Texas Senate race enters the final stretch with third debate

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Rep. Beto O'Rourke face off in a final debate on Tuesday night in a race that has captured national attention. Senator Cruz has a narrow lead in a campaign that has divided families across conservative suburbs.

Eric Gay/AP
United States Senate candidate Rep. Beto O'Rourke speaks at a campaign rally in San Antonio on Oct. 15. Preparing for the last stretch of the race, Representative O'Rourke, a Democrat, will debate incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz for the final time on Oct. 16.

Frank Randazzo, a retiree near Houston, volunteers for his local GOP office knocking on doors of undecided voters amid the most expensive United States Senate race in the country. He did a double take when a man with a Beto O'Rourke sign in his yard declared he was voting Republican.

"He told me to ignore the sign. It was his wife's," Mr. Randazzo said.

Tuesday night is the last televised debate in Texas between Representative O'Rourke and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, and from national polls to divided households in conservative suburbs, the indications are of a close race with just three weeks until Election Day. But what hasn't been seen so far are major missteps or race-altering moments.

Neither side is betting on one down the stretch. For O'Rourke, who last week announced a record-shattering fundraising haul of $38 million from supporters nationwide, the debate in San Antonio presents his last best chance to give Cruz supporters any misgivings. The El Paso congressman has run against politics as usual and campaign mudslinging, but O'Rourke is also sharpening his tone amid new polls that suggest his rise may be hitting a ceiling for a Democrat in Texas.

Senator Cruz, meanwhile, is out to not squander the built-in advantages of running in a deeply Republican state that hasn't elected a Democrat to a statewide office in 24 years. And even Democrats are doubtful that Cruz – as unflappable a campaigner as anyone in the Senate – will make any disastrous late stumbles that would cause voters to peel off.

"Ted Cruz isn't going to be a Mourdock or an Akin," said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster based in Alabama.

He was referring to Missouri Republican Todd Akin, whose 2012 Senate campaign imploded after he said women's bodies could stop unwanted pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape," and Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who that same year said pregnancies resulting from rape were God's intent. Both went on to lose races that were within their reach.

Mr. Anzalone continued: "Is there always an 'X' variable you hope for at the end? Absolutely. But I'm not ready to say that's what is needed for an O'Rourke victory."

Since launching his longshot bid last year, O'Rourke has insisted that what his campaign didn't need were attack ads or money from political action committees. Up until now he had rarely even mentioned Cruz's name during his packed and lively rallies.

But that has started changing with time running out and new polls showing O'Rourke within single digits but still trailing in Texas, which President Trump won by 9 points in 2016. While campaigning along the Texas-Mexico border last weekend, O'Rourke called Cruz reckless for helping instigate a 2013 government shutdown and accused him of undermining public schools.

"He put your lives and your communities on hold for his presidential ambition," O'Rourke told an audience in McAllen, Texas.

Cruz, on the other hand, has hammered O'Rourke for months and made little appeal beyond his conservative base during their first debate in September. Hours after O'Rourke on Friday announced his blockbuster fundraising numbers that tripled what Cruz raised, Cruz chalked it up to anger on the left and continued casting O'Rourke as too liberal for Texas.

"Typically, in a general election, Democrats in Texas at least pretend to go to the middle. They pretend to be moderate. That's not what Congressman O'Rourke is doing. He's going hard, hard left," Cruz said.

He was at a honky-tonk in Houston, where pairs of cowboy boots dangle from the ceiling and mingling underneath were Cruz supporters, whose own families illustrated O'Rourke's surprising inroads in unexpected places. Angie White said her daughter has gone to O'Rourke events but that, like many young people, "I feel like she's not going to go vote." Next to her was Carolyn Knight, who joked about wanting her grandkids to stay home on Election Day.

Houston is one of Texas' most liberal cities, but Democrats haven't carried surrounding Harris County in a midterm election in a quarter-century.

"We also live in a very red state," said Lillie Schechter, chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party. "Obama lost it by 1.2 million votes. Hillary lost it by 600,000. We've been cutting our margins, but it's a really heavy lift."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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