Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz had a chance to show off his often praised debating skills Friday in his first match-up against Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso congressman running a competitive campaign against him.
Cruz is trying to win a second term in the U.S. Senate in a race that the Cook Political Report on Friday rated a toss-up. New polls show the competition tightening with a Reuters-Ipsos poll on Wednesday giving O’Rourke a two-point lead in a typically reliable red state. Countering those indications is a Quinnipiac poll that had Cruz ahead by nine points.
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O’Rourke is a three-term congressman. He has raised more money than Cruz, a presidential hopeful in 2016 against now President Donald J. Trump, drawing national attention to the race.
O’Rourke, who became an El Paso city councilman in 2005, is hoping to become the first Texan elected to the Senate since 1988.
Friday's hourlong debate was the first of three the men are scheduled to participate in. Here were some of the evening’s highlights:
“This is why people do not like Washington, D.C.”
A particularly sharp exchange between the two contenders came as they addressed police shootings of unarmed black men, one of which occurred about two weeks ago when a white off-duty Dallas police officer shot her black neighbor, Botham Jean, to death in his own apartment. Police Officer Amber Guyger, who has been charged with manslaughter, has told investigators that she mistook his apartment for hers.
Cruz accused O’Rourke of calling police officers modern-day Jim Crow, a reference to local laws that enforced racial segregation in the South, and deemed the description offensive.
“That is not Texas,” he concluded.
“What Senator Cruz said is simply untrue,” O’Rourke responded. “I did not call police officers modern-day Jim Crow.”
Video of O’Rourke’s town hall on Wednesday at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college in Prairie View, Texas, shows him talking about a system that he said suspects a person based solely on the color of their skin, that searches, stops or shoots someone based on the color of their skin.
“It is why some have called this, and I think it is an apt description, the new Jim Crow,” he said.
Cruz, when asked whether he thought the police shootings a problem, said that everyone’s rights should be protected, but blamed irresponsible and hateful rhetoric for shootings of police officers — among them the killing of five Dallas police officers in 2016. He accused O’Rourke of repeating things he knew were not true, including accusing white police officers of shooting unarmed African American children, and said that The Washington Post had fact checked the claim and found it to be untrue.
“This is why people do not like Washington, D.C.,” O’Rourke said. “You just said something that I did not say and attributed it to me.”
“What did you not say?” Cruz asked.
“I’m not going to repeat the slander and mischaracterization,” O’Rourke said.
“You’re not going to say what you did say?” Cruz asked.
“This is your trick in the trade, to confuse and to incite based on fear and not to speak the truth,” O’Rourke said. "This is a very serious issue."
The Washington Post did examine a quote from O’Rourke but did not rate it given varying interpretations that were possible. The quote: “Black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement without accountability and without justice.”
Cruz's dignity and President Trump
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump attacked Cruz viciously, suggesting that Cruz’s father had been involved in the assassination of President John Kennedy and tweeting an unflattering photograph of Cruz’s wife, Heidi, and threatening to “spill the beans” on her.
How did Cruz, who later endorsed Trump and praised him, respond to critics who said he had lost his dignity?
Cruz called his father his hero and his wife his best friend and the most beautiful woman on the planet.
After the election, he faced a choice and decided to work with the president on cutting taxes and regulations and creating new jobs, he said.
“So yes, I could have chosen to make it about myself, to be selfish and say, ‘You know what, my feelings are hurt so I’m going to take my marbles and go home.’ But I think that would have been not doing the job I was elected to do.”
O’Rourke said that how Cruz responded when the president attacked him personally was his business. But the congressman also raised allegations that Trump had colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election and said he had attacked the country’s institutions.
“We need a U.S. senator who will stand up to this president, “ O’Rourke said.
“True to Form”
When the men were asked in the final moments of the debate what they admired about their opponent, O’Rourke said he knew how hard Cruz worked, the time he had spent away from his children and the sacrifices he had made. He said he had no question that despite their differences, Cruz wanted to do the best for America.
“So I thank you Sen. Cruz for your public service,” O’Rourke said.
Cruz agreed that the time away from their children was a sacrifice for both men and that O’Rourke was passionate, energetic and believed in what he was fighting for. Then Cruz compared O’Rourke to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who he said advocated socialism, higher taxes and expanding government.
“You’re fighting for the principles you believe in and I respect that,” Cruz said.
“True to form,” O’Rourke responded.
“Thoughts and prayers”
The men clashed over how to protect students from shootings in school, both referring to the killings at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, in May.
Cruz called for more armed police officers in school, and rejected any new gun control measures.
“There is something deeply wrong that we have these shootings. There are a lot of things behind it that have nothing to do with government. They have things to do with things like removing God from the public square, like losing the moral foundation of much of our society, like losing the binds of community and family.”
O’Rourke argued that bringing a firearm into a classroom would not make students safer.
“Thoughts and prayers, Sen. Cruz, are just not going to cut it anymore,” he said. “The people of Texas, the children of Texas, deserve action.”
“More armed police officers in our schools is not thoughts and prayers,” Cruz answered. “I”m sorry you don’t like thoughts and prayers. I will pray for anyone in harm’s way but I also will do something about it.”
Differing Views on Drugs
On drugs, Cruz said that O’Rourke, while on the El Paso City Council, had called for a national debate on legalizing all narcotics, including heroin and cocaine.
“There is consistent pattern when it comes to drug use that in almost every single instance Congressman O’Rourke supports more of it,” Cruz said.
Cruz said that the issue was personal; his older sister died of a drug overdoes.
O’Rourke, who was arrested for drunken driving in 1998, said that he wanted to end the war on drugs and to end the prohibition on marijuana.
“To be clear, I don’t want to legalize heroin and cocaine and fentanyl,” he said.