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Rep. Beto O'Rourke Faces A Tough Race To Unseat Sen. Ted Cruz

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I'm Rachel Martin at our member station KERA in Dallas, Texas, which has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994. Democratic Congressman Beto O'Rourke of El Paso is hoping to change that, though. He won his party's primary for U.S. Senate yesterday. And he will now face incumbent Ted Cruz, who is already taking aim at O'Rourke. The Cruz campaign released a new statewide radio ad last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "IF YOU'RE GONNA RUN IN TEXAS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Beto wants those open borders and wants to take our guns. Not a chance on earth he'll get a vote from millions of Texans. If you're going to run in Texas...

MARTIN: We are joined now by Congressman Beto O'Rourke. Thanks so much for being with us, Congressman.

BETO O'ROURKE: Good morning.

MARTIN: There's a smile in my voice because that song is a doozy. Do you plan to retaliate in kind with a similar jingle?

O'ROURKE: No. No. We're going to stay focused on the big things. You know, folks that I'm listening to across Texas, now having visited 226 counties, want to make sure that we're leading on the issues that they care most about. They want to make sure that everyone can afford to see a doctor or fill their prescriptions. We had a woman who died in Weatherford, Texas, last year of the flu - schoolteacher. Shouldn't be happening in 2018. They want this state, the defining immigrant state, to lead the way, not just in stopping a wall that we don't need but writing immigration laws in our own image that reflect our values and help us to make the most of everyone in our communities.

MARTIN: So let me ask you. You had, by far, the most name recognition in the Democratic primary yesterday. You only took home just over 60 percent of that vote. So if you can't get Democrats to unite behind you, how are you going to get the majority of Texans to do so?

O'ROURKE: You know, we've spent the last year making sure that we listen to and are with everyone that we want to represent and serve in Texas. So that means we're going to places like Archer City, that hasn't seen a U.S. Senate candidate in 70 years, since LBJ last campaigned there in 1948; means we're going to Lufkin; means we're going to Pecos County and Amarillo - not the usual places that you see a Democrat. But I want to represent and fight for all 28 million Texans. It doesn't matter to me whether they're Republicans or independents or nonvoters.

The idea is to be with them, listen to them and make sure that their issues and their fights are our issues and our fights. And so we've got another eight months in which to meet and listen to those that we want to serve and represent. It's a long, maybe frustrating strategy for some. But I think it's the right way to run a race in Texas and perhaps the only way to win.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask you on the issues. I've spoken to several voters here this week. One man, who says that he usually votes for Democrats - he told me he likes you, but if you support an assault weapons ban, that it would be a deal breaker for him. Do you think you can win in Texas by supporting a gun control measure like that?

O'ROURKE: I do. I think - when I listened to someone in Brownwood, a woman who says that she was born and raised on a ranch with a .22 in her hands, as she told me. But she also has 46 grandkids. And her No. 1 question to me was, can I trust you to stand up to the NRA? She can be forgiven for asking that because Ted Cruz has taken more than $300,000 from the NRA just in 2016 alone. So folks don't know whether he represents the NRA or Texans.

I haven't taken a dime from the NRA or any special interest group, corporation or PAC. I'm going to stand up for Texans. And Texans are asking me to make sure that we have universal background checks, that we don't sell weapons of war whose only purpose is to kill people as effectively and efficiently and in as great a number as possible. I want to make sure that their kids, their grandkids - that they are safe in their schools, in their churches, in their communities.

So I think that's the right thing to do. And I think Texas with a proud tradition of gun ownership and gun safety can lead the way on this issue.

MARTIN: But you just mentioned you've been crisscrossing the state on road trips, going to places that have never seen Democrats even be competitive. You still only got just 60 percent of the Democratic primary. Does that indicate the kind of support that will win statewide?

O'ROURKE: I think it indicates that we have a 24-month campaign strategy and a massive state, 254 counties - largest of the lower 48. So it's going to take a lot of time to listen...

MARTIN: Yeah.

O'ROURKE: ...To everyone and work with everyone. And I think you just need to watch us over the next eight months. And the...

MARTIN: We will...

O'ROURKE: ...Test will be on November 6.

MARTIN: Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke, thanks your time.

O'ROURKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.