The viral video of Beto O’Rourke responding to a question about NFL player protests during the national anthem appears to have become a flashpoint in an unexpectedly close Senate race between O’Rourke and Republican senator Ted Cruz.

O’Rourke has been steadily gaining on Cruz despite facing long odds, as he seeks to become the first Democrat to win a statewide election in Texas since 1994. The viral video’s popularity has undoubtedly helped to raise O’Rourke’s national profile, though it may play differently in a generally conservative state like Texas than it did on Twitter, where it was widely shared and praised.

At the same time, O’Rourke was heavily criticized by conservatives, and Cruz’s campaign is already attempting to use the popularity of O’Rourke’s comments against him. “O’Rourke’s support for kneeling before the American flag has endeared him to yet more Hollywood celebrities,” the Cruz campaign wrote in a press release unveiling a new ad. “Liberal talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres tweeted that she wants to meet him. Singer John Legend retweeted the video, adding ‘preach.’ Actor Kevin Bacon is also a big fan now. California is all-in for O’Rourke. Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr thanked the El Paso congressman for “giving us a glimpse of our future.”


Cruz’s ad begins with a clip from the O’Rourke video. “My short answer is no, I don’t think it is disrespectful,” O’Rourke says in response to a question from an attendee at an event in Houston last week, asking him if he feels NFL players kneeling in protest during the national anthem is disrespectful to military veterans. “I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere, anyplace.” Tweets in support of O’Rourke from Ellen DeGeneres, singer and El Paso native Khalid, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus flash across the screen. A voiceover comes in: “Nothing more American? Liberal Hollywood was thrilled. But do Texans agree?”

Then the ad shows a man speaking in front of a microphone, identified in the video as retired Marine Corps Sergeant and Vietnam combat veteran Tim Lee. “I gave two legs for this country,” Lee says in the video. “I’m not able to stand. But I sure expect you to stand for me when the national anthem is being played.” The voiceover then comes back in: “In November, where will you stand?”

Cruz also announced that the Marine veteran Lee will be appearing with him at campaign events throughout this week.

An Emerson College poll released Monday called the Senate race a “dead heat,” with Cruz leading O’Rourke by just a single point and 21 percent of those polled responding that they are currently undecided.