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Surprisingly Close Texas Senate Race Sparks Testy Debate For Cruz, O'Rourke

Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke makes a point as Republican Sen. Ted Cruz listens Friday during a debate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Tom Fox/Pool
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Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke makes a point as Republican Sen. Ted Cruz listens Friday during a debate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

It was more duel than debate Friday night in Dallas as Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Rep. Beto O'Rourke went after each other from the start. Snappy and heavy on snark, Cruz and O'Rourke held nothing back in the first of three debates.

Friday's focus was domestic policy, and the candidates sparred on immigration, health care, gun control and even their opinions on professional football players taking a knee during the national anthem.

Cruz painted O'Rourke as part of a revolutionary fringe — placing him to the left of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders. He characterized O'Rourke as a politician "out of step with the people of Texas" who wants to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, take away Texans' guns and impeach President Trump.

"We're seeing nationally, socialists like Bernie Sanders, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and, indeed, Congressman Beto O'Rourke advocating for those same policies," Cruz said.

O'Rourke accused Cruz of caring more about tax cuts for corporations than his constituents, saying he wanted "to deport each and every single Dreamer" and accusing him of being an absentee senator who spent more time campaigning in Iowa than working for Texas.

"In 2016, he missed half of the votes in the United States Senate," O'Rourke said. "You tell me who can miss half of the days of work and still be rehired for the same job going forward. That's not what Texans want."

The surprisingly competitive Senate race has become one of the most-watched and talked-about contests of the 2018 midterms. Once considered a safe seat for Cruz, recent polls show the candidates running within single digits of each other. Just this week, the Cook Political Report reclassified the race, calling it a toss-up.

That is a big deal in Texas, which hasn't elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994. And it's a big deal nationally too: Democrats are likely to retake control of the House in November and, if they can sweep Cruz-O'Rourke and other close races, could wrest control of the Senate from Republicans too.

Immigration and border security

The vast differences between the two candidates on almost every hot topic were on display, particularly on immigration and border security.

"When it comes to immigration, we need to do everything humanly possible to secure the border," Cruz said. "That means building the wall. That means technology. That means infrastructure. That means boots on the ground. And we can do that all at the same time that we are celebrating legal immigrants."

O'Rourke says the U.S. needed to "bring people out of the shadows, allow them to get right by law."

O'Rourke chided Cruz for supporting legislation that would have allocated billions of dollars to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and called for an earned path to citizenship.

"The alternative, as Cruz has proposed, is to deport 11 million people from this country," O'Rourke said. "Imagine the cost, imagine the stain on this country for generations moving forward."

A Senate candidate gun fight

The crowd watching the debate at Southern Methodist University on Friday was most animated when Cruz and O'Rourke took on guns, police violence and mass shootings.

The Dallas debate comes as the area has grappled both with the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white Dallas police officer and the killing of a Fort Worth police officer who was shot trying to stop a robbery. A few weeks ago, a white former police officer from the Dallas suburbs was convicted of murdering a black teenager.

A question about the shooting of 26-year-old Botham Jean pivoted into Cruz's chastising O'Rourke for calling for the officer's firing, using hateful rhetoric and "turning people against the police." He raised the specter of the 2016 ambush killing of five Dallas officers by a troubled Army veteran who was reportedly upset by stories of police brutality.

Cruz said O'Rourke wanted to get rid of the Second Amendment, prompting O'Rourke to say that wasn't the case. O'Rourke talked about learning to shoot as a kid but also said it's time for universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons.

Cruz and O'Rourke will face off again Sept. 30 in Houston and Oct. 16 in San Antonio.

Copyright 2018 KERA

Rachel Osier Lindley