DALLAS (CN) – U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and challenger Rep. Beto O’Rourke heatedly clashed Friday evening in their first debate, highlighting their differences on domestic issues in a surprisingly dead heat midterm race in traditionally red Texas.
Held on the campus of Southern Methodist University and hosted by The Dallas Morning News and NBC-affiliate KXAS, the debate on domestic policy was the first of three debates the men will have before Election Day.
Cruz, a Republican from Houston, repeated claims he made on the campaign trail that O’Rourke, D-El Paso, is associated with the “hard left,” namedropping prominent Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Nancy Pelosi to paint O’Rourke as too extreme for Texas.
O’Rourke attacked Cruz for saying he would deport immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. O’Rourke has been a vocal critic of President Donald Trump’s policy of separating illegal immigrant families at the border, as his congressional district is at a major port of entry with Juarez and within miles of temporary government detention facilities.
Saying there “are no better people in this country,” O’Rourke urged voters to “rewrite our immigration laws in our own image” for Texas’ economic benefit.
Cruz responded that securing the border with a wall can be done while “welcoming and celebrating” legal immigrants, like his father. He criticized O’Rourke for saying he would decriminalize illegal border crossings.
“There is a right way to come to this country, you wait in line,” Cruz said. “We are a state and nation built by immigrants.”
Cruz accused O’Rourke of fighting for illegal immigrants instead of citizens, adding that “Americans are dreamers, too.”
O’Rourke repeatedly reminded voters that he is the only candidate of the two who has visited all 254 counties in Texas.
“Within months of being sworn in to serve as your senator, Ted Cruz was not in Texas – he was in Iowa,” O’Rourke said, referring to Cruz’ failed bid at the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2016. “He visited every single one of the 99 counties of that state.”
Cruz appeared slightly more relaxed during the debate, frequently smiling and looking down at the podium while his opponent spoke. O’Rourke was more aggressive, speaking directly to Cruz after attacks he deemed as untrue.
“You just said something that I did not say and attributed to me,” O’Rourke said while looking at Cruz. “This is your trick of the trade, to confuse and incite based on fear.”
The two argued loudly on the issue of gun control, with O’Rourke telling Cruz that “thoughts and prayers are just not going to cut it anymore” on the issue of mass shootings and the government’s inaction. He described how “weapons of war” like the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle give shooting victims no chance of survival compared to handgun wounds.
O’Rourke said he wants to strike a balance between defending 2nd Amendment rights and protecting lives.
“I am sorry that you don’t like thoughts and prayers,” Cruz shot back. “I will continue to pray for anyone in harm’s way and I will also do something about it.”
Cruz highlighted his role in District of Columbia v. Heller, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 2008 that held the 2nd Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess firearms. The ruling overturned a Washington, D.C. handgun ban and requirement that legally-owned rifles and shotguns be unloaded and disassembled. Cruz, as Texas’ solicitor general, authored the state’s amicus brief in the case.
Regarding the issue of law enforcement using excessive force against young black men, Cruz attacked O’Rourke for quickly calling for the firing of white Dallas police officer Amber Guyger.
She is facing a manslaughter charge for shooting and killing Botham Jean in his Dallas apartment on Sept. 6, claiming she mistook his apartment for her own on a different floor and shot him when he failed to follow her commands.
“If she violated the law, she will face the consequences,” Cruz said. “But O’Rourke is ready to convict her before she gets her day in court.”
Cruz said O’Rourke “always sides against police” in voting against body armor for sheriffs and being open to abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
O’Rourke forcefully denied Cruz’ claim he called police officers “modern day Jim Crow.”
“My uncle Raymond was a captain in the El Paso County Jail,” O’Rourke said. “He taught me how to shoot and how to serve and protect a community, not just some of the community.”
When asked about whether there was a problem in this country with cops against blacks, Cruz did not answer the question and instead said he had been to too many police funerals as senator.
O’Rourke repeated his defense of the right of professional athletes to kneel during the national anthem in protest of racial inequality, saying there “is nothing more American” than peaceful protests. Cruz retorted that O’Rourke failed to address why such a protest is disrespectful to military veterans and the flag.
O’Rourke also denied claims made in a Houston Chronicle article that he may have tried to flee the scene of a car collision relating to his arrest in 1998 for driving drunk.
The race for Cruz’ seat was originally viewed as a comfortable win for him in traditionally conservative Texas, but O’Rourke has managed to close the margin as several recent polls have the two trading one to two-point leads.