Throughout his insurgent campaign to depose Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke has insisted that he wants to debate the incumbent as often as possible. Initially, O'Rourke suggested six debates, four in English and two in Spanish, before eventually settling on six debates in English when Cruz said he wasn't fluent enough in Spanish to debate. The Cruz campaign offered O'Rourke something close to what he'd asked for Wednesday, proposing five debates in the three months leading up to the election.
"As Senator Cruz has long believed, our democratic process is best served by presenting a clear and substantive contrast of competing policy ideas, and these five debates will be an excellent way for both you and the senator to share your respective visions with Texas voters in the weeks leading up to the November election," Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe wrote in a letter to O'Rourke.
The Cruz campaign's proposal calls for all five debates to be on Friday nights. Roe says in his letter that is because the Senate will be in session. Each will cover a single topic, be in a different Texas city and be one hour long. While the topics and formats are non-negotiable, the Cruz campaign said it is willing to discuss the proposed debates' moderators, sponsorships and media partners.
As the front-runner, Cruz is taking on a certain amount of risk in proposing to debate O'Rourke so frequently, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones says, but it's clear that the senator's campaign believes it has something to gain by exposing O'Rourke to a statewide audience.
"It's definitely a risk. You're providing Beto O'Rourke with a platform that you don't need to provide him with," Jones said. "It could be that the Cruz campaign has polling that shows that they can lower O'Rourke's approval ratings by highlighting [some of his positions]. It also suggests that they believe any refusal by Cruz to debate could reflect negatively on him."
Thanks to Cruz's skill and experience as a debater, his campaign likely isn't worried that he'll commit a damaging gaffe no matter how often he debates, Jones says. That's what's important because most voters won't watch the debate, he says. Instead, they'll catch up on news coverage over the weekend or the following week.
"The real attention to these debates doesn't come during the actual debate," Jones says. "It comes from the media coverage that night on the news and the next day in the newspaper and on radio. That's what has a major impact, especially if one of the candidates scores some points against the other."
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Jones says he can't remember a case in which candidates for a statewide office have had as many as five debates.
"From a little "d" democracy point of view, this is a very positive move for Texas," he says.
While O'Rourke essentially has to agree to Cruz's terms, Jones says, after seeking and then getting nearly a half-dozen debates, the challenger's campaign didn't officially sign on to the Cruz plan Wednesday.
"I am encouraged that Senator Cruz has decided that he’s ready to debate the issues. Our campaign looks forward to working with his campaign to finalize mutually agreed upon details," O'Rourke said in a statement.