U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his challenger U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-El Paso) kick off the first of three debates tonight in Dallas. Tonight's debate at the SMU campus, like the one in Houston on Sept. 30, will focus squarely on domestic policy. Their final debate on Oct. 16 in San Antonio will split time between domestic and foreign policy.
The race is expected to be the closest we've had in Texas since the 2002 race for lieutenant governor. So both sides head into the three debates hoping to change just enough minds to eke out a victory on Nov. 6.
Here are five things to watch for in tonight's debate.
This issue has been a top campaign issue for both candidates, and a topic that shows the clear and wide division between the two. Cruz has accused O'Rourke of wanting to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement and create open borders; while O'Rourke has campaigned against family separations at the border and called on Congress to reform the country's immigration laws. In polling the last several years, immigration has been a top priority of voters, so expect this topic to take a good bit of time.
Even without Medicaid expansion, Texas benefited from the Affordable Care Act. The state's uninsured rate, which was highest in the country, dropped as people found coverage on the healthcare exchanges.
But, now that Congress and President Trump have been clipping parts of the law – including the elimination of the mandates that employers offer healthcare plans – the uninsured rate in Texas has ticked back up. The ACA's popularity has been at its highest levels since President Trump took office. And Democrats across the country have been campaigning on saving and improving the law, while Republican attorneys general – led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton – are pushing to end a provision that bans insurance companies from charging more for someone with a preexisting condition.
Cruz has staked his career on repealing Obamacare, while O'Rourke has joined that cadre of Democrats campaigning on the issue, calling for an expansion of Medicaid in Texas on Twitter earlier this week.
Texas had two high profile shootings in the last year – one at Santa Fe High School, another at a church in Southerland Springs. This summer, Gov. Greg Abbott held a series of meetings with community members, the families of shooting victims, lawmakers and other stakeholders before coming up with a list of 22 recommendations for how to make schools safer. At the state level, some of those have seen pushback from state lawmakers.
But Cruz argued last night for more student resource officers at a townhall last night just north of League City before being shouted down by a mother of one of the Santa Fe shooting victims. O'Rourke has pushed for more stringent background checks on firearm purchases and called for a ban on assault weapons.
The line from the president and Republicans is the economy has never been better, and Sen. Cruz will probably push the strong Texas economy as a reason to keep him, and Republicans in general, in office. Look for O'Rourke to counter with the Democratic line that the majority of the recent tax cuts benefitted corporations and the rich.
President Trump gets high marks from Texas Republicans, but a recent poll of likely voters showed only 47 percent of voters in Texas approve of the job he's doing. And while we're listing this as something to look for in tonight's debate, the "Trump effect" on this election could come in October, as Democrats and Republicans wait to see if the President does something that could hurt – or help – their campaigns.