During their debate on Tuesday night, in San Antonio, Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Beto O’Rourke—who is challenging Cruz for his job as Texas’ junior senator—addressed tariffs, health care, immigration, climate change, election security, abortion rights, hurricane relief, civility in politics, and the #MeToo movement. That was in the course of about an hour, with time for ninety- and sixty-second rebuttals.
O’Rourke has run one of the most attention-getting campaigns of any Democrat running for office, in an election year filled with Democratic campaigns getting attention. He has raised so much money that fellow-Democrats are mad at him about it. His stirring, town-hall defense of N.F.L. players who protest police killings of unarmed African-Americans brought him a moment of viral fame. Yet with three weeks to go until Election Day, and early voting in Texas starting on Monday, he is down in the polls. His first debate with Cruz, late last month, apparently did little to help him, and Tuesday’s event may not change the picture much, either. O’Rourke has run a campaign banking on his sleeves-rolled-up charisma, live-streaming constantly to fans around the country. Under the debate-stage lights, wearing a tie, he looked itchy. Cruz was his typical slick, blustery self. Reports will say that O’Rourke was “edgier” or “harsher-than-usual.” The headline quotes will come from his adoption of President Trump’s nickname for Cruz, “Lyin’ Ted,” and Cruz’s response: “It’s clear Congressman O’Rourke’s pollsters have told him to come out on the attack.” Already, it’s being forgotten that this exchange came in the context of a disagreement about the causes of climate change and what to do about it.
The debates probably won’t be much remembered by Election Day. On Tuesday night, local TV analysts in Texas wanted to know if O’Rourke had gone negative enough, if he showed that he wanted it enough. There will be breakdowns of undecided voters—who they are, what they want. For a brief time this summer, the polls showed O’Rourke gaining on Cruz, and it appeared, given this year’s assumed favorability to Democrats and Cruz’s particular tortured history with Trump and the rest of his party, that O’Rourke had a shot of being Texas’ first Democratic U.S. Senator since the mid-nineteen-nineties, and of displacing one of the most conservative members of the Senate. O’Rourke got in early on 2018—he launched his campaign in March, 2017, just a few weeks after Trump’s Inauguration. But he was considered a long shot then, and he will go into the final weeks of the campaign in the same position.