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First Debate Held In Surprisingly Close Texas Senate Race


In Texas, a race that no one expected to be this competitive. The candidates for Texas Senate battled in a debate last night. KERA's Christopher Connelly reports from Dallas.

CHRISTOPHER CONNELLY, BYLINE: It was a scene that feels kind of rare in American politics these days. Two guys with diametrically opposed opinions lobbing barbed policy prescriptions back-and-forth without any name calling. Senator Ted Cruz and Congressman Beto O'Rourke were forceful and civil - mostly.


BETO O'ROURKE: You just said something that I did not say...

TED CRUZ: What did you not say?

O'ROURKE: ...And attributed it to me.

CRUZ: What did you not say?

O'ROURKE: I'm not going to repeat the slander and the mischaracterization.

CRUZ: So what did you say? What did you say?

O'ROURKE: I'm not going to repeat the slander and mischaracterization.

CRUZ: You're not going to say what you did say?

CONNELLY: Ted Cruz is formidable on the debate stage. He was a star college debater and the top lawyer for Texas before he was elected to the Senate in 2012. He made his name as a conservative firebrand but has toned down his rhetoric since he lost his 2016 presidential bid. But throughout the campaign, Cruz has lambasted O'Rourke as too liberal for Texas, said he wants to Californianize the state, that he's more tofu than barbecue. On stage, he went even further.


CRUZ: We're seeing nationally socialists, like Bernie Sanders, like Alexandra (ph) Ocasio-Cortez. And, indeed, Congressman Beto O'Rourke advocating for those same policies.

CONNELLY: O'Rourke has taken progressive stances on a range of issues including a universal health care plan, also ending the war on drugs, raising the minimum wage and protecting abortion rights. He said Cruz was more interested in running for president than showing up in the Senate to vote.


O'ROURKE: You tell me who can miss half the days at work and then be rehired for the same job going forward. That's not what Texans want. They don't want somebody who's captured by corporations and political action committees and special interests.

CONNELLY: Polls have shown a consistently tight race, with Cruz keeping slightly ahead of O'Rourke. But this is Texas. 1994 was the last year a Democrat won statewide office, and Democrats are usually thoroughly thumped. Now the Cook Political Report is calling this a toss-up, and Democrats are giddy.

On stage, Cruz and O'Rourke duked it out over the very nature of Texas values, from immigration to kneeling football players. On guns, O'Rourke called for an assault weapons ban and universal background checks. Cruz said more armed police officers in schools would prevent shootings like the one that happened at Santa Fe High School near Houston in May. O'Rourke fired back.


O'ROURKE: Listening to Rhonda Hart, who lost her daughter, Kimberly, in the Santa Fe shooting, she tells me bringing weapons into those classrooms would not have saved her daughter's life. It will not make us safer. Thoughts and prayers, Senator Cruz, are just not going to cut it anymore. The people of Texas, the children of Texas deserve action.

CRUZ: Well, hold on a second, and let me be very clear. More armed police officers in our schools is not thoughts and prayers. I'm sorry that you don't like thoughts and prayers. I will pray for anyone in harm's way, but I'll also do something about it.

CONNELLY: Big money is pouring into the state, which is rare in a Texas Senate race. President Trump is even going to turn up to support the man he once called Lying Ted. And the Democratic big guns are already firing for O'Rourke. They'll be going until Election Day. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Connelly in Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE WEDNESDAY'S "DEAD OR ALIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Connelly is a KERA reporter based in Fort Worth. Christopher joined KERA after a year and a half covering the Maryland legislature for WYPR, the NPR member station in Baltimore. Before that, he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow at NPR – one of three post-graduates who spend a year working as a reporter, show producer and digital producer at network HQ in Washington, D.C.
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