The Senate race between Ted Cruz and his challenger, Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, has become a symbol of the battle over a state that Democrats have long wanted to turn blue. So when 16 Texas voters — half supporters of each candidate — came to face-to-face, it’s no surprise a national issue like immigration dominated the discussion.
During a VICE News panel convened by pollster Frank Luntz Friday in Dallas, participants talked about their impressions of the candidates and the issues animating the campaign. So far, O’Rourke has drawn a record fundraising haul and lots of media attention, but polling still shows GOP Sen. Cruz slightly ahead.
Cruz has attacked O’Rourke for proposing making so-called Dreamers American citizens, which Cruz says would put the interests of immigrants ahead of ordinary Texans. Cruz has said his own views on immigration boil down to four words: “legal, good — illegal, bad.” During their Sept. 21 debate, Cruz said the U.S. should do everything possible to secure the border, including building a wall.
On Friday, panelists supporting Cruz agreed. “There are sovereign countries that have laws. Obey those laws,” said John Percha III, a 49 year-old aircraft mechanic. “You can’t just walk in and do whatever you want.”
“America is like a lifeboat,” added Paul Lidberg, 52, a sales account manager and game designer. “And at a certain point if you bring everybody into the lifeboat, the lifeboat sinks.”
But O’Rourke supporters said that anger over the state of the immigration system is misdirected — and that immigrants themselves should not be blamed.
“I guarantee you, as a mother of two boys, that I would do everything illegal, legal — it doesn't matter what it is — to get my children into this country,” said Angie Byrnes, 47, the owner of a marketing consulting business.
Angelique Mayers, a 46 year-old customer service agent, proposed penalties for people who hire undocumented workers. “Why do we demonize the people that get lured here by business owners that have jobs waiting for them?” Mayers asked. “Why don't we do mandatory prison time for anybody that hires an illegal alien?”
Eight of the sixteen panelists had at least one parent born outside of the U.S. But that didn’t mean all panelists wanted to loosen immigration laws.
“Should there be a path to citizenship? I'm Hispanic, and I don't think so,” said Josue Gonzalez, a 32 year-old security contractor and Cruz supporter. “Maybe consider giving them status to stay here legally but not impact the voting, the platform for either Democrat or Republican.”
Julio Rios, 47, an unemployed Cruz supporter and the son of Uruguayan and Cuban immigrants, said that the country’s roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants should be put on a ten year work visa, with an annual fee of $1,000 to maintain the visa. The money, Rios said, should be used to fund a border wall. He called the plan a “modified path to citizenship.”
Asked to describe the candidates, supporters of Cruz called him principled and steadfast. Critics called Cruz smarmy — a word that Cruz’s supporters later used to describe O’Rourke, too, along with “socialist.” O’Rourke’s supporters called him compassionate.
Last week’s confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court also came up. Sophia Percha, a 48-year-old realtor and Cruz supporter, said the Democratic Party had hijacked the #MeToo movement and pursued Kavanaugh without proof.
Challenged by another panelist, Sophia Percha said she herself had survived abuse. “However, I would not blame this person sitting next to me that he did it because he looks like the type that did it,” Sophia Percha said.
One panelist said that the Kavanaugh hearings had ensured she’d vote Republican.
“Before the Kavanaugh thing, I probably wasn't going to vote. But this Kavanaugh thing is going to turn out a lot of people, because I think they did him totally wrong,” said Jennifer McCann, a 47-year-old customs broker who supports Cruz but often votes Democrat.
“If they did him wrong, they’re gonna make all of us wrong,” Percha added.
O'Rourke and Cruz will face off again Tuesday night in a televised debate.
Cover image: This combination of Sept. 21, 2018, file photos show Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, left, and Democratic U.S. Representative Beto O'Rourke, right, during their first Senate debate in Dallas. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool, File)
UPDATE, June 1, 2021: VICE News produced a series of seven panels moderated by Frank Luntz from December 2017 to January 2019. Recently, it was reported that Luntz was on Ted Cruz’s reelection campaign payroll in 2018. VICE News was unaware of this affiliation, and Luntz did not disclose this information at the time of these productions.