“Protesting the national anthem and the flag, protesting law enforcement . . . is inconsistent with where most Texans are,” said Sen. Ted Cruz. (Jacob Ford/Odessa American via AP)

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) won many admirers around the country — including several high-profile sports figures — when a video recently went viral that showed him making comments sympathetic toward NFL players staging protests during the national anthem to bring attention to issues of racial injustice. Sen. Ted Cruz (R), though, is betting that enough potential voters in Texas are angry at O’Rourke’s comments that he is targeting the remarks in a new campaign ad, as the two vie for Cruz’s Senate seat.

“That is a view that is markedly out of step with the vast majority of Texans,” Cruz said at a news conference Monday (via the Dallas Morning News), following an appearance at a Dallas-area rally at which he showed the ad. “We need to be respectful of our active duty military. We need to be respectful of our veterans. We need to be respectful of law enforcement as well.”

The ad begins with some of the same footage of O’Rourke, speaking at a town hall in Houston earlier this month, as in the viral video. When asked if he thinks the protests are “disrespectful” to military veterans or the country as a whole, O’Rourke is shown saying that he does not, before he tells the audience, “I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, any time, anywhere, in any place.”

Cruz’s ad claims that “liberal Hollywood,” as depicted in approving tweets from talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, singer Khalid and actress Julie Louis-Dreyfus, was “thrilled” at O’Rourke’s comments. The senator previously had tweeted about similar words of praise from actor Kevin Bacon, “Most Texans stand for the flag, but Hollywood liberals are so excited that Beto is siding with NFL players protesting the national anthem that Kevin Bacon just retweeted it.”

The ad moves on to show comments from Tim Lee, a military veteran and Texas-based evangelist who lost his legs to a land mine during the Vietnam War. “I gave two legs for this country. I’m not able to stand,” he tells an audience. “But I sure expect you to stand for me when the national anthem is being played.”

“In November, where will you stand?” the ad asks in conclusion.

Texas hasn’t elected a Democratic candidate to the U.S. Senate since Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, but O’Rourke has nearly pulled even with Cruz in the race. An e-poll of registered voters released Monday by Emerson College had Cruz at 38 percent and O’Rourke at 37 percent, with 21 percent undecided and four percent supporting another candidate.

“I don’t pay attention to what Senator Cruz is doing or not doing because I don’t feel like I’m running against him,” O’Rourke said Sunday to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I’m running for this country. For everyone in the state of Texas.”

Cruz’s ad left out much of O’Rourke’s commentary in the viral video, including him noting that “reasonable people can disagree on this issue, and it makes them no less American to come down on a different conclusion.” He added that the freedoms Americans enjoy were won not just by soldiers on the battlefield, although “they definitely were,” but also by civil rights activists who endured their own hardships and brutality.

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Moving to the NFL protests, O’Rourke said that players “taking a knee at a football game” were among “peaceful, nonviolent protests” aiming to “point out that black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement, without accountability, and without justice.”

Notable NFL figures such as Reggie Bush, Torrey Smith, Kurt Warner and Tony Dungy retweeted the video, with Bush telling his social-media followers, “We need more of our fellow white brothers and sisters to stand up with us or take a knee or however you want to PEACEFULLY PROTEST in this fight for EQUALITY!” Four-time NBA MVP LeBron James described the video as a “must watch,” and he offered a “salute” to O’Rourke “for the candid thoughtful words!” Those who have participated in the players’ movement have been adamant since its inception that their protest is not of the national anthem, the flag, the U.S. military or the country.

O’Rourke told the Star-Telegram that he “had never been asked the question before” about the protests, but he had “certainly thought about” Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during pregame renditions of the anthem. Kaepernick’s actions inspired other athletes but may have caused team owners to collude to keep the former 49ers quarterback out of the league, as he is alleging in a grievance filing.

“Why would someone take this almost unprecedented step and put their career in the NFL on the line?” O’Rourke asked. “It’s because it’s a serious issue, but that’s about as far as my thinking went. But when asked the question I just gave my best answer.”

“Protesting the national anthem and the flag, protesting law enforcement . . . is inconsistent with where most Texans are,” Cruz said Monday.

“In Texas we believe in being respectful to the flag,” the senator added. “The Supreme Court says you have the right to burn the flag. I don’t know if Beto O’Rourke thinks burning the flag is as American as anything he can think of.”

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