Arms. Abortion. . The closely watched Texas gubernatorial race came down to the wire Friday night in the first — and likely only — debate between the incumbent Republican governor. Greg Abbottand Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourkeas the candidates battled on some of the biggest issues facing the state’s votes.
While recent polls have O’Rourke trailing Abbott by about 7 points, this could be the closest Texas gubernatorial race in years. Abbott won in 2014 by over 20 points and in 2018 by over 13 points.
Abbott and O’Rourke have not sparred in person since the following day Uvalde school shootingnever O’Rourke confronted Abbott during a press conference. O’Rourke continued to hammer Abbott over his response to the shooting, even holding a press conference before speaking with the families of the shooting victims.
In the hour-long debate, Abbott was asked about his comments at that news conference the day after the Uvalde shooting that left 19 students and two teachers dead. In those comments, he said the shooting “could have been worse” and praised the response of law enforcement. Since then, leaked video of the shootings showed that officers waited in the hallway for 73 minutes to get in and, at times, the screams of the children could be heard.
A report by a a special legislative committee was found that 376 officers responded to the shooting and the delay in dealing with the gunman was the result of “systemic failures and extremely poor decision-making.”
Abbott has since said he was “misled” by “everyone in that room who provided me with information about what law enforcement was doing.”
“What this comment was based on was information from law enforcement about all the kids in all the other classrooms that evacuated during the time the shooter was on campus,” Abbott said. “What I wasn’t told at the time, however, was that there were dozens, if not more, other law enforcement officers who had been hanging around the hallway for over an hour without engaging in Columbine protocol and going in and immediately removing this shooter. , what they had to do. And because they failed to do this, there must be responsibility, not only for Pete Arredondobut also for local law enforcement.”
O’Rourke, meanwhile, responded that there must be accountability for Abbott and called on him to call a special session of the state legislature to enact stricter gun laws. Abbott said those laws would be challenged in court as unconstitutional.
O’Rourke garnered national headlines in 2019 when, while running for president, he said in a debate “hell yeah, we’ll take your AR-15sHe appeared to back away from those statements and on Friday said it was “to make sure we make progress”.
“These families I was with just from Uvalde want us to take action,” O’Rourke said. “That’s the common ground. I’ve heard from Republicans and Democrats on this — we can agree on a lot on this: Raising the age to 21, the Red Flag Act and universal background checks.”
Friday’s debate was hosted by Nexstar and held at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, a critical area for both candidates. There was no audience. Given the location, it was not surprising that immigration was the first question in the debate. Abbott tried to keep immigration front and center in this fight, as it has garnered national headlines for busing immigrants to Washington, DC, New York and Chicago. While the bus has drawn some criticism nationally — especially from Democrats — a UT/Texas Politics Project poll in September found that 80 percent of Texas Republicans, and 52 percent of voters in the state overall, supported the program.
Abbott defended the program Friday night and said New York Mayor Eric Adams never reached out to his office, although Adams said he did. O’Rourke called the bus a “political stunt”.
O’Rourke criticized Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star,” which involved deploying the National Guard to patrol the border and cost the state $4 billion. Abbott touted the program, though he said ideally he would spend “zero dollars” on Operation Lone Star and blamed President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.
O’Rourke, who hails from El Paso, didn’t shy away from discussing immigration, but tried to focus the fight on abortion, gun laws and the 2021 blackout.
In 2021, before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Abbott signed a law banning abortions after six weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest. After the Supreme Court ruling, a law banning abortion came into force.
Abbott said the state would provide Plan B for rape or incest victims, which he doubled down on Friday night, saying Plan B should be “immediately available” for them. But advocates told the Texas Tribune earlier this month that Plan B is often not widely available, with one calling it “fairytale thinking.”
O’Rourke said Friday that this election is a referendum on “reproductive freedom” and told Texans that “if you care about this, you need to get out and vote.” 52% of likely voters said they would change Texas abortion laws to make the procedure more accessible, according to a Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation/KVUE poll.
Abbott, when asked if he has moved further to the right since taking office, said he had never personally supported abortion.
“Let’s look at the issues you raised,” Abbott said. “And, for example, as Catholics, my wife and I have been pro-life our whole lives. So much so, that it became even stronger when we adopted our daughter. The day she was born, I was the first person to hold her after she was born. And I’ve seen firsthand the power that adoption can have.”
O’Rourke, meanwhile, was asked about his recent underachievement Senate in 2018 and president in 2020, and whether he runs out of a call to public service or personal ambition. O’Rourke responded that it’s an “honor” to “have the opportunity to serve others.”
Before the debate, a focus group told Nexstar that 40% supported Abbott, 27% supported O’Rourke and 33% were undecided. After the debate, 50% supported O’Rourke, 43% supported Abbott and 7% were undecided.
This is the only debate Abbott has agreed to, while O’Rourke has accepted several other invitations. In view of the discussion, O’Rourke blamed Abbott to disappoint the live audience, though Abbott’s campaign told the Houston Chronicle that the terms of the debate had been agreed upon in advance — without an audience.
Early voting in the state begins on October 24 September 2021, the GOP-led Legislature passed an election bill that limited early voting hours and instituted new ID requirements for mail-in ballots. This last change in particular led to a higher rejection rate in the March primary, with more than 24,000 votes that were left uncounted.