Seeking to regain the edge in a race that has been surprisingly competitive, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz faced off with his Democratic opponent, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, for the first time Friday evening, in an hourlong debate that was marked by sharp differences on policies like immigration and law enforcement and some pointed personal attacks.
The fireworks began almost immediately onstage at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where the candidates met for the first of three scheduled debates in the coming weeks in Texas’s closely watched Senate race in which Cruz, the one-term incumbent, has struggled to stay ahead of O’Rourke, a rising star Democrat whose candidacy has attracted large crowds and celebrity support.
Cruz, a champion debater going back to his college years at Princeton, seemed more comfortable at the podium, and more confrontational. But he has struggled to overcome a style some voters (and fellow senators, including in his own party) consider condescending, and was occasionally caught by the camera in a smug smirk while O’Rourke was speaking.
The debate itself drew an unusual degree of national attention for a statewide race. Texas has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988, but Democrats have been eyeing it as a possible pickup in their long-shot drive to retake the upper chamber.
O’Rourke, a three-term congressman who represents El Paso, began the debate by calling for an overhaul in the nation’s immigration policies, including allowing a pathway to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children.
“Sen. Cruz has promised to deport each and every single Dreamer,” O’Rourke said. “That cannot be the way that Texas leads on this issue.”
Cruz didn’t dispute it, instead repeating a line he regularly uses on the campaign trail to explain his approach to immigration. “My views on immigration are simple, four words: legal good, illegal bad,” he said.
And in a tactic he deployed regularly throughout the night, Cruz jabbed back at O’Rourke, timing his remarks for the part of the format where the congressman was not allotted time to respond. He fired back that O’Rourke’s focus “over and over again … seems to be fighting for illegal immigrants.”
The two clashed over O’Rourke’s call to fire Amber Guyger, the Dallas police officer who shot and killed Botham Jean, an unnamed black man, in his apartment on Sept. 6. Cruz accused O’Rourke of frequently siding against law enforcement, saying that he had called police officers “the modern Jim Crow” and calling it “offensive.”
Cruz appeared to be referring to remarks O’Rourke made at a town hall Wednesday at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college northwest of Houston, where he voiced concerns about racism in the criminal justice system, including racial profiling and police shootings of people of color. The remarks, widely circulated on conservative blogs in recent days, echoed a recent column O’Rourke wrote about criminal justice reform in the Houston Chronicle.
O’Rourke did use the phrase, although he applied it to the justice system generally, not police officers personally. “That injustice, to many more people here than I know firsthand, continues to persist today,” O’Rourke said at the college, according to a video clip of the speech. “That system of suspending somebody, solely based on the color of their skin, searching that person solely based on the color of their skin, stopping that person solely based on the color of their skin, shooting that person solely based on the color of their skin, throwing the book at that person and letting them rot behind bars solely based on the color of their skin, is why some have called this, and I think it is an apt description, the new Jim Crow.”