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Student political organizations prepare for upcoming debate

Politically minded student groups across campus are gearing up for the debate between Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Ted Cruz that is scheduled to take place on campus on September 30. | The Cougar Media Library


When it was announced that the University of Houston would be hosting a town hall style debate between Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Ted Cruz, student political organizations began to buzz with anticipation.

Taking place Sept. 30 in the Student Center South’s theater, the event is offering a chance for UH students to ask questions—submitted and moderated online through ABC 13’s website and other platforms—of the politicians, one of whom will soon be serving as their Senator. Even for those who know where their candidate stands, there’s no telling what will happen at the debate.

“It’ll be interesting to see how Ted Cruz answers on some of these issues,” said Jonah Baumgarten, a political science junior and Students for Beto ambassador. “They don’t share many of the same policies.”

While he expects Cruz’s answers on topics such as free tuition for community colleges won’t receive a warm response from the audience—much of whom he expects will be college age—Baumgarten said stumping Cruz hasn’t been a high priority of Students for Beto when submitting questions for the debate.

“As much as we would like to see Ted Cruz flounder and upset people with his answers I think we’re more focused on supporting our candidate and showing people how intelligent and focused (O’Rourke) is on helping the people of Texas,” Baumgarten said.

Though Students for Beto may not be interested in attacking Cruz, should anyone want to go after either candidate with their questions, communications assistant professor Joe Cutbirth said the key to a cutting query is using familiarity with their past statements on the campaign trail to pull them to a very specific place.

Candidates and Questions

Candidates, however, have a loophole to get out of even the most critical questions:

They don’t actually have to answer them.

“A skilled candidate knows how to pivot in a debate,” Cutbirth said. “Cruz is an experienced attorney whose been through presidential debates, he knows how to change the subject.”

According to Cutbirth, who served as the communications director for the Texas Democratic Party during Texas Governor Ann Richards’ campaign in 1994 as well as the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign in 1996, the weeks leading up to any debate—including the upcoming one at UH—are a nonstop rush of venue and audience size negotiation, opposition research and careful strategizing and rehearsal by each candidate.

“The real secret to winning a debate is using the forum to reach voters that you need to reach,” Cutbirth said. “An experienced debater will know how to reach past the audience and say things that will get into the media in soundbites and clips.”

Currently, polls have O’Rourke and Cruz sitting neck and neck with several prominent political forecasters calling this race a “toss up.”  

Like past elections, the winner will likely be determined by the voters sitting outside of Texas’ 10 most populated counties, who in the 2016 presidential election beat out Democrats almost three to one. These voters generally come out in support of Republican candidates, according to analysis by the Texas Tribune

However, O’Rourke’s campaign efforts in these counties, as well as some Republicans displeasure with the GOP, may see them casting their ballot for a Democrat this election—or many may not vote at all, according to a study commissioned by the RNC.

YAL, YEA anticipate event

Though the Houston chapter of Young Americans for Liberty—a nonpartisan student political organization that generally focuses on libertarian ideals of free speech and economics—can’t endorse a candidate, several of its conservative leaning members are considering voting for O’Rourke in the midterms, at the very least to send a message to the GOP.

“Some of us are unhappy with the current state of the GOP and want to see it reform and become more conservative,” said UHYAL president and political science junior Joshua Patterson. “If Beto wins, it would mean the GOP losing one of its biggest candidates and would force them to really rework their message.”

According to Patterson, members of YAL are interested in hearing answers to and will likely be submitting questions about the national debt, healthcare and whether or not candidates see value in renewable energy technology.

While the Youth Empowerment Alliance—a national student-activism organization focused on issues that affect undocumented immigrants—doesn’t endorse any candidate, Houston Chapter President Daniela Melendez, a junior at the University of Houston, said O’Rourke’s positions on immigration issues such as detention centers, the border wall and ICE have garnered him support from most members of YEA. 

“I think in the past Cruz hasn’t shown that he’s a leader for immigrant communities, but Beto has actually stood alongside the community,” Melendez said.

Melendez applied for a ticket to the debate at UH through the Beto campaign. However, she said many YEA members that would want to attend likely won’t apply due to their anxieties about being undocumented.

“Their entire lives they’ve been forced to hide that fact about themselves and are naturally afraid of speaking to a candidate,” Melendez said, “especially when so many Americans feel like they shouldn’t be allowed to speak on political issues.”

While none of the persons interviewed have received confirmation on whether or not they have a ticket for the debate, all pointed to their respective organizations’ communications as being a flurry of question brainstorming, debate speculation and watch party planning—proof of their eagerness to engage with the candidates and this election.

“It’s really important that we’re having this debate on campus since we are the future, and now for the first time college age students and millennials are the largest voting block,” Baumgarten said.

*College Republicans at the University of Houston declined to comment for this article.

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