By James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic U.S. Senate challenger Beto O’Rourke will come face-to-face with the man he has been chasing for months, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, at a debate on Friday in one of the most closely watched congressional races in the country.
O’Rourke’s candidacy has drawn large crowds in Texas and a following among progressives nationally. While he remains an underdog against Cruz in the traditionally conservative state, some recent polls have indicated the contest is tightening.
The Nov. 6 congressional elections will determine whether Republicans will retain control of Congress. Democrats need to win a net total of two additional seats to take the Senate and 23 to assume the majority in the House.
If they win either chamber, much of President Donald Trump’s agenda could be hamstrung and his administration would be subjected to greater scrutiny.
Signs of a victory by O’Rourke, a U.S. congressman from El Paso, in deep-red Texas would likely herald a nationwide Democratic voter wave that could be catastrophic for Republicans. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll gave O’Rourke a slight edge, with 47 percent to Cruz's 45 percent, but that came on the heels of a Quinnipiac University survey that showed Cruz up by nine percentage points.
The debate, the first of three scheduled between the two candidates, will be held Friday evening at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and will focus on domestic policy.
O’Rourke has built his campaign around healthcare, economic inequality, and resisting Trump and Cruz’s immigration policies, as well as calling for some gun-control measures including uniform background checks and banning high-capacity weapons.
At campaign stops, Cruz, a former presidential candidate who is seeking a second term in the Senate, has gone after O’Rourke as a “gun-grabbing liberal” and portrayed him as out-of-step with the bulk of Texas voters. He has complained that outside Democratic groups are providing O’Rourke with a fundraising advantage.
Cruz has also criticized O’Rourke’s defense of National Football League players who have kneeled at games in protest of police brutality.
While Cruz and Trump were bitter rivals during the 2016 presidential race, the president and his family are working to help Cruz's campaign.
On Thursday, Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, a White House aide, toured NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston with Cruz. President Trump has pledged to hold a rally in Texas with Cruz ahead of the election.
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Paul Simao)