O’Rourke, trailing Cruz in Texas Senate race, comes out swinging in final debate

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent

Trailing in the polls and looking to regain momentum in Texas’s fiercely contested Senate race, Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke came out swinging in his final debate against Sen. Ted Cruz. He repeatedly questioned the Republican’s honesty and work ethic as the two clashed over a litany of issues, including immigration, abortion rights and President Trump.

O’Rourke, a three-term congressman from El Paso whose campaign has attracted large crowds and celebrity support, has spent much of his candidacy preaching a message of hope and civility and decrying negative attacks from his GOP rival.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, left, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, held their final debate Tuesday. (Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News via AP)

But days after telling supporters that he would get tougher and offer more “contrast” with Cruz, O’Rourke took the stage in San Antonio and immediately went after his opponent, questioning why he hasn’t stood up to Trump or delivered more for average Texans. He repeatedly accused Cruz of being more focused on his own political ambitions than his constituents.

“Ted Cruz has put his career above the interests and priorities of Texas,” O’Rourke said. “Ted Cruz is for Ted Cruz.”

The congressman, who spent months on the campaign trail barely uttering Cruz’s name, was noticeably more aggressive than he had been in the candidates’ first debate and took every opportunity to pounce on his Republican rival. While Cruz was equally aggressive, he could often be heard chuckling in response to O’Rourke’s jabs.

In one of the more fiery exchanges, O’Rourke pushed back when Cruz repeated a talking point from a recent attack ad claiming the congressman voted in favor of a gas tax of $10 per barrel. O’Rourke accused him of twisting his record.

“Senator Cruz is not going to be honest with you,” O’Rourke declared. “He’s going to make up positions and votes that I’ve never held or taken. He’s dishonest. That’s why the president called him ‘Lyin’ Ted,’ and that’s why the nickname stuck. Because it’s true.”

“It’s clear Congressman O’Rourke’s pollsters have told him to come out on the attack,” Cruz fired back. “So if he wants to insult me and call me a liar, that’s fine.”

A fact-check by the Dallas Morning News before the debate said Cruz’s charge was based on O’Rourke’s vote against a nonbinding resolution in the House that expressed opposition to an increase in the federal gasoline tax to pay for infrastructure repairs. The tax itself, a proposal by the Obama administration, never came up for a vote, and the resolution in opposition had no effect; it was widely viewed as a tactic by the Republican House leadership to put Democrats on the defensive — exactly as Cruz is now doing to O’Rourke.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, left, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, exchanged barbs in their last scheduled debate. (Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News via AP)

Cruz accused O’Rourke of being too liberal for Texas, citing what he described as “extreme” positions, including his support for abortion. He suggested O’Rourke is captive to the “angry left.”

When O’Rourke criticized Cruz’s role in the 2013 government shutdown, Cruz suggested that electing O’Rourke would lead to even more Washington gridlock. He said his rival, if elected, would play a central role in efforts to impeach Trump, leading to “two years of a partisan circus and a witch hunt on the president” and “utter chaos.”

“Really interesting to hear you talk about a partisan circus after your last six years in the Senate,” O’Rourke shot back.

The two clashed over immigration — with Cruz touting his support for Trump’s proposed border wall and O’Rourke attacking Cruz for shutting down immigration reform efforts in the Senate because of his opposition to giving legal status to so-called Dreamers, young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

It was the last scheduled debate between Cruz and O’Rourke in what has been a surprisingly competitive Senate contest in one of the most conservative states in the country. O’Rourke is vying to be the first Democrat elected statewide in Texas since 1994 and has raised more than $61 million in that quest, including $38 million in the last three months alone — a historical record for Senate candidates.

But recent polls show Cruz has widened his lead after a summer in which he and O’Rourke were nearly tied. A new CNN poll out Tuesday found Cruz up 7 points among likely voters. But O’Rourke’s camp believes they are still in the hunt and aim to turn out new voters and “nonvoters,” as the candidate describes them, who may not show up in polling.

Early voting begins next Monday — the same day Cruz is scheduled to campaign with Trump at a major rally in Houston.

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