As the first Senate debate showed, this race is quickly becoming defined by the politics of fear and resentment.
While the Senate battle between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke has become perhaps the most-watched political race in the country, it has existed almost entirely in two separate and thoroughly disparate realities.
There’s O’Rourke’s reality, in which his energetic DIY campaign is centered on showing up everywhere with an aspirational vision that tries to be something to everybody. He’s a progressive stalwart, a tempered conciliator and a vessel for the ample hopes held by voters wary of these dark political times. Texans, he says, are ready for a change — they’re eager for their leaders to, for once, move forward, not backward. There isn’t a problem that can’t be solved by just rising above the bullshit. O’Rourke has an Obama-esque outlook in that way.
And then there’s the reality of Senator Ted Cruz, who made his name as a stubborn crusader against Obama’s big-government encroachment. Cruz has reanimated that threat, with a few tweaks, in his projection of O’Rourke as a hard-left acolyte of Bernie Sanders who is hellbent on open borders, gun confiscation, legalized narcotics and socialized medicine. His opponent has risen on the backs of a doting liberal media, yet to be seriously challenged on his substance. From the day Cruz launched his re-election campaign, he’s insisted that Texas is still Texas — a conservative stronghold that remains firmly committed to rugged individualism, to freedom from tyrannical government and to his former foe President Donald Trump.
For the first time, those competing realities and personalities publicly collided during the first of three debates.
The result in Dallas was lively, but also unsurprising. Undeterred by recent polls showing the race in a dead heat, Cruz used the debate to double down on his core campaign strategy: igniting a fire underneath his conservative base, confident that their numbers are enough to win if they turn out in force. In his attempts to present O’Rourke through a kaleidoscope lens of Fox News fears, Cruz twisted and prodded with bad-faith attacks — coming across as a snide, oily weasel to the people who already hate him while pushing all the right buttons for the people he was really talking to.
O’Rourke often found himself on his heels, trying to parry Cruz’s slippery accusations — at one point, when Cruz accused him of not supporting the Second Amendment, O’Rourke stared him down from across the stage: “That’s not true. Of course I support the Second Amendment.”
A central part of Cruz’s political origin story is that he’s mastered the art of political debate, and can ably deconstruct an opponent’s positions with Ivy League-honed precision. On that front, he didn’t exactly succeed — but if the real goal was to telegraph and insinuate to the Texans just now tuning in that O’Rourke is a wild-eyed puppet for George Soros, he didn’t exactly fail either.
Still, for the most part, O’Rourke held his own as he tried to present his vision for criminal justice, gun and drug reform while casting the junior senator as a disingenuous tool of big corporations and special interests, someone who’s been too busy pursuing presidential ambitions in Iowa to tend to Texas. Cruz looked on with his trademark smirk, letting out the occasional laugh.
Though the debate touched on a number of issues, including health care, trade, President Trump and the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, it was ultimately defined by intense exchanges on social touchstones such as guns, immigration and race — issues that have propelled the race thus far, and will only become more central.
Asked about Dreamers, Cruz summed up his position on immigration in four words: “Legal, good. Illegal, bad.” Then, he called for a border wall and more “boots on the ground.” He said that O’Rourke’s priorities were out of whack when it comes to immigrants. “Over and over again, his focus seems to be on fighting for illegal immigrants,” not Americans. “You know, Americans are dreamers, too,” he said.
“Senator Cruz has promised to deport each and every single Dreamer,” O’Rourke said, pointing out that about 200,000 immigrants in Texas are protected under DACA. “That cannot be the way that Texas leads on this issue.”
In response to a question about Amber Guyger, the off-duty Dallas police officer who mistakenly entered a neighbor’s apartment and shot and killed the unarmed resident, Botham Jean, Cruz criticized O’Rourke for saying she should be fired. He accused O’Rourke of siding against police and law enforcement “over and over again,” from voting against funding for body armor for sheriffs to an openness to abolish ICE.
“And just this week,” he went on, “Congressman O’Rourke described law enforcement, described police officers, as modern day Jim Crow. … That is offensive. … That is not Texas.”
O’Rourke pushed back on the notion that law enforcement can’t be respected and also respect the rights of those they police. Citing Jean’s killing, he said, “We’ve got to do something different than what we’ve been doing so far. If African Americans represent 13 percent of the population in this country and yet they represent one-third of those who are shot by law enforcement, we have something wrong.”
O’Rourke, in what became a theme of the debate, shot back. “This is why people don’t like Washington, D.C. You just said something that I did not say and attributed it to me,” he said, ostensibly referring to Cruz’s Jim Crow attacks. “This is your trick of the trade, to confuse and incite based on fear.”
From there, moderator Gromer Jeffers turned the conversation to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police violence — an issue that has catalyzed the race since a video of O’Rourke defending the protests as a continuation of the civil rights movement went viral. He echoed the same sentiments in the debate.
In response to what he called O’Rourke’s “soliloquy on the civil rights movement,” Cruz said, “One of the reasons I’m a Republican is because civil rights legislation was passed with the overwhelming support of Republicans. And indeed, the Dixiecrats,” Cruz said, turning to face O’Rourke, “were the ones imposing Jim Crow. The Dixiecrats who were beating those protesters were Democrats.” In that, Cruz was shamelessly aping the rhetoric of right-wing provocateur Dinesh D’Souza — whose presidential pardon he aggressively lobbied for. D’Souza makes a living hawking ahistorical screeds, including the notion that Democrats have always been the real racists.
The debate ended with the moderators asking each candidate to say what they admire about their opponent. O’Rourke said he appreciates the sacrifices Cruz made in the name of public service and the toll that can take on his family. It was a sincere-sounding, if standard, response to the question.
Cruz initially went to the same space. He said Beto was “passionate” and “energetic” and “believes in what he’s fighting for.” But then he kept going: “Bernie Sanders believes in what he’s fighting for, he believes in socialism. Now I think what he’s fighting for doesn’t work, but 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 snapped back.