SAN ANTONIO (CN) — Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke came out swinging against Senator Ted Cruz Tuesday night in a feisty debate that veered from hot button foreign and domestic topics to civility in politics.
“Senator Cruz is not going to be honest with you,” O’Rourke said, setting the tone just a few minutes into their second and likely final debate, inside a CBS-affiliated TV station in San Antonio.
“He’s going to make up positions and votes that I’ve never held or have ever taken. He’s dishonest. It’s why the President called him ‘Lyin’ Ted’ and that’s why the nickname stuck, because it’s true.”
Cruz repeatedly accused O’Rourke of “not answering the question,” frequently linked him with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and slammed the El Paso congressman’s voting record as ineffective and “markedly out of step with the people of Texas.”
“It’s clear Congressman O’Rourke’s pollsters have told him to come out on the attack,” Cruz said. “If he wants to insult me and call me a liar, that’s fine.”
O’Rourke, 46, and Cruz, 47, are in one of the most closely watched races of the midterm elections, in a Republican stronghold that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in more than two decades.
The fiery follow-up to their September debate in Dallas unfolded days after O’Rourke announced a healthy $38.1 million fundraising feat, more than tripling the $12 million brought in by Cruz in the same three-month period.
Yet recent polls show Cruz widening the gap on O’Rourke in the wake of the contentious Senate confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which many believe boosted enthusiasm among Republican voters. A CNN poll released Tuesday shows Cruz with a 7-point advantage with 21 days before Election Day.
“There is a loss of civility, there is an anger, there is a rage on the far left that is really frightening,” Cruz said before telling moderator Jason Whitely of Dallas-based WFAA 8, “Don’t interrupt me, Jason.
“We can disagree while treating each other with respect, while treating each other with civility,” Cruz said, adding that he focuses on substance, issues and voting record in politics, not personal attacks.
He called the confirmation hearing of Justice Kavanaugh the lowest point of civility in politics. “He should have been treated with respect and he was not,” Cruz said.
Both candidates talked over each other at times during the hour-long debate broadcast throughout Texas that drew international media attention. A crowd of 120 made up the studio audience; each candidate was allowed to invite up to 60 people.
The two clashed on almost everything, including border control, climate and taxes. But they agreed that punitive tariffs instigate economically harmful trade wars, and found common ground in their views on the #MeToo movement.
“The state of Texas is booming,” Cruz said. “We’ve got right now the lowest unemployment in 49 years. ...Texas is seeing the benefits of low taxes and low regulations and Congressman O’Rourke’s position is always, always, always in favor of higher taxes.”
After the debate, Cruz visited his campaign’s watch party to deliver a speech before an enthusiastic crowd of roughly 300 at a local venue, the Old San Francisco Steakhouse.
“I think [O’Rourke’s] counting on the media. … I think he’s counting on the puff pieces we’ve had that are all about puppies and rainbows,” Cruz said as dozens from the crowd responded, “And squirrels!”
Cruz laughed. “And one blind squirrel,” referring to O’Rourke’s anecdote during the debate about his young daughter Molly “nursing a blind squirrel back to life.”
Cruz then handed the microphone to his wife Heidi, whose voice was hoarse from “campaigning for him in West Texas this last week,” she said.
“[This election] is existential to our state and to our party,” she said. “We’re here for you; you’re not here for us, we’re here for you.”
M.J. Smoot, 64, a self-described “hard Republican,” born and raised in San Antonio, said her Cruz vote was confirmed by the debate.
“The weaknesses were stark in Beto,” Smoot said, who had never seen him speak before. “Shallow responses, no answers, no concrete info and just a lot of sidestepping. He might be a nice guy, just not what we want representing us here in Texas.”
O’Rourke will appear Thursday in the border town of McAllen for a town hall-style event hosted by CNN, which Cruz declined to attend. Cruz will rally supporters alongside President Donald Trump in Houston on Oct. 22, the first day of early voting in Texas.