AUSTIN, TEXAS — Locals jammed into a packed bar in East Austin wasted no time in their reactions during the first senate debate between Ted Cruz (R) and Beto O’Rourke (D) on Friday night.
As the hardline conservative incumbent slammed his opponent on immigration, health care, and criminal justice, onlookers loudly booed. That chorus of dissent quickly turned to cheers as O’Rourke, currently a representative serving the city of El Paso, fired back, contrasting his own progressive platform with Cruz’s libertarian views.
But one issue flew beneath the radar, to the chagrin of several of the debate’s sweating viewers. When it came to opportunities to discuss climate or the environment, the debate’s moderators punted, allowing potential openings to slide by.
Cruz and O’Rourke offer radically different outlooks on issues like climate change, fossil fuels, and the Paris climate agreement. And at times during the quick-paced, hour-long debate, it seemed those differences might bubble up to the surface.
Cruz hit his opponent on his support for the Obama-era Waters of the United States rule, or WOTUS, arguing that the regulation hurts farmers. O’Rourke, who has touted sustainable agriculture as part of his platform, pushed back, but the conversation quickly derailed into a larger conversation about the lawmaker’s stance on the legalization of drugs like marijuana.
Other opportunities also went untapped. Touting his dramatic fundraising numbers, O’Rourke emphasized that he takes no money from political action committees, or PACs, while Cruz, by contrast, is heavily backed by oil and gas interests.
In contrast, O’Rourke has vowed not to take donations from fossil fuel companies specifically and has taken stances against oil and gas drilling along with controversial projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. But again, the conversation raced ahead, leaving neither men any room to engage on the issue.
That didn’t sit well with some of the debate’s viewers, who admitted to being disappointed that pressing topics like climate change didn’t factor into the debate.
“Yeah, I’m disappointed,” Sarah Beasley, 49, told ThinkProgress. One major missed opportunity for viewers to contrast the candidates, she said, was Hurricane Harvey.
“He [Cruz] even started talking about Harvey at one point,” she said. “They should’ve talked more about that.”
Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane last year, devastating southeastern Texas. In the time since, conversations about climate change have become more common in the deeply conservative state. Numerous studies have found that warming waters off the Gulf of Mexico allowed Harvey to supercharge and drench areas like Houston with rain, displacing thousands of people and destroying homes across the region.
O’Rourke has made his views on climate change clear in the past, calling for the United States to rejoin the Paris agreement and highlighting the threat of global warming. Cruz, by contrast, applauded President Donald Trump’s decision to exit the agreement last year and has repeatedly downplayed climate change. When he mentioned Harvey’s impacts during the debate, it was to slam O’Rourke for failing to understand “Texas values.” He skirted the issue of climate change entirely.
The candidates may not have fleshed out such points of disagreement on Friday night, but that doesn’t mean Texans don’t care. Before the showdown had even begun, several of those gathering to view the event expressed their hope that climate and environmental issues would be raised during O’Rourke and Cruz’s first face-off.
“Climate issues definitely factor into my vote,” Cedric Silan, 31, told ThinkProgress, although he acknowledged that he had not read extensively about O’Rourke’s views in that area.
“I haven’t looked,” he admitted, but explained that he knows a lot about Cruz’s positions on the environment. O’Rourke, Silan said, “is definitely more environmentally conscious.”
Others shared similar sentiments. Beasley said she was only vaguely familiar with many of O’Rourke’s stances on issues like climate change, but that she felt confident he would prove a better friend to green advocates than his opponent.
“I would hope,” she asserted, “that he’s pro-regulations for the corporations responsible for the dumping, for the fracking, for natural gases. And I would hope he would vote on bills that would keep public lands protected. I would hope he would move us back to the Paris agreement, that he would regulate coal.”
Energy issues remain a crucial point of interest for Texans, even in Austin, where sectors like technology and the arts are more common than in cities like Houston, where oil and gas are bigger employers. Muttered accusations about “Big Oil” and fossil fuel money rippled through the crowd at multiple points when Cruz spoke.
True to form, Beasley said one of her biggest concerns was renewable energy. “I hope that matter would be at the forefront of whatever a leader in Texas does,” she said, noting that fossil fuels still have a hold on Texas, a state where advocates for wind and solar have struggled to make headway with some conservative lawmakers.
Climate issues may not have come up on Friday, but O’Rourke and Cruz are scheduled to debate two more times before November. In the meantime, polls show the two men increasingly close to each other, which is good news for O’Rourke — Texas has not had a Democrat in the Senate in almost 30 years.