Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
Since 2016, Texas Republicans have been spoiling for a fight over NFL players protesting during the national anthem, confident they have a winning issue on their hands — or at least one that will fire up their voters.
That fight has now arrived in the state's 2018 U.S. Senate race.
A video of the Democratic nominee, Beto O'Rourke, recently voicing support for the protests has gone viral, earning hundreds of thousands of social media shares and garnering praise from Hollywood celebrities and professional athletes. The Republican incumbent, Ted Cruz, and his allies have seized on O'Rourke's position to press their long-running argument that despite the national fanfare, O'Rourke is out of step with the Texans who will actually decide the election.
There has not been any recent public polling in Texas gauging support specifically for the protests, which participating players have said are meant to bring attention to police brutality and racial injustice in the United States. But multiple University of Texas/Texas Tribune polls have provided some indications about how Texans feel about the controversy.
- In June, with the debate over the player protests still raging, a UT/TT survey discovered a plurality of voters — 47 percent — had an unfavorable opinion of the NFL, vs. 26 percent who felt favorably about the league.
- In October 2017, as President Donald Trump was sharply criticizing players over the protests, a UT/TT poll found more Texas voters disapproved of Trump's handling of the situation than approved of it, 50 percent to 40 percent.
- In October 2016, as the protests were beginning to gain attention, a UT/TT poll found that the Black Lives Matter movement, which is largely allied with the protesting players, had a poor image in Texas, with voters having an unfavorable view of it by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
In a blog post Wednesday, UT/TT pollsters Jim Henson and Joshua Blank suggested the numbers show O'Rourke's position is anything but a clear-cut political winner in Texas.
"While it’s too soon to judge O’Rourke’s national prospects — despite the natural eagerness to discover the Next Big Thing — the response on Political Twitter illustrates that in moments like his Houston comments (and many others on a growing list), O’Rourke looks a lot like a national Democratic candidate," the pollsters wrote. "Relevant attitudes in Texas, however, suggest that he still has a rough schedule to get through before he graduates to the pros."
The political fervor over the national players protests is nothing new for top Texas Republicans, who have seized on them to varying degrees since they began in 2016. Cruz has been especially vocal, bashing the protesting players last year as "rich, spoiled athletes disrespecting the flag."
The saga in the Senate race began Aug. 10 at an O'Rourke town hall in Houston, where the candidate fielded a question from a man who said he came from a family of veterans and found it "incredibly frustrating that people seem to be OK with" the player protests. The man asked O'Rourke: Do you find it disrespectful?
"My short answer is no, I don't think it's disrespectful," O'Rourke replied, offering a preface before giving his long answer: "Reasonable people can disagree on this issue — let's begin there — and it makes them no less American to come down on a different conclusion on this issue."
O'Rourke went on to offer a lengthy recollection of civil rights struggles in the United States, the sacrifices Americans have made for those rights and the more recent national conversation surrounding police shootings of unarmed black men.
"And so nonviolently, peacefully, while the eyes of this country are watching these games, they take a knee to bring our attention and our focus to this problem to ensure that we fix it," O'Rourke concluded. "That is why they are doing it, and I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights anytime, anywhere, anyplace."
The next weekend at a campaign stop in Corpus Christi, Cruz brought up O'Rourke's comments while responding to a question about respect for police.
"[O'Rourke] gave a long, long answer that ended with, he quote 'couldn't think of anything more American' than kneeling to protest the national anthem," Cruz said, recalling the patriotism he said he saw during a recent tour of Texas military bases. "The contrast of every person there having that respect — you know, when Beto O'Rourke says he can't think of anything more American, I've got to admit — I can. Those soldiers, those sailors, those airmen, those Marines, who fought and bled to protect the flag — yeah, that's something more American."
The issue appear to cool off for a few days — until Tuesday afternoon, when the website NowThisNews tweeted the video of O'Rourke's comments, set to dramatic music and accompanied by a caption saying O'Rourke "brilliantly explains why NFL players kneeling during the anthem is not disrespectful." The tweet quickly racked up over 100,000 retweets and got the attention of people like talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, who told O'Rourke she would like to meet him, and basketball superstar LeBron James, who called the video a "must watch" and praised O'Rourke for his "candid thoughtful words." Among those who retweeted the video was Colin Kaepernick, the player who helped spark the protests in 2016.
With the video ricocheting around the internet, O'Rourke continued to tackle the issue Wednesday evening at a town hall in Texas City, where the first question he got was about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. O'Rourke gave an answer that echoed his initial one, not backing away from the assertion that there was a patriotic quality to the protests.
"To peacefully, without violence, call attention to problems that we have going on in this country, so that our conscience, our eyes, our focus, are directed on those who otherwise might not have a voice ... I think that is something uniquely American," O'Rourke said.
Meanwhile, Texas Republicans continued to show Thursday that they are happy to have the debate over kneeling during the anthem, with Cruz first firing off a tweet mocking actor Kevin Bacon's embrace of the viral video. Hours later, he sent a more serious tweet on the topic reiterating his comments from the Corpus Christi stop and suggesting O'Rourke was "raising big $$ from Hollywood by supporting NFL protests of the national anthem," at odds with the views of most Texans.
Also on Thursday, state party Chairman James Dickey issuing a statement calling O'Rourke's definition of American "utterly flawed" and his comments a "slap in the face" to veterans. The episode, Dickey added, "further demonstrates [O'Rourke's] failure to comprehend the values held by the voters of Texas while he runs tenaciously farther and farther to the left every day."
O'Rourke clearly sees some political upside to the episode as well. As of Thursday, his campaign was running Facebook ads highlighting his viral comments on the player protests. Meanwhile, an O'Rourke campaign stop Thursday afternoon in Houston featured a surprise guest: Arian Foster, the former Houston Texans and Miami Dolphins running back who kneeled during the anthem in 2016.
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