Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke and Republican incumbent Senator Ted Cruz duked it out Sept. 21 in Dallas at the first of three U.S. Senate debates, touching on issues of immigration, gun control and kneeling during the national anthem.
Two more debates are scheduled, one at the University of Houston on Sunday and another in San Antonio on Oct. 16.
“It seems to be close at this point,” said Cal Jilson, an expert in political science at Southern Methodist University, the host of the event. “My assumption is that Cruz probably narrowly wins in the end unless O’Rourke can continue to climb in the polls and get ahead by 4, 5, 6 points by the time early voting starts, in which case he could actually win it. But my guess is that Cruz wins.”
Jilson said this type of race is rare and hasn’t been seen in Texas politics since the last quarter century or so.
“The most unusual part of this race is that Beto O’Rourke has generated a lot of excitement, a lot of fundraising,” Jilson said. “He has all the money he’ll need to make his case to the Texas electorate and we’ll see how it turns out.”
Although polls show the senate seat within reach for O’Rourke, the last time Texans elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate was in 1994. Incumbents like Cruz had a 95 percent re-election rate in the 2014 midterm and Texas also has low voter turnout, ranking last in voter participation during the 2014 midterm.
“The best way to get a sense of how well [O’Rourke] is doing and how excited Democrats are about his race is to look at Lupe Valdez, who’s been Democratic candidate for Governor,” Jilson said. “She can’t raise any money, she’s 20 points down in the polls and you almost never see newspaper stories about her.”
Cruz was elected as a U.S. Senator for Texas in 2012 and ran against Donald Trump for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2016.
O’Rourke has served as the U.S. Representative for Texas’ 16th congressional district in El Paso since 2013 and served on the El Paso City Council from 2005 to 2011.
During the debate, Cruz said his stance on immigration is simple: “Legal, good. Illegal, bad.”
He said that granting citizenship to people who are here illegally would be a serious mistake.
He added that the U.S. should increase border security and build a border wall while welcoming legal immigrants.
O’Rourke said it is time to bring people out of the shadows; DACA recipients should have an earned path to citizenship.
“There’s no better people than those of us here in this state, Republicans and Democrats, Independents alike… to rewrite our immigration laws in our own image,” he said.
Cruz was asked about the shooting of Botham Jean by off-duty Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger said that O’Rourke should wait for due process before condemning the officer and calling for her to be fired.
“If she violated the law, if she did that intentionally, she’ll face the consequences,” Cruz said of Guyger. “But without knowing the facts, before a trial, before a jury has heard the evidence, Congressman O’Rourke is ready to convict her.”
Cruz condemned what he called O’Rourke’s lack of support for law enforcement, saying the congressman is quick to side against police.
O’Rourke said his family ties to police gave him special insight to law enforcement and the responsibilities of law enforcement to protect and serve all of members of the community the same.
He said that the statistics showing a trend of racial prejudice in law enforcement indicate they are not fulfilling that responsibility.
“African Americans represent 13 percent of the population in this country,” said O’Rourke. “They represent one third of those who are shot by law enforcement. We have something wrong.”
He said that Republicans, Democrats, law enforcement and the community need to work together for meaningful criminal justice reform.
Cruz said he believes rights should be protected regardless of someone’s race or ethnicity but violence against police is a problem.
“I was here in Dallas when five police officers were gunned down because of hateful and irresponsible rhetoric,” he said.
The moderators also asked O’Rourke about his stance on NFL players kneeling during the national anthem and he compared the players’ actions to civil rights marchers and freedom riders.
O’Rourke said there are two sets of criminal justice systems depending on someone’s race.
The nonviolent protests, he said, are standing up for everyone’s rights in the country and there is nothing more American.
He reminded the audience of protests during the civil rights era and said the peaceful kneeling during the nation anthem is a continuation of peaceful protests during that era.
Cruz said a reason he is a Republican is because civil rights legislation was passed with the “overwhelming” support of Republicans. According to Cruz, it was the “Dixiecrats” that were imposing Jim Crow and Democrats who were beating protesters in that era.
“Regardless of what race or ethnicity, every human being is a creation of God that our constitution protects,” he said.
Cruz said civil rights protesters like Martin Luther King Jr. would be astonished by how protesters disrespect the flag by burning it.
During the debate, both candidates accused the other of being untruthful.
At one point, the candidates began arguing out of turn after Cruz claimed that O’Rourke wants to see the Supreme Court writing the Second Amendment out of the Bill of Rights.
O’Rourke was adamant about his support for the Second Amendment but was then asked about his support for universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.
“Weapons of war belong on the battlefield, not in our schools, our churches, our concerts or our public life,” he said.
Cruz said there are factors that contribute to mass shootings that have nothing to do with government.
“They have things to do with removing God from the public square,” Cruz said. “Like losing the moral foundation of much of our society. Like losing the binds of community and family.”
Cruz said that he supports funding for increasing school safety, with armed police officers and metal detectors.
When O’Rourke was asked about his drunk driving arrest in 1988, he denied claims that he tried to flee the scene, but Cruz brought up O’Rourke’s history of introducing legislation that makes it easier for people with drug convictions to get driver’s licenses.
“It is part of a pattern,” Cruz said. “There is a consistent pattern when it comes to drug use that in every single instance, Congressman O’Rourke supports more of it.”
Cruz said that O’Rourke also advocated for a national debate on legalizing all narcotics, including heroin, fentanyl and cocaine.
O’Rourke said he doesn’t want to legalize heroin, cocaine or fentanyl but he wants to end the prohibition on marijuana.
To close the debate, the candidates were asked to say something nice about their opponent.
O’Rourke said he related to the sacrifices Cruz has made to his family serving as senator, and praised his dedication to public service.
Cruz shared that same sentiment about O’Rourke, but then compared him to Bernie Sanders.
“He is not doing anything differently than what he has normally done and that Republicans normally do,” said Jilson. “He’s running a conservative campaign that focuses on immigration and border control, so he is running against liberalism and socialism as a conservative Republican. Whether people are moved by those kinds of labels or not, we will see in the election.”
Jilson said the debate did not present a clear result for either side, but it provided other benefits to voters hoping to understand the candidates.
“I think it was revealing,” he said. “I don’t think there was a clear winner or a clear loser. Both campaigns did well in the debate.”