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In Last Night’s Debate, Cruz Crushed O’Rourke, But Will Texas Voters See It That Way?


Last night, Texas Senate hopefuls Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz faced off in the final debate of the race, in San Antonio. Reporters from major national media outlets and small Texas papers crammed into a packed press room, side by side, a testament to how closely people outside of Texas have followed this election.

Unfortunately, Beto-lovers in New York, Connecticut, and California will likely be sorely disappointed by the outcome. Cruz handily crushed O’Rourke, but at least the challenger didn’t go down without a fight.

The incumbent’s response on the economy, plus his emphasis on job creation and tax cuts, were strong. But the real shining part of Cruz’s answer was on tariffs, where he said in no uncertain terms that he believes in reducing barriers to free trade.

“I’m against tariffs and I’m against a trade war,” he said. “I have made the case repeatedly to President Trump that we should be expanding our access to foreign markets…if we are reducing the barriers, whether to Mexico or Canada or anywhere else, that’s a good thing.”

Cruz talked about his ability to influence Trump on tariffs, an area where Cruz departs from the administration’s approach, which left savvy watchers’ minds whirling with the question: would O’Rourke be able to do the same? (Outside wishful thinking, the answer is no.)

Cruz also tethered his substantive points to some smart culture war quips. He came out swinging, as the moderators asked about fake news and election tampering, and he quickly responded that government regulation of social media sites would be a mistake. This was a contrast to O’Rourke’s wishy washy rambling on how he’s maybe-just-maybe interested in crackdowns.

Cruz also quickly alluded to alleged tech company bias against conservatives, winning easy, albeit red meaty, points. Cruz’s mention of Justice Brett Kavanaugh was equally strong, as he alluded to the value of carefully examining the facts in alleged sexual assault cases, and a less politicized confirmation process in general.

O’Rourke’s best points centered on electing judges who don’t want voter suppression, or what should presumably be a bipartisan issue: “I want a justice who believes in voting rights,” said O’Rourke. Cruz later picked on O’Rourke, saying that he’s like other Democrats and just wants justices who will impose liberal policy preferences from the bench––a good and timely complaint, given the current knee-jerk leftist obsession with court packing (or dismantling the Supreme Court altogether because they don’t like current outcomes).

O’Rourke also had decent points on immigration–namely the value of expanding the number of youthful amnesty recipients in our country–most of which will likely fall flat with Texas voters (plus his points on Deferred Action for Child Arrivals were mostly drowned out by border wall talk).

Politically speaking, Cruz did an impressive job of continuously hammering out the differences between him and his opponent: “Let me say there’s no race in this country where there is a starker divide on immigration,” said Cruz, who trotted out the various law enforcement agencies that have endorsed him, signaling to voters just how serious he is about securing the border. The two candidates dueled with crime rate statistics from neighboring cities, El Paso and Juarez, each in an attempt to bolster their argument for or against increased border security.

O’Rourke also had strong answer on what he does in his free time, talking vividly about his love for family and time jamming out on the drums with his three kids–not exactly the most substantive response of all time, but warm and seemingly heartfelt nonetheless. Cruz’s answer felt much more stunted and awkward, as he rambled about missing his daughters’ basketball games, but charisma and compassionate aren’t exactly why Texas voters are interested in voting for him.

The abortion segment was exactly what you’d expect: Cruz was hardcore pro-life, and quickly accused O’Rourke of being out of touch with Texas values and voters. O’Rourke recycled typical pro-choice talking points, but clothed in more compassionate language, segueing from maternal mortality rates to abortion talk in record time. (He should be careful, though, when talking about maternal mortality rates, given that Texas’s high mortality rate is partly due to bad data collection and shoddy reporting.)

Cruz packed punches, claiming that his opponent “supports late-term abortions, supports taxpayer funding for abortions,” and that “fewer than 9 percent of Texans agree with him.”

“On the question of life,” Cruz reminded voters, “there is a tremendous difference between me and Congressman O’Rourke.” He also mentioned that the challenger’s beliefs on abortion are “extreme” and “disconnected”–not what the majority of Texans want.

To his credit, O’Rourke got a bit nastier in this debate, mentioning Cruz’s still-legendary nickname, “Lyin’ Ted” and being more assertive with bringing up Cruz’s voting record. His switch in tones, oscillating between compassionate, pie-in-the-sky progressive, and something more hardcore, gave me mild whiplash. But it also felt like a slightly more fair fight, and I’d expect O’Rourke’s family friendliness and clear knowledge of communities all across Texas (he’s visited every county in the state, no small feat, given our size) will rightfully play well with some voters. 

Still, Cruz came across as an experienced leader with strong policy chops and a cohesive plan. In his final answer, he gave a spiel about the American dream. It’s clearly part of his stump speech, and variations of it have been practiced a hundred times before, in front of hundreds of different audiences, but he honed in on what Texans want: continued prosperity, a booming job market, and the ability to keep pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, from Port Aransas to Odessa to El Paso. O’Rourke might have visited each of those places–and in his Toyota Tundra, as he likes to point out, bolstering his faux everyman image–but Cruz’s vision clearly speaks to the values of people living there.

Speaking of regular Texans, after covering the debate in San Antonio, I stopped at a Tex-Mex spot off the highway to grab a beer and a late dinner. As I checked out at the counter, I started swigging my Tecate. The good-natured waiter started laughing at me, and I told him I’d earned it, I’d just been covering the debate a few minutes ago. With a blank look on his face, he asked, “What debate?”

Take heart, Texans. Most people don’t make politics central to every part of their lives, and tons of Texans probably haven’t even read the fawning Beto-is-a-punk-rocker-who-skateboards headlines or perused Cruz’s voting record, despite years of being represented by him. This apathy isn’t a bad thing––it frees people’s energy up to focus on things that really matter: their families, their jobs, and drinking Tecate at a Tex-Mex restaurant on a Tuesday night.