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With Polls Showing Cruz Ahead, Second Debate Could Be O'Rourke's Last Chance To Change Minds

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso (left), and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Marjorie Kamys Cotera: O'Rourke/Robin Jerstad: Cruz

The Texas Senate race is one of the closest-watched midterm contests in the country.

The Democratic challenger, Beto O’ Rourke, has been skateboarding through Facebook Lives, dueting with Willie Nelson and collecting a record $38 million in the last quarter — more than three times the total of incumbent Republican Ted Cruz.

Still, polls show Cruz leading by as many as nine points.

 San Antonio hosts Cruz and O’Rourke’s second — and most likely final — debate Tuesday night at 8 p.m.

Their first debate was held less than a month ago in Dallas. But, in keeping with the rapid-fire pace of American politics, a lot of “big picture things” have happened nationally since then, says Rebecca Deen. She heads the political science department at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“You’ve seen the odds of the Senate flipping to the Democrats is decreasing, and at the same time, the odds of the Democrats taking back the House increasing,” Deen said. “And the Kavanaugh hearing has motivated a lot of base Republican voters.

Let’s start there: the battle to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court amid sexual assault allegations.

Protesters accosted Cruz and his wife as they ate dinner at a Washington D.C. restaurant after Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, and just a few days before his former high school classmate and accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Cruz ended up leaving the restaurant, and videos of the encounter went viral. Then came the day Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh testified.

And quick time check: it hasn’t even been three whole weeks since then — or since Matt Damon’s portrayal of Kavanaugh on “Saturday Night Live.”

Now, Rebecca Deen says, the investigation that followed gave both parties time and talking points to really rally their bases.

"Senator Cruz was very critical of the extended time for investigation,” Deen said. “He was one of the ones who was painting the Democrats as just delaying.”

It has all resonated — with Republicans and Democrats. A recent CBS News/YouGov poll found more than half the registered voters in the states they surveyed, including Texas, were more motivated to cast a ballot after the Kavanaugh proceedings. But that report also said these respondents could just be people who were already going to vote anyways.

So the issue here for both candidates is turnout,” Deen said. “And Senator Cruz, and you can see this through his ads, is really focused on mobilizing his base getting them energized and making sure they all turn out.”

Take this ad Cruz released in early October. It shines a harsh light on O’Rourke’s comments about police violence against people of color.

Deen says Cruz has bought up significant amounts of air time between now and the election.

"Then, on the flip side, Congressman O’Rourke is trying to mobilize a new set of voters,” Deen said. “And so that's a little bit of a different calculus for him.”

That makes for a strategy including a lot of TV too, but more emphasis on social media.

And, of course, it’s not just the two campaigns getting into the fray. There are PACs, special interest groups and high-profile politicos. Cruz has appeared with Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence. On the other side, Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater directed a new pair of ads for an anti-Cruz super PAC.

Tuesday night’s debate will focus half on domestic policy and half on foreign policy. But ultimately, Rebecca Deen says, the topics might not matter.

“If one of them were to make a very big mistake, then that probably has a palpable impact on voters’ decision-making,” Deen said. “Short of that, at this stage in the election, voters’ minds have begun to be made up. And it's a question of will they get their people to the polls.”

Just Monday, President Donald Trump announced he’d hold a rally for Cruz in Houston on Oct. 22, the same day early voting starts. Trump won Texas by 9 points — the same advantage Cruz had according to the latest Quinnipiac poll.

O’Rourke’s back's against the wall. Tuesday night could be his last chance to change some minds.

Details on the debate

The debate will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. on the following stations: WFAA (Dallas), KHOU (Houston), KENS (San Antonio), KVUE (Austin), KCEN (Waco), KAGS (College Station), KYTX (Tyler), KIII (Corpus Christi), KBMT-KJAC (Beaumont), KXVA (Abilene) and KIDY (San Angelo).

Follow #TXdecides on Twitter for live analysis from public radio reporters across Texas.

Details on voting

Early voting begins Oct. 22 and runs through Nov. 2. Election Day is Nov. 6. The deadline to register to vote was Oct. 9. Check if you're registered.

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.