AUSTIN, Texas ― Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke repeatedly attacked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) as dishonest and overly ambitious in the two candidates’ second debate Tuesday night, striking a new tone for a progressive campaign known for its unrelenting positivity.
“He’s dishonest,” O’Rourke said. “It’s why the president called him ‘Lyin’ Ted,’ and it’s why the nickname stuck ― because it’s true.”
Cruz waved off the aggression, contending that O’Rourke’s “pollsters have told him to come out on the attack.”
It was a marked change of strategy for O’Rourke, who has amassed tens of millions of dollars in small donations to unseat Cruz. On the campaign trail, he routinely says he’s not running against anybody and encourages Republicans to attend his rallies.
But O’Rourke’s feel-good message exposed vulnerability during the first debate, on Sept. 21. He struggled at times to retort while Cruz, an experienced debater and former litigator, painted him as anti-police and out of step with the right-leaning Texas electorate.
On Tuesday, however, O’Rourke lambasted Cruz as a pawn of political action committees, urging voters to “follow the money” when analyzing the Republican senator’s support of tax cuts, accusing him of contributing to income inequality not seen since the Gilded Age.
O’Rourke also faulted Cruz for leading the 2013 federal government shutdown, for missing votes in Washington and for campaigning in Iowa to further his presidential ambitions rather than spending more time in Texas.
Cruz responded in kind, saying that, as a senator, O’Rourke would create a “partisan circus” by attempting to impeach Trump.
“Really interesting to hear you talk about a partisan circus after your six years in the U.S. Senate,” O’Rourke shot back, drawing laughs from the audience.
It’s unclear whether the debate performance will push O’Rourke over the hill he has to climb to win the seat. A poll of likely voters released by CNN ahead of the debate showed Cruz leading his Democratic challenger by 7 percentage points.
Even if O’Rourke were to lose by that margin, however, it would represent a major gain for Texas Democrats. Most of the party’s candidates for statewide office in Texas over the last two election cycles lost by margins of more than 20 percentage points.