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Cruz and O’Rourke working on deal for 5 televised debates

August 2, 2018

By agreeing in principle to as many as five debates, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and his Democratic rival Beto O’Rourke are both taking considerable risks that could come back to haunt them.

Incumbents like Cruz are usually reluctant to debate their opponents because the events give a challenger a bigger platform to build name recognition at very little cost — which explains why many other statewide officeholders in Texas have declined to debate their opponents.

“O’Rourke’s biggest problem right now is that most Texans don’t know who he is,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor.

So Cruz is potentially helping O’Rourke by agreeing to five events that may not be must-see-TV for casual voters, but will have an echo effect on TV news and in newspapers statewide, Rottinghaus said.

“A big factor in this is that O’Rourke has a significant amount of voltage, and Cruz must feel like he has to stem that momentum,” Rottinghaus said.

Fresh off his presidential run, Cruz is seeking re-election to his second six-year term in the United States Senate.

While O’Rourke, a congressman from El Paso, has little statewide name recognition, he’s built up momentum through aggressive use of social media and a breakneck travel schedule. He has already visited all 254 counties in Texas.

O’Rourke has now raised $23 million for his campaign, shattering the record for a U.S. Senate candidate in Texas.

FOLLOW THE MONEY: Ted Cruz vs. Beto O’Rourke draws millions in contributions from outside state

But the debates present a new risk for him, too. O’Rourke has never debated a political opponent on statewide television, let alone on a national network. Yet, he’s agreeing to at least five debates in six weeks against one of the most seasoned debaters in the nation. Cruz, who was a national debate champion while attending Princeton University, has been in at least 20 nationally televised debates since 2012, including 12 presidential primary debates — 11 of them including now-President Donald Trump.

As a lawyer, Cruz argued nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Cruz’s experience will give him the ability to set a tone that O’Rourke is not likely to be able to match,” Rottinghaus said.

Not everyone is convinced the debates will offer either candidate much of an advantage because of low viewership. While political junkies are sure to tune in, potential swing voters are much less likely to watch a Senate debate than a presidential debate. Geoffrey Skelley, of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said short of a major gaffe by one of the candidates, the debates are not likely to swing the election.

Another question is whether O’Rourke’s strength will carry over into the TV appearances. O’Rourke has built his campaign around a free-flowing, unstructured town-hall schedule that highlights his energy and enthusiasm. That may not come across in a more traditional debate format.

Regardless, O’Rourke has signaled his willingness to agree to the Cruz debates with a “few small changes.”

“I look forward to debating Senator Cruz and am grateful for the schedule you have proposed,” O’Rourke wrote to the Cruz campaign Friday.

Cruz’s campaign called for five debates all on Friday nights starting Aug. 31 in Dallas. Other dates would be Sept. 14 and 21 in McAllen and San Antonio and then Oct. 5 and 12 in Houston then Lubbock.

O’Rourke has requested another debate in his hometown of El Paso. He’s also requested debates at times other than Friday nights in Texas in the fall.

But Cruz’s campaign manager Jeff Roe has suggested that O’Rourke’s proposed changes are not welcome.

“As we attempted to make clear, our debate plan isn’t an open negotiation,” Roe wrote in a June 27 letter distributed to the media. “Rather it is an offer for you to participate in a fair and fruitful debate program across the Lone Star State.”

Roe agreed, however, to move one of the debates to El Paso.

jeremy.wallace@chron.com

twitter.com/JeremySWallace

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