Texas governor’s debate: Abbott, O’Rourke split on abortion, power grid, guns
EDINBURG, Texas (NEXSTAR) — The countdown to the November election for Texas governor is on — and Texans have a major decision to make: re-elect Republican Gov. Greg Abbott or elect Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.
With just over a month before polls open, the pair faced off for a debate on Friday at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg. Nexstar Media Group hosted the debate.
Last November, the Abbott campaign unveiled billboards across the state showing O’Rourke accompanied by the phrase “Wrong For Texas.” Meanwhile, O’Rourke tweeted over the weekend: “Greg Abbott doesn’t deserve to be rehired. We’re firing him on November 8.” On Friday night, you got a better understanding of who you think is right for Texas before you decide with your vote in the upcoming election.
Abbott vs. O’Rourke
The two gubernatorial candidates have been exchanging barbs for a while — even before they became political rivals.
Going into Friday night’s debate, O’Rourke tweeted photos of the auditorium in Edinburg, pointing to the empty seats. “If you think it’s crazy that there won’t be any voters in the audience for tonight’s debate, just wait until you hear that it’s taking place in a theater that seats 1,000 people. It’ll be empty—no seats filled—because Abbott refuses to face those he’s failed these last 8 years.”
It’s important to note, however, that both candidates agreed to the terms of having the debate without a live audience and having it take place at a university in South Texas.
The location, less than 20 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, tapped into a major theme of the debate: the issue of border security and Texas’ policies on migrants.
The night began with questions about immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, with Abbott underlining his record with his Operation Lone Star border security task force — in addition to recent controversial busing of asylum-seeking migrants to several U.S. cities.
Abbott laid blame for the influx of migrants at the border at the feet of the Biden administration, who he faults with having so-called “open border policies” and equated an O’Rourke governorship with similar policies.
O’Rourke jabbed at Abbott for attempting to distract from the “failure” of Operation Lone Star — which has caused Texas taxpayers $4 billion since its creation last year — and called the busing dangerous and “hateful” political theater.
“That’s how people get killed at the Walmart in El Paso,” O’Rourke said, in reference to the 2019 deadly mass shooting in West Texas.
While Abbott accused O’Rourke of “flip-flopping” on his border policies, O’Rourke took the opportunity to remind viewers that Abbott has been governor for seven years. The governor said no further money will need to be spent on Operation Lone Star.
In recent months, Abbott snagged national headlines for several actions he’s taken regarding migrants at the southern border. The governor began a controversial busing of asylum-seeking migrants out of state and to “sanctuary” cities like Chicago and New York City. Abbott touts Operation Lone Star’s busing as part of securing the border. It’s a practice that’s been praised by many conservatives — and replicated by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — but slammed by detractors, including O’Rourke.
“The Biden-Harris administration continues ignoring and denying the historic crisis at our southern border, which has endangered and overwhelmed Texas communities for almost two years,” Abbott recently said. The governor says opponent O’Rourke “supports open border policies” and “denies border problems,” calling him “too dangerous for Texas.”
Abbott said as of Sept. 26, Texas had bused over 11,500 migrants out of state.
The cost of the busing, which is viewed by critics as merely symbolic, has also been criticized. Records obtained by Nexstar and reported on Sept. 7 showed busing up to that point had cost the state $14 million, most of it funded by taxpayer dollars.
Abbott said during the debate that he hadn’t been contacted by New York Mayor Eric Adams related to migrants coming from Texas.
On Friday evening, New York City mayor press secretary Fabien Levy tweeted a screenshot of an email the city’s director of federal affairs sent Aug. 1, 2022 to a member of Gov. Abbott’s staff and said “not only did our office call you about this, but we followed up via email. Always keep the receipts, folks!”
O’Rourke said Friday he would give migrants a path to become Texas citizens.
Access to guns
Guns are a big focal point ahead of the election, especially since the May 24 Uvalde tragedy, when 21 people — including 19 children — were killed in a shooting at Robb Elementary School. It’s the third-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
Abbott, who has an A+ rating from the NRA, received criticism for Texas’ gun policies, which allows Texans ages 18 and up to carry a handgun in public without a permit or training under House Bill 1927. It’s what’s known as permitless carry. In June 2021, Abbott signed into law seven laws related to guns and said “Surely there’s no state in America that’s ever done as much protecting gun rights in their state.”
O’Rourke has condemned Abbott’s gun legislation. Video of an Abbott press conference in Uvalde went viral after O’Rourke approached the stage and yelled out, “You’re doing nothing.” On Wednesday, O’Rourke followed up this statement, tweeting: “The fact that Greg Abbott has chosen to take zero action to prevent another mass shooting in the 18 weeks since 19 children and two teachers were killed in Uvalde tells you everything you need to know about the guy. Keeping our kids safe demands that we vote him out.”
During Friday’s debate, Abbott reiterated that he believes he’s made progress on gun policies (including increasing the punishment for lying on a background check) but that he remains against the prospect of “red flag” laws for potential bad actors.
For his part, O’Rourke says under his governorship, permitless carry would be repealed, in addition to tightening purchase restrictions and enacting “red flag” laws. While the former representative previously said he’d “take your [gun owners’] AR-15, your AK-47s,” he walked back these comments in February, saying he’s “not interested in taking anything anything from anyone” and intends to defend the Second Amendment while also making meaningful changes.
In June, Abbott called for special committees to recommend “school safety, mental health, social media, police training, firearm safety, and more.” Last month, Abbott said calls for raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm were understood but not likely.
“It is clear that the gun control law that they are seeking in Uvalde, as much as they may want it, it has already been ruled to be unconstitutional,” Abbott said at a campaign event.
Abbott followed up this comment Friday, saying the government can’t make false promises with legislation that may not prevent school shootings but will impede gun owner rights.
The governor made national headlines just shy of a year ago for comments made after the implementation of State Bill 8, which was at that time the most restrictive abortion bill in the U.S. Under SB 8 — now superseded by the trigger law — abortions were banned after about six weeks, which is earlier than many people even realize they are pregnant.
During a press conference on the bill, Abbott was asked whether the bill was cruel to victims of rape. Abbott responded that the bill still gave victims six weeks to get an abortion, so it does not force victims to have their assaulter’s child.
Instead, Abbott posed a different solution to the issue of rape, saying, “Let’s be clear: rape is a crime. And Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets.”
O’Rourke honed in on this statement, saying that rapists in Texas may have “more rights than their victims because they can sue their victim and get $10,000 bounty for it.” This is a reference to the element of SB 8, which was written in a way to allow private citizens to sue those who aid abortion for up to $10,000, which many say would essentially place a bounty on people’s heads.
Per his website, Abbott, who accused O’Rourke of “supporting unlimited abortion,” says while strides have made to end abortion during his governorship, more must be done.
Abbott pointed to the adoption of his daughter that made him believe in “giving birth to every life possible.”
Texas’ electrical power grid
O’Rourke has been a fierce critic of Abbott’s, starting most notably after the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ management of the grid during the February 2021 winter storm left millions without power in freezing temperatures. At least 246 people died due to storm-related conditions.
In November 2021, Abbott explained a roster of laws he signed will make the grid more effective. The governor said the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which directs the vast majority of electricity in Texas, is working to be proactive rather than reactive. Additionally, Abbott said he met with natural pipeline transmitters who said they’re winterizing.
ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission said earlier this month that Texas’ power supply was in good shape going into fall. Abbott praised the two organizations on their implementation of his laws, saying Texas’ grid “is stronger than ever before.”
Last December, O’Rourke called out Abbott over the disaster again, saying the governor is leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for fixing the state’s energy grid through higher electric bills.
Abbott said Friday that Texas’ grid was so “resilient” and “reliable” because in addition to renewable energy, Texas is balancing the supply with non-renewable energy.
Law enforcement funding
An Abbott ad released earlier this month claimed O’Rourke wants to “defund and dismantle” law enforcement. “He wants to punish the police, not the criminals,” Abbott says in the ad. The governor reiterated the statement Friday, leading moderators to ask O’Rourke whether that is what he wants.
In 2020, during the wave of protests following the murder of George Floyd, O’Rourke made several comments in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and of police reform. As the Texas Tribune reports, while O’Rourke says he supports “demilitarizing” police and transitioning some funding toward crime prevention resources, he said this July at a town hall he doesn’t support “defunding” police.
O’Rourke said Friday, “Of course I don’t [support defunding police] … when I served on the El Paso City Council I raised police salaries 12% in six years… I want to fund law enforcement, fund training so that everyone is treated equally under the law. And I want there to be accountability.”
Per his website, O’Rourke says he wants to spend police funding more wisely, on programs like “mental health care, addiction treatment, housing support, and youth services that prevent crime before it happens.”
What the polls say so far
A poll released just this week revealed an eight-point lead for Abbott (50%) over O’Rourke (42%). Conducted by Nexstar and Emerson College, the poll also showed a favored view of the governor versus his challenger. Fifty-five percent of those polled said they had a favorable view of Abbott, while 43% had a negative view of him. For O’Rourke, 44% said they had a favorable view of the former representative, while 52% had a negative view of him.
A different poll released earlier this month from the University of Houston and Texas Southern University showed Gov. Abbott in the lead with 49% over O’Rourke’s 42% among likely voters. Seven percent of those polled said they were still undecided. Among “almost certain” voters, it’s 53% for Abbott and 41% for O’Rourke.
The breakdown between the two is more mixed when factoring in race/ethnicity, age and gender.
Abbott leads O’Rourke: White voters (61% to 32%); Baby Boomers/Gen Xers (61% to 33%); men (55% to 37%)
O’Rourke leads Abbott: Black voters (53% to 38%); Latino voters (48% to 39%); mixed-race or other (48% to 39%)
Deadlocked: Both Abbott and O’Rourke polled at 45% for women voters
An August poll by Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler also found Abbott leading O’Rourke by 7 points, 46% to 39% respectively.
On average, Abbott leads O’Rourke by eight points considering many recent polls, according to RealClearPolitics. If he’s re-elected, Abbott will become the fifth Texas governor to serve three terms.
What undecided voters said after the debate
A focus group of undecided voters used dials to gauge impressions of each candidate in real-time as they spoke. Before the debate, 40% of the group said they would vote for Abbott if the election were held Friday night. Only 27% of the focus groups said they’d vote for O’Rourke. Thirty-three percent said they were still undecided.
After the debate, the numbers shifted: showing 50% of the voters now saying they’d vote for O’Rourke. Forty-three percent of the focus group now said they’d vote for Abbott. The percentage of those still saying they were undecided shrank to 7%.
Election Day in Texas is Nov. 8.
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