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Why Ted Cruz's latest attack against Beto O'Rourke is so important

One need not by a cynic to recognize Ted Cruz's racially charged strategy for what it was.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a rally at the Hoosier Gym in Knightstown, Ind., April 26, 2016. (Photo by Michael Conroy/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a rally at the Hoosier Gym in Knightstown, Ind., April 26, 2016.

The details of what transpired in the Dallas shooting are still under investigation, but based on what we know, a local police officer, Amber Guyger, mistakenly entered her neighbor's apartment, and proceeded to shoot and kill him. The officer is a white woman, while the victim, Botham Shem Jean, was a black man.

A few days after the slaying, Guyger was charged with manslaughter, but soon after, local officials were accused of trying to smear Jean by alerting the media to the fact that he allegedly had 10 grams of marijuana in his apartment when he was killed.

Not surprisingly, this has become an important election-year topic for candidates in Texas, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R), in his first debate on Friday with Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D), chastised his rival over his criticisms of the officer who killed her unarmed neighbor. As the Washington Post  reported, after the debate, Cruz went a little further.

Sen. Ted Cruz's most popular tweet Friday night -- the one with tens of thousands of likes, retweets and comments -- ostensibly was meant to slam his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke."In Beto O'Rourke's own words," tweeted the Texas Republican, who has found himself in the midst of a surprisingly tight reelection race for his U.S. Senate seat in a formerly solid-red state.Cruz then linked to a video of a speech O'Rourke gave at a Dallas church in which he discussed the death of a local resident named Botham Shem Jean.... "How can it be -- in this day and age, in this very year, in this community -- that a young man, African American, in his own apartment, is shot and killed by a police officer?" O'Rourke asked the congregation, which grew increasingly animated.

On the surface, the fact that Cruz was eager to promote O'Rourke's remarks seemed baffling: the Texas congressman didn't say anything controversial. Indeed, it wasn't at all clear what it was, exactly, that O'Rourke said that the far-right senator disagreed with.

It seemed like a message that was destined to backfire: it showed Cruz's opponent making sensible observations in a Baptist church about a tragic shooting, where the congregation gave every indication it agreed with what O'Rourke had to say.

But to limit the analysis to the surface would be a mistake.

Jon Chait's analysis of Cruz's strategy rings true:

The element that Cruz considers damning is O'Rourke campaigning against police injustice (even a very clear one) before a heavily black audience. Cruz understands that his victory requires overwhelming support and turnout from whites, and he believes that if his opponent is seen as representing African-Americans and their dismay with the system, it will cause a white backlash from which he will benefit.This is not Trump-style overt racism. It is old-fashioned conservative wink-and-nod Willie Horton racism, leading the audience toward the desired conclusion without shouting it out for them like Trump does.

One need not be a cynic to recognize Cruz's strategy for what it was. If O'Rourke had made anti-police comments, the senator's effort would be easier to defend. But O'Rourke said nothing of the kind.

Rather, this is simply an example of Cruz wanting voters to see his challenger talking to a largely African-American audience, inside a prominent African-American church, about the injustice of a local African-American man being shot and killed in his own apartment, apparently for no reason.

Five years ago, Cruz said the first political contribution he ever made was when he was 10 years ago -- at which point he sent Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) a $10 contribution. "We need 100 more like Jesse Helms," Cruz said in 2013.

Helms, of course, was notorious for airing shamelessly racist campaign ads. Here's hoping Cruz doesn't continue down a similar road.