Texas showdown: Cruz, O'Rourke to face off in debate

Texas showdown: Cruz, O'Rourke to face off in debate
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Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDemocratic strategist warns Beto should be ‘careful’ with social media presence Hillary advisers battle over whether she’ll run in 2020 O'Rourke writes blog post describing a literal run from near the capitol to near the White House MORE (R-Texas) and Rep. Beto O'RourkeRobert (Beto) Francis O'RourkeEntrepreneur touts big solutions, endorsements in discussing presidential bid Dem pollster: Texas, Georgia diversifying because they are 'centers for opportunity' Cruz brushes off question about campaign claim on O'Rourke paying for caravan MORE (D-Texas) will square off Friday night in a highly anticipated debate for what has become an unexpected Senate battleground ahead of the November midterm elections.

The debate will pit Cruz, an experienced debater going back to his time at Princeton University, with O'Rourke, a three-term congressman who has ignited strong enthusiasm among Democrats.

Texas has emerged as one of the top Senate races to watch, even as the deep-red state hasn’t elected a Democrat to the upper chamber in three decades.

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And with control of the Senate on the line, the race has gotten increasingly contentious as millions of dollars pour into the race from both sides of the aisle.

As a result, the debate starting at 7 p.m. ET is likely to attract national attention, though it takes place at a time when high school football games tend to take place across Texas. It will focus on domestic policy, with immigration likely to feature as a prominent issue.

O'Rourke has gotten a groundswell of media attention, leading a motivated Democratic base to help him keep pace with Cruz financially, with both candidates raising about $23 million.

Polls are consistently showing a tightening race, with Cruz up by several points in the RealClearPolitics polling average.

Those developments have prompted The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, to shift its rating to a “toss-up" from "leans Republican" on Friday.

O'Rourke, who's represented an El Paso–based district since 2013, has drawn national headlines when saying he would vote to impeach President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichelle Obama says not always easy to live up to "we go high" Georgia certifies elections results in bitterly fought governor's race Trump defends border deployment amid fresh scrutiny MORE after his performance at the Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And he drew even more headlines after a video of O’Rourke explaining why he supports NFL players kneeling during the national anthem went viral.

“And so nonviolently, peacefully, while the eyes of this country are watching these games, they take a knee to bring our attention and our focus to this problem to ensure that we fix it. That is why they are doing it,” O’Rourke said in August.

“And I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere, in any place.”

Cruz’s campaign has sought to turn that viral moment against O'Rourke, using it as ammunition in a late August ad, targeting O’Rourke’s defense of NFL players who kneel as an appeal to “liberal Hollywood.”

The GOP senator has frequently railed against liberal Democrats, recently warning that the money flooding into Texas from around the country is an effort to “turn the state of Texas blue.”

"We are seeing tens of millions of dollars flooding into the state of Texas from liberals all over the country who desperately want to turn the state of Texas blue," Cruz said at a rally earlier this month. "They want us to be just like California, right down to tofu and silicon and dyed hair."

Cruz is vying for his second term after unsuccessfully running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. 

Cruz allies maintain that he'll prevail in the GOP stronghold. But the close nature of the race has forced Republican outside groups to spend on behalf of Cruz, including the Conservative Club for Growth.

And Trump, who’s reconciled with Cruz since the contentious 2016 Republican presidential primary, plans to hold a rally in Texas with his former opponent in October. 

Cruz and O'Rourke will face off in two other debates on Sept. 30 in Houston and on Oct. 16 in San Antonio. The second debate will also be focused on domestic policy and the third will be split between domestic and foreign policy.