Democrat Beto O'Rourke abandoned his usual message of unity and optimism on Tuesday and laid into Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), hoping to reverse polls that show him fading against the Republican incumbent during the second debate of a Texas Senate race that's become one of the nation's most closely watched.
During the opening moments, Cruz criticized U.S. Rep. O'Rourke (D-El Paso) for past votes supporting a never-enacted oil production tax that might have hit oil-rich Texas hard. O'Rourke responded by evoking a moniker Donald Trump bestowed on Cruz when the pair were bitter rivals during the 2016 Republican presidential primary, saying, "Senator Cruz is not going to be honest with you" and "it's why the president called him Lyin' Ted and its why the nickname stuck."
A former Ivy League debate champion, Cruz shot back, "It's clear Mr. O'Rourke's pollsters have told him to come out on the attack."
The pair clashed on abortion regulations, the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and a border wall backed by the Trump administration.
When O'Rourke said he wanted to expand federally funded health care to more Americans, Cruz said that would mean socialized medicine that would cost trillions and require sky-high tax increases. O'Rourke said Cruz hadn't done enough to stand up to Trump when it came to Russia and that the state needs a "full-time senator" rather than someone who concentrates on running for president.
Even when Cruz tried to say that he and O'Rourke were somewhat in agreement on opposing the Trump administration's tariffs on foreign-made goods, O'Rourke drew laughs by replying, "Really interesting to hear you talk about the partisan circus after your six years in the Senate," a reference to Cruz's days as a tea party insurgent who battled the President Barack Obama at every turn.
O'Rourke, who is giving up his El Paso congressional seat to challenge Cruz, shattered Senate fundraising records with any eye-popping $38-plus million in the three-month period through September. The Democrat has a campaign war chest worth $22.9 million, more than double Cruz's about $11.3 million in cash on-hand.
Democrats have long dreamed about a growing Hispanic population helping to flip Texas from red to blue and shaking up the electoral map. But polls that once showed O'Rourke within striking distance of a monumental upset now suggest Cruz may be edging further ahead. No Democrat has won any of Texas' nearly 30 statewide offices since 1994, the nation's longest political losing streak.
Cruz kept O'Rourke on the defensive when they debated last month in Dallas, and O'Rourke -- who had stuck to a bipartisan, feel-good message for months -- kept a promise to sharpen his tone during Tuesday night's faceoff in front of a live audience of 120 people split between supporters of each candidate and hosted by KENS-5, the CBS affiliate.
He also noted that his monster fundraising has come without accepting donations from outside political groups, but Cruz said O'Rourke still "goes with the left-wing national activists and left-wing national donors."
In response to a question about the #MeToo movement, O'Rourke said Cruz "inexplicably" voted against the Violence Against Women Act, saying the senator was "all talk and no action." Cruz said people of both sexes need to be protected from harassment and abuse, adding "we need to protect everyone's rights."
With Election Day just three weeks away, Tuesday night could be one of O'Rourke's last shots to gain ground -- this is the race's last scheduled debate after one in Houston was canceled amid Senate floor votes on Kavanaugh's confirmation. Cruz wants to participate in a previously scheduled townhall featuring just O'Rourke in the U.S.-Mexico border city of McAllen on Thursday night, but it's unclear if that will come together in time.
Trump, who won Texas by nine points in 2016, is taking the once unthinkable step of staging a rally in a state that's so reliably conservative, heading Monday to an 8,000-seat Houston arena. Cruz has been a full-throated supporter of the president he battled during the presidential race two years ago, and hopes that the joint appearance will assuage some conservatives around the state who were angered by the past animosity.