High school football wasn’t what captured the attention of many Texans this rainy Friday night.
It was the first of three debates between Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who are embroiled in a fierce Texas-size battle for the U.S. Senate seat.
During the debate at SMU, both men went on the attack — and the defense — as they worked to convince anyone watching why they are the best candidate in this race.
Cruz jumped out first, saying he believes O’Rourke is “out of step with Texas.”
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Over the next hour, the two men traded barbs regarding a slew of topics, such as police violence, the national anthem and even President Trump.
At one point, when they spoke about gun rights, O’Rourke told Cruz that Texans are ready for someone to protect the Second Amendment but still put in place restrictions to prevent mass shootings.
Saying that Texans deserve action, O’Rourke said: “Thoughts and prayers are just not going to cut it anymore.”
Cruz took offense, saying, “I’m sorry that you don’t like thoughts and prayers. I will pray for anyone in harm’s way.”
This fight for the U.S. Senate seat has become one of the costliest and most watched races across the country, as many wonder if O’Rourke can do what no other Democrat has done for more than two decades in Texas: win a statewide office.
Friday night’s debate — hosted by SMU, The Dallas Morning News and KXAS-TV — came days after a political polls offered conflicting news: one put Cruz ahead by 9 percentage points, another put O’Rourke ahead by 2 percentage points. Then, before the debate started Friday, the Cook Political Report shifted the race from “leans Republican” to “toss-up.”
This debate, the first of three, focused on domestic policy. The other debates will be Sept. 30 at the University of Houston and Oct. 16 in San Antonio.
Early voting for the Nov. 6 midterm election runs from Oct. 22-Nov. 2.
Cruz was asked how he could work with the president now, after the two slung so many insults at each other when they sought the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
Cruz said Republicans had a chance “to do something extraordinary” after Trump was sworn in, so he chose to work for the country and Texans.
He said he has “worked hand in hand” with Trump to deliver tax cuts, record low unemployment and cut regulations.
“Texans lives are better,” he said. “So yes, I could have chosen to make it about myself, to be selfish and say my feelings are hurt so I’m going to take my marbles and go home.”
O’Rourke said that as he travels around the state, ranchers and farmers “wonder where their junior senator is, as this president enters trade wars and imposes tariffs that are going to hurt no state more than Texas.”
And he said average citizens “wonder where our junior senator is, when you have a president who may or may not have tried to collude with Russia in 2016.”
“If the president attacks you personally, ... how you respond is your business,” O’Rourke said. “When the president attacks our institutions ... to invade our democracy, that is our business. We need a U.S. senator who will stand up to this president ... and work with him where we can.”
Garrett Hull, Botham Jean and Amber Guyger — and the tragic circumstances that surround them all — became part of the debate when Cruz was asked why he cautioned O’Rourke and others not to jump to conclusions about Guyger, the Dallas police officer who shot and killed Jean, an unarmed black man, in his own apartment, which she said she mistakenly thought was her own home.
Cruz said what happened to Jean was “horrific” but no one knows all the facts. He said O’Rourke, who called for the officer to be fired, has started a “troubling pattern.”
He went on to claim that O’Rourke suggested that police officers embody “modern-day Jim Crow” laws, even at a time when “Fort Worth is burying Officer Hull ... who was shot in the head.”
Hull, who died Sept. 14 after being shot while pursuing robbery suspects, was laid to rest Friday.
O’Rourke said he, Cruz, and everyone gathered for the debate “mourn the passing of Officer Hull in Fort Worth.”
But he said that Cruz’s claim that he likened officers to modern day Jim Crows “is simply untrue.”
With Jean’s death, O’Rourke said, “you have another black man killed in this country by law enforcement. ... We have to find something better than what we’ve been doing so far.”
When asked whether police violence is a problem, Cruz went on to say that O’Rourke is making claims against police officers that aren’t true.
O’Rourke took offense, responding that “this is why people don’t like Washington, D.C.”
“You just said something I didn’t say,” O’Rourke said. “This is your trick ... to confuse, incite based on fear and to not speak the truth.”
Battle for Senate
The fight for this Senate seat, represented by Republicans since 1993, has become more competitive than expected.
TV commercials are ramping up on both sides, as are campaign town halls and rallies.
Republicans have said they believe O’Rourke’s election bid “is a serious threat” and President Donald Trump plans to hold a rally at the “biggest stadium in Texas” to help Cruz.
Willie Nelson, meanwhile, will headline a Sept. 29 Austin rally for O’Rourke.