To call it a contest of contrasts would be an understatement.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) faced off against Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), the El Paso Democrat running a spirited campaign against him, in their first of three debates on Friday. The moment arrived as recent polls have shown a too-close-for-comfort contest and Republicans in Washington D.C. have been concerned that O’Rourke’s massive fundraising prowess and personal appeal could lead to an upset. Earlier Friday, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rated the race a “Toss Up” in a state that hasn’t had a Democrat win a statewide race since 1994.
From the beginning of Friday’s debate, O’Rourke reiterated his support for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipients and said Cruz “has promised to deport each and every single Dreamer.” Cruz’s view on immigration, as he summed it up in four words, was: “legal, good; illegal, bad.” He charged that O’Rourke’s “focus seems to be on fighting for illegal immigrants.”
Cruz continued to rhetorically tie O’Rourke to progressive luminaries like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), his estimation being that they would be unpalatable to a Texas general electorate. He also sought to portray O’Rourke as disrespectful to law enforcement, in an answer about Botham Jean, an unarmed African-American man killed by a police officer in his own apartment. “He immediately called for firing the officer,” Cruz said, adding that O’Rourke described police officers as “modern day Jim Crow.”
"This is your trick in the trade: to confuse, and to incite fear," O’Rourke responded, denying that he had said that. (O’Rourke said that a “system of suspecting somebody solely based on the color of their skin” has been referred to by some as “the new Jim Crow,” which he said was an apt description in a brief video of the remarks).
In an exchange about Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Cruz said that “The allegations she’s raised are serious, and they deserve to be treated with respect.” Asked if there was anything she could say in a hearing that would make him change his mind on supporting Kavanaugh, Cruz said “absolutely,” but did not elaborate.
“Dr. Ford’s allegations should be investigated by the FBI. Full stop,” O’Rourke said, also citing Cruz’s support for federal judges with extreme views. “There is precedent for that.”
Cruz was also faced with a question about how he evolved in 2016 from calling Donald Trump a “pathological liar,” amid barbs about the attractiveness of his wife and his father’s involvement in the death of JFK as the two vied for the Republican nomination, to embracing the New Yorker after he won it.
"After the election in 2016, I faced a choice," Cruz said. "I made a conscious choice to do the job I was elected to do, which was to represent 28 million Texans."
O’Rourke said that it was Cruz’s choice as to how to respond to personal attacks from Trump that were levied at his family but that, “We need a U.S. senator who will stand up to this president where we must.”
The Democratic congressman also had to respond to a question about a drunk-driving arrest from 1998, highlighted in a recent Houston Chronicle report. He denied that he tried to flee the scene and framed the experience as an opportunity to discuss criminal justice reform.
"I've made the most that I could of my second chance," O'Rourke said. "As a white man in this country there's a privilege I enjoy that many African American men and women do not."
Both men were given a brief opportunity at the close of the debate to say something positive about one another, prompting O’Rourke to earnestly say of Cruz that he knows “how hard he works” and how much time Cruz has to spend away from his kids. “I have no question that Sen. Cruz wants to do the best for America.”
Cruz, given his opportunity to reciprocate, acknowledged that being the dad of young kids is hard before turning even that into a not-so-subtle attack line.
“I think Congressman O’Rourke is passionate, he is energetic,” Cruz said, comparing him to Sanders’ beliefs with veiled disdain. “I think you are absolutely sincere like Bernie that you believe in expanding government and higher taxes and I commend you for fighting for what you believe in.”
“True to form,” O’Rourke quipped, turning back towards the microphone.