Texas voters were treated Friday evening to a Senate debate conducted throughout at an extremely high level that presented a stark contrast between full-blown conservatism and liberalism.
On taxes, Supreme Court judges, the Second Amendment and other issues, Democratic Rep. Robert “Beto” O’Rourke and incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz traded blows in an atmosphere that somehow managed to convey the tight race pollsters say is unfolding and yet steer clear of any mudslinging.
The debate, the first of three scheduled in the Senate midterms, was held on the campus of Southern Methodist University, and Mr. O’Rourke remained unflappable while taking on Mr. Cruz, who was a legendary debater as an undergraduate at Princeton.
Each candidate displayed the sort of strengths that have earned them the praise or enmity of the opposing camp. In Mr. Cruz’s case, the senator showcased a masterful command of almost every topic, while Mr. O’Rourke unfailingly managed to take any issue and tie it to a specific individual he has met while crisscrossing Texas.
While the sort of rank partisanship that can sometimes mar such an event was noticeably absent, the candidates threw heavy punches. Early on, for instance, the candidates squared off on gun control legislation and the 2nd Amendment.
After a concise summary of the importance of the Supreme Court’s Heller decision which reaffirmed an individual right to bear arms, Mr. Cruz ended his remarks declaring Mr. O’Rourke is about “writing the Second Amendment out of the Bill of Rights.
“That’s not true,” Mr. O’Rourke rejoined, before expressing what he said were common sense moves Congress can make to ensure “weapons of war belong on the battlefield and not in public life.”
Mr. O’Rourke claimed things like “universal background checks” would make schools and other places “demonstrably safer,” before chiding Mr. Cruz that “thoughts and prayers are not going to cut it.”
“Sorry you don’t like thoughts and prayers,” Mr. Cruz shot back, adding he would pray for anyone at any time.
The candidates also differed regarding the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, which has engulfed Washington recently with a thinly sourced allegation of sexual misconduct by Mr. Kavanaugh more than three decades ago made by Christine Blasey Ford, a California professor.
Mr. Cruz said Ms. Ford is a serious woman with a charge that deserves to be heard, but he then quickly pivoted to Mr. O’Rourke’s opposition to Judge Kavanaugh which Mr. Cruz said was rooted in radical ideas about jurisprudence. The justices Mr. O’Rourke wants on the court are the same as those favored by people like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Mr. Cruz argued, once again tying Mr. O’Rourke’s platform to those Democratic figures unpopular in the Lone Star State.
“This goes to the heart of massive policy divisions,” Mr. Cruz said, noting Mr. O’Rourke opposes Mr. Kavanaugh’s nomination. “He wants liberal judicial activists on the court to impose the policies he wants. I believe Texans want strict constitutionalists on the court and not these radical views.”
“Ms. Ford’s allegations must be investigated by the FBI, full stop,” Mr. O’Rourke began his comments. Mentioning some lower-level judges Mr. O’Rourke said were unsavory yet earned Mr. Cruz’s endorsement, Mr. O’Rourke contended Judge Kavanaugh’s record with voting rights cases should give marginalized or minority populations in Texas pause.
On the Supreme Court and economics, the specter of President Trump loomed large. During the 2016 presidential race, the moderators reminded the audience, Mr. Trump savagely attacked Mr. Cruz as “Lying Ted,” while Mr. Cruz characterized Mr. Trump as an inveterate liar himself. How could he square such harsh charges with support now, Mr. Cruz was asked?
That election was “one like no other,” Mr. Cruz said with a smile, before saying after it he “faced a choice.” He could remain at odds with the president, which Mr. Cruz said would have been selfish and a disservice to his constituents, or he could join Mr. Trump in passing legislation like the tax overhaul that Mr. Cruz repeatedly credited with jumpstarting the economy so that “Texans lives are better.”
Mr. O’Rourke was measured in his criticism of Mr. Trump, although he did not dispute Mr. Cruz’s point that Mr. O’Rourke is the only Democratic Senate candidate in these midterms who has vowed to vote to impeach Mr. Trump should the chance arise.
At the same time, Mr. O’Rourke insisted he could work with Republicans and Mr. Trump when they sought common goals. His own political career as a councilman in El Paso and in Congress shows he would be able to “stand up to the president when it counts and work with him when I have to.”
Such work would prove difficult, Mr. Cruz said, given Mr. O’Rourke “has never talked to the president and wants to vote for impeachment.”
Both candidates tried to don the mantle as a “fighter,” although Mr. Cruz warned at the end that should Mr. O’Rourke be elected his causes may not jibe with many Texans.
“He’s going to fight to raise your taxes,” Mr. Cruz said.
Mr. O’Rourke, in turn, did not deny he favors higher taxes but stressed instead a format he said favors the wealthy and stands as a misguided move for a nation deeply in debt.