If you’re looking for the most exciting news of this campaign cycle, you don’t have to look far. It’s right here in Texas, where plans for multiple debates between Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke and GOP Sen. Ted Cruz are suddenly back on track.
That was the original hope, but it had started to fade like your summer tan. Cruz had proposed five debates and O’Rourke wanted six — including two in Spanish. But the early dates had been bypassed, and September is already half-gone. For a while it looked as if the modern version of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates never would materialize.
On Friday, however, the two sides reached a compromise. (Wouldn’t it be nice if Congress did that now and then?) The candidates will hold three debates (in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio), each for an hour. The first two, later this month, will cover domestic policy. The final one, on Oct. 16, will be split between foreign and domestic policy.
Only one will be on a Friday, which was a boost for Beto. Cruz originally wanted to hold all five on Friday nights, which of course in Texas runs into competition from high school football. Cruz clearly looked like he was trying to make sure fewer Texans watched the showdowns on live TV. Only someone who feared the results would want that, which makes no sense if you agree to multiple meetings in the first place.
In the end, both candidates quit playing games and closed the deal — because both wanted these debates for different reasons.
O’Rourke, the underdog, needs all the exposure he can get, even though he has zoomed from obscurity to rock star in just a few months. All Democrats in Texas know who he is by now. But to win, he needs to pull in some independents and disgruntled Republicans. They might not be familiar with him yet, and a strong debate performance could put him over the top.
Cruz, the once-invincible front runner, knows that this has turned into a real race. He doesn’t want to look scared, and he has confidence in his own debating skills. He was a debating champ at Princeton and also participated in 20 nationally televised debates when running for president in 2016. He thinks he can face down this upstart, and he might be right.
Let’s hope this trend catches on. In this state, most incumbent Republicans don’t hold any debates with their Democratic opponents. They know they’re far ahead in the polls and don’t want to give any free publicity to their underfunded and little-known opponents.
O’Rourke flipped that script. Voters will increasingly see that candidates who duck debates seem cowardly — as they are. Candidates who seek them will look daring — because they are.
The pressure now shifts to every other statewide Republican incumbent in Texas except Gov. Greg Abbott. Only he has agreed to debate his Democratic opponent. The others have not. What are they afraid of?
Thomas Taschinger is the editorial page editor of The Beaumont Enterprise. Follow him on Twitter at @PoliticalTom