Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke face off in first debate

Texas Senate race heats up

Texas incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz faced off Friday with his Democratic opponent, Rep. Beto O'Rourke, in their first debate on what is turning out to be a closer-than-expected race. The two had heated exchanges over the Second Amendment, the shooting death of Botham Jean by a cop in his own apartment, immigration, O'Rourke's 1998 drunk driving arrest and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The race between Cruz and O'Rourke has garnered national attention due to O'Rourke's unlikely popularity as a candidate. Re-election should have been easy for Cruz, but instead he is fending off a challenge from a social media-savvy Democrat who draws significant crowds. The debate presented an opportunity for both Cruz and O'Rourke to show off their considerable debating skills, while landing a few hits against their opponent.

Immigration and criminal justice were critical issues during the debate. When Cruz accused O'Rourke of wanting to repeal the Second Amendment, O'Rourke answered that was "simply not true," CBS Austin affiliate KEYE reports

According to KEYE, the candidates sniped while the moderators pleaded for them to stop and for the audience to stop cheering. O'Rourke said Texas was ready for a senator who will protect the Second Amendment while imposing small restrictions to save lives and prevent mass shootings. He suggested those were supported by "gunowners and non-gunowners alike," and said the common GOP refrain after gun violence of offering "thoughts and prayers" wasn't enough. 

"I'm sorry you don't like thoughts and prayers," Cruz answered. "I will pray for anyone in harm's way."

Cruz criticized O'Rourke for supporting citizenship for Dreamers, migrants who were brought to the United States illegally, so that these immigrants could fulfill their "full potential."

"My views on immigration are simple, four words: legal good, illegal bad," Cruz said.

The two also disagreed over what the punishment should be for the police officer who shot and killed Botham Jean, an unarmed black man, in his own apartment. Cruz said that O'Rourke had compared police officers to the "modern Jim Crow," which he said was "offensive." O'Rourke denied that he said police officers specifically were the "modern Jim Crow," and accused Cruz of dissembling.

"This is your trick in the trade: to confuse, and to incite fear," O'Rourke said to Cruz. He accused the senator repeatedly of misrepresenting his words.

The two also sparred over hot-button topics such as Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, which Cruz supports and O'Rourke opposes, and gun control, which Cruz opposes and O'Rourke supports in the case of certain weapons.

Cruz also laughed when he was asked about his evolving relationship with President Trump, who called Cruz "Lyin' Ted" during the 2016 election.

"After the election in 2016, I faced a choice," Cruz said. "I made a conscious choice to do the job I was elected to do, which was to represent 28 million Texans." Cruz even touted his now-close relationship with the president, saying that it helped him advocate for Texans with regards to trade policy.

O'Rourke responded to a question about his own controversy -- a 1998 DWI arrest. He said that he was blessed with a second chance, and used the opportunity to pivot to discussing criminal justice.

"I've made the most that I could of my second chance," O'Rourke said. "And I white man in this country there's a privilege I enjoy that many African American men and women do not." He also framed his support for legalization of recreational marijuana as a criminal justice issue, as black men are disproportionately arrested for marijuana-related crimes.

Both candidates engaged in personal attacks against each other, including accusing the other of telling falsehoods. O'Rourke also hit Cruz for missing half of his votes in the Senate in 2016, comparing it to his traveling to all 254 counties in the state. However, the final question was on what kind thing they would say to each other. They each complimented each other on their public service, and for working so hard as fathers of young children.

"I know how hard he works," O'Rourke said. "I have no question that Senator Cruz wants to do the best for America."

"Being a dad of young kids is hard," Cruz agreed. He then compared O'Rourke to Sen. Bernie Sanders in a backhanded compliment, saying that like Sanders, he was truly committed to what Cruz sees as incorrect beliefs. "I think Congressman O'Rourke is passionate, he believes in what he's fighting for," Cruz said.

Recent polls show that the race between Cruz and O'Rourke is relatively close for Texas, which has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1992. An NBC News/Marist College poll from earlier this month showed Cruz leading with 49 percent support among likely voters to 45 percent support for O'Rourke. A Quinnipiac poll showed the gap between the two as wider, with Cruz receiving 54 percent support among likely voters and O'Rourke receiving 45 percent support. However, a recent Reuters poll showed O'Rourke two points ahead of Cruz.

The Cook Political Report also changed the rating of the race from Lean Republican to Toss up. CBS News rates the race as Lean Republican.

Cruz has criticized O'Rourke as a liberal out of touch with Texan values. The Texas GOP has also posted photos of O'Rourke's college punk rock band and his mug shot for his DWI on Twitter.

Nonetheless, O'Rourke has raised significantly out-raised Cruz. Politico reported Friday that O'Rourke received over $9 million in online contributions in August.

Mr. Trump will visit Texas in October to stump for Cruz. O'Rourke and Cruz will meet for two more debates before Election Day.