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The Latest On Where The Texas Senate Race Stands


Last night, the two U.S. Senate candidates from Texas debated in San Antonio. Three weeks before Election Day, it was an important opportunity for Democratic Congressman Beto O'Rourke and incumbent Republican Ted Cruz to make their cases to voters. The debate, like the race, was downright nasty, as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Senator Ted Cruz's re-election campaign has not been shy about attacking his opponent Congressman Beto O'Rourke on TV.


TED CRUZ: I'm Ted Cruz, and I approve this message.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Beto O'Rourke is more extreme than he wants you to know.

BETO O'ROURKE: In one attack ad, which eventually seemed to backfire, Cruz's campaign misleadingly edited videotape to make it appear as if O'Rourke said he supported flag burning, which he did not say.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: If Beto O'Rourke's positions are too extreme even for them, he's just too reckless for Texas.

GOODWYN: Until now, Beto O'Rourke has declined to participate in negative campaigning. But with the polls showing Cruz with anywhere from a six to a nine point lead, the congressman relented and has gone on the attack.


O'ROURKE: Republicans and Democrats alike know that we've got to lead on immigration reform. And yet Ted Cruz is the only senator to vote against moving forward with that conversation. He's vowed to deport every single DREAMer.

GOODWYN: Last night in their debate in San Antonio, this trend continued - Cruz painting O'Rourke as a dangerous extremist.


CRUZ: If you work in energy, if you work in oil and gas, Congressmen O'Rourke's record on this is extreme. He didn't just vote for a ten dollar a barrel tax on oil. He's also voted for aggressive regulations of fracking.

GOODWYN: But unlike the first debate, last night O'Rourke hit back.


O'ROURKE: This is what you can expect over the course of this debate. Senator Cruz is not going to be honest with you. He's going to make up positions and votes that I've never held or have ever taken. He's dishonest. It's why the president called him lying Ted. And it's why the nickname stuck because it's true.

GOODWYN: Although Cruz would force a laugh when O'Rourke attacked him, his face revealed his true emotions, and the senator didn't like it. But the debate in San Antonio was more than just battle. It was substantive too. Cruz has the numbers on his side. There are hundreds of thousands more Republican voters in Texas the Democrats. As a result, Cruz spoke mostly to his base.


CRUZ: The state of Texas is booming. We've got right now the lowest unemployment in 49 years. Texas is seeing the benefits of low taxes and low regulations. And Congressman O'Rourke's position is always, always, always in favor of higher taxes.

GOODWYN: If Cruz generally played to Republican fears of what would happen if Democrats gained any power, O'Rourke tended to speak to voters' better angels.


O'ROURKE: Whether we will remain the inspiration of the world is an open question right now. The partisanship, the pettiness, the dishonesty - that defines so much of the national conversation. We are in desperate need right now of inspiration.

GOODWYN: Although O'Rourke is running way ahead of other Texas statewide Democrats, close still gets you no cigar.

CAL JILLSON: I think that a very good Democratic candidate running against a flawed Republican candidate has a chance to break through. That's why O'Rourke came up so strong on Cruz.

GOODWYN: Cal Jillson is a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.

JILLSON: Cruz is an acquired taste. People respect him as a conservative fighter. They don't necessarily like him. They gave O'Rourke a look. But Democrats have to recognize that competitiveness is a decade or two decades out. It's not two years. It's not four years. It's longer than that because demographic change is very slow.

GOODWYN: Beto O'Rourke will appear in an hour-long CNN town hall event tomorrow evening in McAllen on the Texas border. Ted Cruz declined to participate, so O'Rourke will answer the voters questions himself. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.