First Debate a Chance for Sadler to Draw Cruz Response

Tuesday night's televised U.S. Senate debate between Democrat Paul Sadler and Republican Ted Cruz will be more than just an hourlong political sparring match.

For Sadler, the event in Dallas provides a rare chance to engage Cruz on the issues and draw a response.

Since the July 31 primary runoffs, in which Cruz beat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Sadler defeated retired educator Grady Yarbrough, debate in the race has been largely one-sided, with Sadler targeting Cruz and Cruz seemingly focused more on the national effort to defeat President Obama.

“Stand together with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Restore the American love story,” Cruz said at the Republican National Convention in August. “That, my friends, is change we can believe in.”

That speech was the most visible sign of Cruz’s fast-rising national profile following his come-from-behind win over Dewhurst. Throughout a whirlwind national media campaign that also included appearances on NBC’s Meet the Press and Fox News Sunday, Cruz has focused his remarks more on the presidential race and his defeat of Dewhurst than on his own effort to win Kay Bailey Hutchison’s Senate seat in November.

Sadler, meanwhile, has struggled to draw Cruz’s attention. Over the last two months, Sadler has called Cruz an extremist, cowardly and a laughingstock and has questioned Cruz’s ties to Texas. During the primary, the Cruz campaign was always ready with a retort to Dewhurst’s criticism. Yet it has offered little or no comment in response to Sadler’s swipes.

“He tries to treat Paul Sadler like David Dewhurst tried to treat him,” said Chuck McDonald, a Sadler campaign spokesman. “That's what you do when you have the advantage, and I think there's no doubt that the Republican has the advantage on the ticket.”

Asked about Cruz’s focus on the race since the end of the primary, the Cruz campaign declined to comment. 

Tuesday’s debate, hosted by Belo, will feature questioning from WFAA-TV news reporter Brad Watson and Dallas Morning News reporter Gromer Jeffers Jr. Cruz and Sadler will also have a chance to question each other.

Libertarian John Jay Myers and Green Party candidate David B. Collins are also running for the open U.S. Senate seat. Neither was invited to the WFAA debate. Myers has filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission over his exclusion from the debate.  

The debate will air live at 7 p.m. on ABC affiliates WFAA in Dallas and KVUE-TV in Austin and on Texas Cable News. It will also stream live on dallasnews.com. Various Belo-owned stations and some PBS stations plan to air the debate afterward.

Both candidates have also agreed to a second televised debate on Oct. 19 hosted by Dallas-area PBS affiliate KERA-TV. The Texas Tribune is a partner in that event.  

The Sadler campaign has said Cruz is afraid to do more debates. They point to how Cruz repeatedly criticized Dewhurst for not participating in more candidate forums and debates, both during the primary and the subsequent runoff.

Along with the two planned debates, Sadler has agreed to participate in at least six other events to which both candidates have been invited, according to Sadler’s campaign. The Cruz campaign has not yet agreed to any other events. It has declined to participate in an event hosted by KUHT-TV, Houston’s PBS affiliate.

“They’re doing what typically is done by a front-runner,” Sadler said. “I kind of expected it. But when you call yourself a national debate champion and when you run all over the state because Dewhurst wouldn’t show up, it’s a little ironic. I’ll be nice and call it ironic. Some people might say hypocritical.”

Asked last week about the prospect of more debates, Cruz spokesman James Bernsen said, “I know we’ve been offered others. I don’t know where [the campaign's decision-makers] stand, but I know they are looking at it closely.”

In recent weeks, Cruz's schedule has been filled with fundraisers around the state aimed in part at retiring his campaign's debt from the primary and runoff. Several of the events have featured top Republican officials, including Dewhurst and Hutchison.

The Sadler campaign has said its fundraising has improved since the end of the runoff but has not said whether it will be able to afford to air television commercials, widely viewed as critical in reaching voters in a statewide race.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.