On Tuesday night, Congressman Beto O’Rourke and incumbent Senator Ted Cruz faced off in their second debate of the 2018 midterm elections, but it certainly felt like a warm-up to 2020.
O’Rourke is running to unseat Cruz, but his massive popularity across state lines has gotten progressives hopeful that he’ll throw his hat in the ring for the Democratic nomination in 2020 in the event he loses the Texas Senate race. Cruz, for his part, is still the favorite to win re-election, but is also caught in a trap between licking Trump’s boots and trying to primary him in 2020. All of this adds up to one hell of a national debate that was supposed to be about Texas.
To be fair, both candidates said Texas a lot, but the core themes of Tuesday’s debate were anything but regional. The CBS moderators’ questions ran through regulation of social media companies, border security, and general civility (which was ironic considering both candidates spent most of the debate on the attack, and Cruz at one point snapped at the moderator).
But during their closing remarks, both candidates stepped up and seemed to broaden their reach as much as possible. O’Rourke led his final speech with an anecdote about meeting Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a weirdly bipartisan figure who seems to be respected by liberals as the “adult in the room” and still revered by conservatives for his general willingness to kill people, but transitioned that into a call for inspiration and unity.
O’Rourke talked about the importance of the United States as an inspiration to the world, and his concern that it was going down the wrong path with ideas of “walls, Muslim bans, the press as the enemies of the people, taking kids away from their parents.”
“We’re in desperate need right now of inspiration,” O’Rourke said, adding that the people of Texas had inspired him.
Cruz aimed to strike a divide between the two, positioning O’Rourke as a candidate who represented fear of pushing into the future with Trump (he’d referenced O’Rourke’s support of impeachment several times during the debate), versus his message of “hope.” He then pivoted to a disingenuous breakdown of health insurance, invoking the specter of government-controlled healthcare as if that would ruin the great system capitalism has given us so far. None of this is particularly new for Cruz, but he was sticking to what the GOP knows will be a major issue on election day, and what surely promises to be still be relevant in 2020.
To me, it seemed like both these guys knew they were speaking on a national stage in a way that Martha McSally and Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona were not last night. That debate was fiery, personal, and partisan, but neither McSally of Sinema have the national profile of O’Rourke or Cruze at the moment, and it just felt different.
The latest CNN poll puts Cruz 7 points up among likely voters. O’Rourke’s run was always a long shot, and while there’s no way he would admit any plans past November 6 at this point, it’s hard to imagine him losing the Senate election and then packing back up to sit quietly in the House for another six years (it’d be a waste of so, so many glossy magazine spreads, for one). Cruz’s fate, meanwhile, is inextricably tied to his relationship with Trump. If the opportunity to primary the president arises in the fucked-up maelstrom of GOP politics, it’s also hard to imagine Cruz won’t jump at it. The 2020 election is a long way away, but there’s a greater than zero chance the two of them get the chance to do this all over again.