In their second debate of a surprisingly close race, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and challenger Beto O’Rourke showed flashes of rancor but largely stressed a message tailored to their bases.
The debate offered a contrast to complaints that American campaigns spend too little time on the issues, as both men refrained from personal attacks, while delving into considerable detail about what they hope to accomplish and their distaste for the other’s positions.
Although the debate was supposed to feature more questions on foreign affairs than their first debate last month, with the exception of one question about trade and tariffs, the evening dealt only with domestic matters. The candidates sparred on taxes, U.S. policy on climate change, immigration, judicial philosophy and health care.
Mr. Cruz, the Republican incumbent in the conservative state, told Texans there isn’t a midterm election in the country that offers voters a starker choice in November.
“I want to cut your taxes; Congressman O’Rourke wants to raise your taxes,” Mr. Cruz said in his closing remarks. “I want to keep this economic boom we’re experiencing going. Do we continue on the path we’re on or do we turn back?”
Mr. O’Rourke worked to portray himself as a moderate Democrat who wants universal health care, but is willing and able to work with anyone in Congress regardless of party affiliation.
“All you heard from Sen. Cruz is what we should be afraid of,” Mr. O’Rourke said when rebutting the charge that socialized medicine would prove ruinously expensive. “I want people to have more health care.”
When the two first debated, Mr. O’Rourke was well within striking distance of Mr. Cruz, and in fact one poll had given him a 1-point lead. Since then, however, the polls have trended in Mr. Cruz’s favor and he currently holds a 7-point advantage in the RealClearPolitics average of major polls.
Nevertheless, Mr. O’Rourke is still much closer than any other Democrat in a statewide race in the GOP-dominated Lone Star State, and the race has drawn intense national interest as Democrats hope to retake Congress.
While Mr. O’Rourke remained calm and was never rattled, he struck at Mr. Cruz much more forcefully than he had in the first debate.
“You’re all talk and no action,” he said on more than one occasion.
Mr. Cruz repeatedly noted Mr. O’Rourke is on record as favoring the impeachment of President Trump, a position Mr. O’Rourke has carefully avoided saying in either debate.
“He wants two years of a partisan circus in a witch-hunt after the president,” Mr. Cruz said.
“It’s really interesting to hear you talk about ‘a partisan circus’ after your six years in Washington,” Mr. O’Rourke responded, drawing the biggest laugh of the night from the San Antonio audience.
In the first 15 minutes of the hour-long debate, Mr. Cruz twice tied Mr. O’Rourke to positions he holds along with Hillary Clinton — judges and gun rights.
“Sen. Cruz is not going to be honest with you,” Mr. O’Rourke shot back, leading Mr. Cruz to note the more fiery tone his opponent was adopting.
Mr. O’Rourke took heat for voting against a relief bill for Texans dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey last year, but he said he did not regret it, arguing he hoped for a better deal and said the bill didn’t offer the same help other communities had gotten after natural disasters.
Mr. Cruz, meanwhile, was sharply questioned about whether it was hypocritical for him to call the deficit “immoral,” while also voting for tax breaks in 2017. In response, Mr. Cruz noted that government revenues have actually risen since that bill was passed and he blamed the deficit on “out of control spending.”
As anticipated, the stormy confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh at the beginning of October came up more than once. Mr. Cruz said he was proud of the work he had done to get Mr. Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and told voters that this too presented a sharp contrast, as Mr. O’Rourke would have voted against Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Neil Gorsuch, who won confirmation last year.
Mr. O’Rourke did not dispute he opposed those two justice appointments, but said Mr. Cruz has also made some troubling decisions in backing judges Mr. O’Rourke called profoundly unworthy for seats on lower courts.
While the O’Rourke campaign may have entered the debate with a worse polling position than it had in September, it also arrived in San Antonio right after a record-breaking fundraising quarter that saw him pull in $38.1 million.
The money is a testament to his broad appeal and the fact he wishes to represent all Texans, Mr. O’Rourke said, whereas Mr. Cruz is beholden to PACs and special interest money.
In rebuttal, Mr. Cruz noted much of Mr. O’Rourke’s millions have come from donors outside the state attracted to a brand of liberalism more at home in left-wing coastal pockets than Texas.
“When he has to choose between left-wing national activists and the people of Texas, he goes with the left-wing national activists every time,” Mr. Cruz said. “His are great votes if you are raising money in San Francisco.