In what is certainly one of the most closely watched midterm races in the country, the fierce Texas battle between incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and rising Democratic star Rep. Beto O’Rourke is consequential and surprisingly close.
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The competition is so tight, the president stepped in on behalf of the senator he fought viciously against during the 2016 election. He called the man he once dubbed “Lyin’ Ted” a “friend” at a Houston rally Monday night. Trump added that “nobody has helped me more” in the Senate.
“Texas is a deeply red state, but it is changing and changing fast,” ABC News’ political director Rick Klein said. “It sits there as a big, red target for Democrats. They recognize that if they start to flip Texas, it changes the entire nationwide electoral map.”
With the midterms just two weeks away, “Nightline” went behind the scenes of both campaigns in Texas as they raced to the finish line.
One of the main issues front and center in this race is immigration.
In recent days, Trump announced he is considering militarization of the border. Cruz, who has had a strong hold on his Senate seat since 2013, toed the line in his interview with ABC News’ Paula Faris for “Nightline.”
“Militarize is a politically charged word,” Cruz said. “We need to deploy whatever law enforcement resources are necessary to prevent crossing the border. So that means, listen, if you’ve got a caravan … of thousands of people pledging to violate the laws and cross here illegally, of course, we should do whatever’s necessary.”
O’Rourke, a state congressman, sees things differently.
He grew up in the border town of El Paso and speaks fluent Spanish. O’Rourke said he wants to secure the border, but “we don’t need a wall. We don’t need to militarize the border” in order to do that.
“If things are so desperate in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that someone would risk their lives to come here, then what can we do to improve conditions there?” he said.
His stance on immigration is not the only issue going against the grain in this state that has been red for decades.
When asked about his positions on gun control, immigration, abortion and marijuana, O’Rourke said he’s found “common ground in the state of Texas.”
“These are human values, American values, Texan values. And I know that. And I can attest to it ‘cause I’ve been to every one of the 254 countries,” O’Rourke said.
He said his views on these issues aren’t too progressive for Texas.
“They are of Texas. They are from Texas. These are the things that I’m hearing on the road. Having spent the better part of the last two years visiting every single one of the 254 counties, these are the things that people are bringing to town hall meetings and gatherings like this one. This is what they want me to pursue,” he said.
O’Rourke has utilized social media — livestreaming constantly from the campaign trail — and it’s worked. He said he has raised a record $38 million in the last three months.
He explained his approach as “one of the most simple, obvious strategies” employed in a modern campaign: “We just literally show up everywhere all the time for everyone.”
“Cruz has opened up a bit of a wider lead, but everyone attached to the campaign knows it’s a potentially soft lead. They’re up against a telegenic, energetic, well-funded candidate in a state where nobody really knows what it looks like to turn out to vote in the midterm year,” Klein said.
O’Rourke, who once played in a touring punk band, is now seeing himself draw crowds in the thousands. Celebrities like Willie Nelson have rallied behind him.
For Cruz, his campaign strategy has been focused on being deeply Texas, even campaigning from inside a cattle stockyard to appeal to voters.
One voter, Maggie Wright, has been behind Cruz for years and even moved to Iowa during his 2016 presidential bid. In years past, she had her car wrapped in images of the senator and even got a billboard to support the senator.
“I love him because of his record,” Wright said. “He fought for our religious liberty, our Second Amendment right.”
Wright throws her support behind Cruz so strongly that, she said, when her husband asked her what she wanted for their 50th wedding anniversary, she told him: “I want Ted Cruz for president.”
And now, to the surprise of many, Cruz is aligning himself with Trump and appears to have let go of the bad blood between him and the president now that Cruz is fighting for re-election.
He told Faris that he “has no interest in revisiting the comments of 2016” -– which included calling the now-president a “sniveling coward” and a “serial philanderer” in response to attacks from Trump, which included calling Cruz “Lyin’ Ted.”
“My job is forward-looking,” Cruz told Faris.
When asked whether he views Trump as a friend or foe, the senator said: “He’s the president. … I work with the president in delivering on our promises.”
After a campaign rally in Fort Worth, Texas, Faris asked Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, about the bruising 2016 campaign during which Trump had not only attacked the senator, but also the elder Cruz.
Trump tried to link Rafael Cruz to JFK’s assassin. When asked whether he was OK with Trump stumping with his son, Rafael Cruz said, “Let me tell you, we have a country to save. We have a state to save. And we need to put away our petty differences and stand shoulder to shoulder.”
The elder Cruz said it was all in the past, adding, “America is bigger than Ted or I.”
In this campaign season, Cruz has been touting his track record to galvanize the vote.
“Texas is booming, the economy is going great, and yet my opponent Beto O’Rourke, what does he want to do? Higher taxes, higher regulation, go back to the Obama economy stagnation. That would be really bad for the state of Texas,” Cruz said.
Last week, O’Rourke took a page out of Trump’s playbook and called Cruz “Lyin’ Ted” during their debate, but he has now made a vow to run a positive campaign. He hinted that he regretted using the term.
“That wasn’t the best phrase for me to use,” O’Rourke told Faris. “It’s something that leaped to mind as he began the debate with another lie. But, there you go. But I’m going do my best to stay focused on the future.”
And part of that focus is attracting minority voters.
“I look at Beto O’Rourke and it seems like he has a feel and a love and a need and a want to help all people, not just a select group,” said voter Sarah Peebles at a Dallas rally for O’Rourke.
“As a first-generation Mexican American, a mother and a teacher, (I think) he stands for the values that I stand for,” O’Rourke supporter Ana De La Rosa said.
Klein said the growing minority population and the growing young voter population in Texas were helping to put the state in play for Democrats.
“It’s inevitable that Texas ultimately turns blue,” he said. “The question is, did Beto O’Rourke find this moment?”
The race, however, is still up for grabs at this point and in the current political climate, not everyone is voting down party lines.
O’Rourke’s campaign strategy seems to have helped sway some evangelical women voters. Several voters “Nightline” interviewed said this midterm election would be the first time they planned to vote for a Democratic candidate.
“I think what we’ve seen happening is the systematic oppression of people of color, of people who are seeking asylum, of refugees, of women. It feels like a lot of that is coming from the Republican Party,” said Tess Clarke, an evangelical voter.
“[O’Rourke] has given me a broader option. He has said, ‘I’m going to work on both sides,’” she said. “He has said, ‘I’m not running for the Democratic Party. I’m running for the people.’”
Faris spoke with Clarke and three of her friends — Sarah Bailey, Emily Mooney and Sarah Damoff — who described how their faith had shaped their political views.
“I think that kind of chaff against the notion that because I’m a Christian, then I have to vote Republican. Because I know so many Democrats who have a very inspiring faith. I know so many Republicans who have an inspiring faith. And I just didn’t want to feel like I was boxed into one or the other,” Mooney said.
The women described feeling like the current Republican Party doesn’t represent their values.
When asked whether they were stepping out against President Trump or the Republican Party, Bailey said: “I think it is more just stepping out in our convictions.”
“I feel the need for justice and for social justice,” Bailey said. “And so I see in Beto, a possibility in that. And that’s what I’m stepping out in.”
One point of difference between the women and the candidate they’re supporting: their views on abortion. The women hold anti-abortion views. O’Rourke supports abortion rights.
“That was probably one of the hardest things for me to do was to reconcile that,” Clarke said.
Damoff described recently attending an O’Rourke rally where abortion rights were discussed.
“People were giving a standing ovation and our hands were in our lap when he said, ‘You know, and that a woman should have a right over her own body.’ Because we know that his version of that excludes the unborn human,” she said. “It’s a very hard thing to reconcile. And it’s very complex. And I think some people want it to be black and white.”
“In looking into it, it’s a lot more complex and deeper,” Clarke said. “And I just didn’t want that to be a reason to not be able to critically look through another party’s platform and see, ‘OK, so I actually more align over here on the majority of issues.'”
Cruz’s supporters said their votes are value-based too.
“Big fans of Ted Cruz and everything he stands for. I think the less government intervention, the better” said Chase Faldmo, who attended a Cruz rally with his wife and their two kids.
Sally Minahan, who wore a hat that spelled out “TRUMP” in rhinestones, said she is “sticking with conservative values and supporting Ted Cruz all the way.”