(from left): U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-El Paso) and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) participate in a televised debate. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Express-News via AP

Democratic Rep. Beto O’ Rourke came out swinging against incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz on Tuesday in San Antonio during a televised debate that focused on domestic and foreign policy, including abortion, immigration, health care, trade tariffs, and election security.

The race for the Senate seat is one of the most closely watched in the run-up to the Nov. 6 midterm election, and the debate came six days before the start of early voting on Oct. 22. It likely was the final meeting between the two candidates.

Early in the debate, O’Rourke brought up the derisive nickname President Donald Trump put on Cruz during the 2016 presidential campaign: “Lyin’ Ted.”

“Senator Cruz is not going to be honest with you,” O’Rourke said, referring to Cruz’s assertion that the Democratic congressman favored a tax on oil, when the vote in question concerned how the government should fund rail and highway projects. “It’s why the president called him ‘Lyin’ Ted,’ and it’s why the nickname stuck.”

While the candidates followed the debate format for most of the night, there were some moments Cruz spoke beyond the allotted time. In one such instance, he touted his endorsement from San Antonio police union President Mike Helle. The local firefighters union also has endorsed Cruz.

Cruz, the KENS 5 moderators, and O’Rourke talked over each other for almost one minute. Cruz emphasized that law enforcement agencies, including border patrol groups, support his approach to border security and public safety.

Meanwhile, Cruz said, O’Rourke “wanted to talk about everything except border security” and wants to protect “illegal aliens.”

O’Rourke said he would like to see efforts at the border focused on ports of entry to enhance security and trade at the same time.

“No wall is going to solve legitimate immigration concerns,” O’Rourke said, condemning Cruz’s support of Trump’s proposed wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. “Trade is the lifeblood of our community.”

Audience members watch the Cruz / O'Rourke watch party at Palo Alto College.
Audience members applaud during the debate watch party hosted by Beto O’Rourke’s campaign at Palo Alto College. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A CNN poll released this week has Cruz, who is seeking his second term, ahead in the race by 7 points, but earlier this month, other polls tagged O’Rourke in the lead with a narrow margin. If elected, the El Paso congressman would be the first Democrat to hold the seat since 1993.

Voters in Texas face a clear choice between the two candidates. Cruz opposes abortion and the Affordable Care Act, favors GOP tax cuts, wants stricter immigration and deportation rules, and thinks climate change is a hoax – all traditional Republican stances with which O’Rourke disagrees.

“I believe in science,” Cruz said, but climate change is natural and Democrats are using it to exert control over the economy. He accused O’Rourke of voting for legislation that might have increased the cost of gas.

“I reject the false choice between oil and gas and renewable energy,” said O’Rourke, adding that reasonable legislation to balance energy markets could help mitigate climate change. “We still have time to get this right.”

With the race so close, Trump will host a rally in support of Cruz in Houston on Oct. 22, the first day of early voting. Meanwhile, O’Rourke has said he’s not interested in an endorsement from former President Barack Obama. In an attempt to sway moderate voters who may be up for grabs, Cruz called O’Rourke a “liberal extremist” and his ideas about universal health care “socialist.” Courting those same moderates, O’Rourke often says he’s running to represent Texans, no matter their political or religious affiliations.

O’Rourke said he wants to expand Medicare and healthcare choices to cover all Americans. Such programs could be paid for by repealing the GOP’s corporate tax cut that puts a $2 trillion strain on the national debt, he said.

O’Rourke’s call for Texas to adopt a single-payer, Medicare-for-all plan would bankrupt the state, Cruz said.

“The cost would be immense,” Cruz said. “He wants to put everyone who hasn’t paid into Medicare on Medicare. That would bankrupt Medicare.”

The candidates conceded near-agreement on opposition to the Trump administration’s higher tariffs on foreign-made goods and materials, but Cruz said O’Rourke would be unable to work with Trump. Electing O’Rourke would result in “two years of partisan circus,” Cruz said.

Ted Cruz yells "Come and Take It" as he engages his supporters following a debate against opponent Beto O'Rourke Tuesday night.
Ted Cruz yells “Come and Take It” as he engages his supporters at Old San Francisco Steakhouse following a debate against Beto O’Rourke Tuesday night. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“Really interesting to hear you talk about the partisan circus after your six years in the Senate,” O’Rourke replied, drawing laughs from the audience.

“If you have this special relationship with President Trump, then where is the results of that?” O’Rourke asked. 

Cruz touted the GOP tax cuts, positioning himself as the leader of that effort.

“Where are the results? That the State of Texas is booming,” he said, with the state enjoying the lowest unemployment rate in decades.

The two candidates traded jabs on domestic policy during the first debate last month in Dallas at Southern Methodist University. A debate scheduled for Sept. 30 in Houston was canceled and never rescheduled because of Cruz’s participation in the Senate’s confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Cruz said Tuesday he was “proud” to approve Kavanaugh but was disappointed with the treatment the judge received as he was questioned about “unsupported uncorroborated allegations” of sexual assault in his high school years.

Cruz said he voted in favor of Kavanaugh because he will follow the law regardless of his stance on abortion. 

O’Rourke said confirming Kavanaugh was a “troubling” decision. While the newest Supreme Court justice has not said how he would rule on a possible overturn of Roe vs. Wade, his writings indicate he is in favor of limiting access to abortion. O’Rourke said he would only vote for a Supreme Court justice who believes in women’s right to an abortion.

O’Rourke has raised $38.1 million, more than three times as much as Cruz’s $12 million, over the past three months, according to the Texas Tribune. It was the largest fundraising quarter for a U.S. Senate race in the country’s history.

O’Rourke’s campaign has not accepted money from political action committees and has kept out of the attack ad game, but that hasn’t stopped other groups from launching  independent ads critical of Cruz, including two directed by Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater. Cruz’s campaign has not shied away from attacking O’Rourke’s vote to tax oil production and comments made in defense of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police shootings of black men.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at iris@sareport.org