AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Democratic Texas Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke suggested Tuesday night that President Donald Trump floated the idea of using an executive order to end birthright U.S. citizenship to sway next week's midterm elections, saying the White House wants to play on the country's "worst impulses."
A three-term congressman from El Paso, O'Rourke is challenging Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in a race that was supposed to be a cakewalk for the incumbent but has tightened considerably.
Addressing a loud crowd at the University of Houston during a town hall broadcast for a national audience on MSNBC, O'Rourke was pressed by moderator Chris Matthews about whether Trump is capable of being a calming influence in times of turmoil like past leaders including Robert Kennedy.
"I don't think he's capable of it, but that doesn't have to limit who we are as a people," said O'Rourke who has campaigned in the past throughout Texas with Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy III, Robert Kennedy's grandson. "We're more than the president of the United States, the current occupant of the White House."
Trump says he will send 5,000-plus troops to the Mexican border to defend against caravans of Central American migrants who are slowly trekking through Mexico toward U.S. soil. He also floated the idea of ending automatically granting citizenship to any baby born in the U.S. — a right granted by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
Asked about Trump's suggestion, O'Rourke replied: "Interesting that he drops this proposal with a week to go until the Nov. 6 election."
"Interesting that he tries to stoke paranoia and fear about a group of migrants who are still hundreds of miles away, weeks away, from the U.S.-Mexico border, if they even make it this far," O'Rourke added. "I think he's trying to play upon the worst impulses of this country instead of speaking to our ambitions, our hopes our dreams, those things that we can achieve if we all come together."
Earlier Tuesday, Cruz said he's long supported ending birthright citizenship but suggested it could take a constitutional amendment to do so, meaning Trump may not have the authority to pull it off unilaterally.
The president was in Houston last week for a rally with Cruz and has tweeted that O'Rourke is a "total lightweight." The congressman, who often jogs with supporters, joked when Matthews asked about that, "I have lost about 20 pounds over the course of this campaign."
"I don't see any benefit in engaging with him," O'Rourke said about Trump's name-calling. But he added, "I'll work with him and I have." When Matthews demanded "name one" issue where O'Rourke and Trump agree, the congressman said both would like to see health care expanded for veterans.
A onetime member of a punk rock band, O'Rourke has become a national Democratic star, shattering Senate campaign fundraising records — including raising $38-plus million for the three-month period between July and September — despite shunning donations from outside political groups. He's trying to become Texas' first Democrat to win statewide office since 1994, but polls that once showed him closing in now have Cruz with a consistent, if modest, lead.
After two debates with Cruz, O'Rourke also appeared solo on a CNN town hall two weeks ago. He drew sustained applause Tuesday by praising Houston's diversity and for speaking a bit of fluent Spanish. Other questions, many from students, ranged from how much sleep he's getting per night (four to six hours) to what he thought about celebrities endorsing key candidates.
"I'm not as concerned about what the celebrities think," O'Rourke said, noting that it's more important to appeal to all types of voters. "I'm really concerned about what YOU think."