Beto O'Rourke, still hard at work on the campaign trail.
Beto O'Rourke, still hard at work on the campaign trail.
Melissa Hennings

Beto vs. Ted II: Not as Good as Godfather II, Not as Bad as Speed 2

After two debates in their race to the U.S. Senate, it's hard to imagine what Texas voters might've learned about U.S. Senator Ted Cruz or U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke that they didn't know going in. Tuesday night in San Antonio, as they did in Dallas a couple of weeks ago, Cruz and O'Rourke largely stuck to their scripts, avoided any big mistakes and preached to the choirs that have given them millions in what's become one of the most expensive Senate races in U.S. history. The race is just where it's been over the last week or so — competitive, but with Cruz holding an apparent lead in the mid-to-high single digits.

As Cruz and O'Rourke chattered back and forth about border security, tariffs and women's health Tuesday, what was striking was how both candidates used their opponent's positions to attack one another. To a liberal voter, Cruz's assailing O'Rourke for his support of socialized medicine, comprehensive abortion rights and impeachment of President Donald Trump sounds like a ringing endorsement. Same goes for conservative voters and Cruz when O'Rourke attacks the incumbent for shutting down the federal government to spite the Affordable Care Act, supporting the Trump tax cuts or denying global warming.

Beto O'Rourke, still hard at work on the campaign trail.
Beto O'Rourke, still hard at work on the campaign trail.
Melissa Hennings

Cruz and O'Rourke both represent a substantial portion of the Texas electorate, but, as recent polls have shown, the number of Texas voters who haven't already made up their minds between the two candidates is small. Their election is going to come down to turnout, rather than persuasion. That's why Cruz has the apparent advantage. His supporters — older, whiter, rural and suburban voters — have traditionally shown up for midterms. The Texans O'Rourke represents — the younger, browner residents of the state's growing cities — have never voted at the same rate as their counterparts.

As the debate began Tuesday, O'Rourke made an effort to fire up his base by invoking Trump's favorite nickname for Cruz.

"He’s dishonest," O'Rourke said of Cruz in response to the senator claiming that O'Rourke supported a $10-a-barrel tax on oil. "That’s why the president called him Lyin’ Ted, and it’s why the nickname stuck, because it’s true."

(O'Rourke voted against a non-binding resolution opposing the tax.)

Quickly afterward, however, O'Rourke allowed Cruz to control the pace and flow of the debate.

"In the end, I think this is going to be one of those debates where O'Rourke partisans go home liking their candidate more and Cruz partisans go home liking their candidate more, which is good when you're up by somewhere between 6 and 9 points." Rice University political science professor Mark Jones told the Observer after the debate.

Jones credited Cruz for repeatedly emphasizing that O'Rourke supports late-term abortions, a position that polls show is held by a minority of Texans. Rather than fight back by pointing out that Cruz's hard-line views on abortion — the senator supports banning the procedure, even in cases of rape or incest — are also out of step with most Texans, O'Rourke simply reiterated his own support of women's rights. That was a mistake, according to Jones.

"O'Rourke didn't press him on that," Jones says. "If O'Rourke had been able to say, 'You, senator, support banning abortion even in the case of rape and incest,' that's a minority position in Texas, but O'Rourke never hit him on that."

While Cruz committed a minor flub when he told WFAA reporter Jason Whitely, one of the debate's moderators, not to interrupt him while answering a question about returning civility to the political process, he avoided any major missteps, according to Jones.

For the incumbent and odds-on favorite, that was likely good enough.

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