DALLAS (Reuters) - Ted Cruz is in the political fight of his life — and he knows it.
The conservative U.S. senator from Texas is being outpaced and overshadowed by his progressive challenger, Beto O’Rourke, who is pushing to be the first Democrat in Texas to be elected to the Senate in 30 years.
Cruz and O’Rourke faced off in their first debate ahead of Nov. 6’s congressional elections at Southern Methodist University in Dallas on Friday, and Cruz’s strategy swiftly became clear: Paint O’Rourke as too radical for this traditionally Republican state.
O’Rourke, a charismatic congressman from El Paso, has benefited from an avalanche of media attention and a gusher of small donations, raising millions of dollars more than Cruz.
Cruz remains favored, but only slightly. Most polls indicate the election is now too close to confidently predict.
The race has massive implications for the battle for the U.S. Senate. Democrats need two more seats to gain control and upend President Donald Trump’s agenda. Cruz’s seat was supposed to be safe, but he conceded at Friday’s debate that he’s in a battle.
Cruz’s strategy in the debate highlighted how O’Rourke’s star-making candidacy can be been a double-edged sword for Democrats.
With his support of universal healthcare, his openness to abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and his willingness to consider impeaching Trump, O’Rourke may define the party going forward in a way that could be incongruent with more moderate Democrats who must defend their Senate seats in states that Trump won in 2016.
At the same time, his campaign has kept the spotlight and money away from other races that are critical to Democrats’ hopes of taking the Senate in states such as Nevada and Tennessee.
Ultimately, even if O’Rourke pulls off what might be considered a political miracle in Texas, it might not matter for Democrats unless they can hold on to Senate seats in places such as Florida, Missouri, and Montana as well.
As for Cruz, his campaign continues to worry about competing with O’Rourke financially and whether Republican voters will turn out in numbers to ensure his victory. He is turning to the White House for help. Trump is expected to appear at a rally in Texas with Cruz next month.
The two candidates will face off twice more in debates before Election Day.
In the debate, the two candidates clashed over issues such as immigration, gun rights, trade, and protests of the National Anthem, with O’Rourke frequently complaining that Cruz was misrepresenting his positions. At one point he accused Cruz of “slander.”
Cruz drew O’Rourke’s ire when he suggested that O’Rourke, in supporting protests of police brutality by National Football League players, favored burning the American flag.
O’Rourke said Cruz was trying “to mislead” the public. “No one here, including myself, has suggested anyone should be doing that,” he said.
He also pushed back at Cruz’s suggestion that he supports doing away with the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which safeguards gun rights. “That’s not true,” O’Rourke said.
After the debate, O’Rourke said Cruz “has a tendency to mischaracterize a position.”
“If we are talking about NFL players who are kneeling during the National Anthem at a football game to call attention to injustice in this country, he’ll talk about flag-burning,” O’Rourke said.
Cruz’s camp responded by arguing that O’Rourke’s positions were finally being publicized. “It’s the first time he is being directly confronted with his policies,” said campaign spokeswoman Emily Miller.
In his closing statement at the debate, Cruz lumped O’Rourke in with New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an avowed socialist, and argued that he was to the left of progressive U.S. senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
After the debate, O’Rourke was asked whether Texas is “really ready for a vision that sounds socialist.”
“I don’t buy into the labels,” he replied.
Even if O’Rourke doesn’t, Cruz showed on Friday that he certainly does.
Editing by Nick Macfie