spend big money to come to his defense. A Quinnipiac poll of likely Texas voters released earlier this week found the incumbent senator leading O’Rourke by 9 points — a notable, if not quite comfortable margin. But it was followed by a Reuters-Ipsos poll that found the two statistically tied. On Friday, the Cook Political Report changed its ranking for the race from “lean Republican” to “toss up.” Privately, Texas Republicans continue to express concerns about Republican complacency and the possible impact of so-called “nonvoters,” people who don’t usually vote but whom O’Rourke is hoping to turn out this November.

In the final minutes of the debate, each man was asked to name something they admire about their opponent. O’Rourke praised Cruz for being a dedicated public servant and said that he respects the personal sacrifices he has made to do his job, including being away from his wife and kids. The Democrat said that even though they disagree politically, Cruz was fighting for what he believed, and he respected that.

When it was Cruz’s turn, he praised O’Rourke for the same thing — though he couldn’t resist getting in a dig at the congressman. The senator brought up a series of debates he participated in with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a socialist, and offered O’Rourke a backhanded compliment. “I think Congressman O’Rourke is passionate, energetic and believes what he is fighting for,” Cruz said. “I think you are absolutely sincere like Bernie, that you believe in expanding government and higher taxes.”

“True to form,” O’Rourke responded dryly.

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