Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and his Democratic challenger, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, were asked Friday night – in what moderators intended to be a polite end to their first debate – to say something nice about each other.
O’Rourke began by praising Cruz’s work ethic and his family’s sacrifice. Cruz started with a similar response, pointing out that they both have young children and saying, “Every day, when I leave for the campaign trail, it’s hard.”
Then he linked O’Rourke to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and socialism.
“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,” Cruz said. “And I commend you for fighting for what you believe in.”
O’Rourke deadpanned: “True to form.”
Cruz’s backhanded compliment – and O’Rourke’s curt response – was a fitting coda to an hourlong debate that put on display several of the candidates’ biggest differences on issues like standing for the National Anthem, immigration and guns.
Cruz and O’Rourke are facing each other in a surprisingly competitive US Senate race in Texas, a Republican stronghold. Most polls have shown O’Rourke trailing, but after swearing off all political action committee donations, he has proved to be an online fundraising phenomenon, and on Friday night, O’Rourke played up his visits to all 254 counties in Texas. If he wins the race, it could help deliver control of the Senate to Democrats.
Friday night’s debate at Southern Methodist University was the first of three debates and a CNN forum the two candidates agreed to before November’s midterm elections.
During the debate, O’Rourke supported the rights of NFL players who have protested during the National Anthem, comparing them – as he did weeks ago in what became a viral video – to protesters in the civil rights movement.
Cruz shot back that he became a Republican in part because of the party’s support for civil rights, while Democrats in the South supported Jim Crow laws. (He did not mention that President Lyndon B. Johnson – a Democrat from Texas – signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act into law.)
Cruz also said that Martin Luther King Jr., if he were alive, would oppose the anthem protests because he respected the American flag. He said players should protest in a way that doesn’t “disrespect the flag.”
The two also clashed over immigration, with O’Rourke saying Cruz “has promised to deport each and every single Dreamer” and Cruz saying O’Rourke is “fighting for illegal immigrants” and that “Americans are dreamers also.”
They differed on gun rights – with O’Rourke arguing for some limits on gun rights and saying that “thoughts and prayers are just not going to cut it,” and Cruz insisting that “gun control is not the answer.”
Cruz also said school shootings are a result of “removing God from the public square,” and he called for more armed police officers in schools.
O’Rourke was pressed on his 1998 arrest for drunken driving, and he noted he did not attempt to leave the scene of the accident and called it a “terrible mistake.” He said the incident led him to fight to eliminate racial biases from the criminal justice system and help those who have served their time get jobs.
Cruz was asked how he had gone from his 2016 presidential primary battle with President Donald Trump – in which Trump insulted the appearance of Cruz’s wife, Heidi, and accused Cruz’s father of being involved in a conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy – to being political allies now, with Trump planning a trip to Texas.
Cruz said the 2016 election was “unlike any other, and there were some hard shots thrown.” But after losing, he said, he decided not to be “selfish, to make it about myself,” and instead try to “do something extraordinary” with Trump.
“I’ve got a responsibility, which is to fight for everybody here and every person in this state,” he said.