HOUSTON—Has any candidate for the United States Senate ever called his opponent a “troll” on live television?
Alas, it happened Tuesday night during a lively debate between Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Paul Sadler. Both appeared in a statewide broadcast that quickly turned comically caustic. As the candidates yelled over each other, tossing around words like “crazy” and batting around accusations about campaign lies, moderators repeatedly tried to rein in the arguments and stop them from interrupting each other.
“I’m glad there is a clear contrast between us,” Cruz said, in one of the rare moments when the cacophony ebbed long enough for one of the candidates to make a point on which they both agreed.
The debate reached either its high point, or its nadir, when Cruz accused Sadler of supporting a state income tax during his tenure in the Texas Legislature. Sadler called that a “lie,” and argued that he, and other lawmakers, reviewed every potential tax available to fund education.
“That’s our responsibility,” Sadler told Cruz. “You wouldn’t know anything about that. But what you don’t do is do your job as a legislator worried that some troll is going to come along 10 years later or 20 years later and try to run a campaign against you.”
“I’m sorry you believe I am a troll,” Cruz said with a perfectly straight face, as Sadler kept talking and a moderator tried to interrupt. “I do not believe you are a troll.”
As the unmistakable underdog in a state dominated by Republicans, Sadler came out swinging from the show’s opening moments by goading Cruz about appearing in more debates.
Cruz, whose spirited debate performances helped propel him to victory in the Republican primaries, briefly danced around the question then bluntly answered that giving Sadler more exposure wasn’t his job.
“I understand that you’re working very hard to get free media coverage,” Cruz said. “And it’s not our obligation to help you in that.”
Both of the candidates smiled during much of the broadcast, seemingly relishing the banter. After all, Cruz, who seems to enjoy political debates and is all but certain to win the election, had little to lose. And for Sadler, who reported raising a paltry $139,000 in campaign funds through the end of July, the debate was an unprecedented bonanza of free television time.
They are competing for the seat now held by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Republican who’s retiring after almost 20 years in the Senate.
Ten minutes into the broadcast, Cruz noted that Sadler had already called him “crazy” three times, most pointedly after Cruz posited a viewpoint about the Obama Administration.
“I do think that part of the philosophy of President Obama and this administration is trying to get as many Americans as possible dependent on government so the Democrats can stay in power in perpetuity,” Cruz said.
“That’s the craziest thing I ever heard in my life,” Sadler said. “You really are accusing the president of the United States of using a government program to manipulate people to not get a job, to be dependent on government for services? Are you really accusing the president of the United States of that? That’s just crazy, Ted.”
Amid all the arguing, Sadler dodged questions about whether he would favor allowing all of the Bush-era tax cuts to expire. And Cruz, while repeating his adamant stance on repealing “Obamacare,” argued that he still favored “significant health care reforms.”
But the policy discussions were overshadowed by the spectacle of politicians arguing over each other and moderators Brad Watson, of KENS 5's sister station in Dallas, and Gromer Jeffers, of The Dallas Morning News, trying to wrestle the debate back under control.
“You tell so many lies, it’s unbelievable,” Sadler said at one point.
The candidates will meet for one more televised debate before voters decide which of these argumentative Texans will represent the state in Washington.