In the first and only scheduled debate in the Texas gubernatorial race, Gov. Greg Abbott and challenger Robert “Beto” O’Rourke sparred over several of the hot-button issues driving the race.
The tone, however, was relatively subdued in contrast to expectations that O’Rourke, who has consistently trailed Abbott in polling, would attempt to use the opportunity to create a breakout moment.
Contributing to the subdued atmosphere was the venue, an empty auditorium at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg. The format of the debate, with only 60 second answers allowed, also prevented more specifics from being discussed. Instead, both candidates largely echoed their talking points that have defined the race from the beginning.
Border security, one of the biggest issues on voters’ minds, was the first topic discussed and reiterated, with 15 minutes of the hour-long debate devoted to the subject.
Abbott pointed to his Operation Lone Star effort and recent busing of illegal aliens to sanctuary cities in other states as proof he would continue to be strong on the border. He also placed the blame on the Biden administration.
“Remember just two years ago, we had one of the safest borders in decades. But under the Biden administration, we have more people coming across the border than ever in the history of our country,” said Abbott. “Texas has responded by making sure that we have the National Guard and DPS deployed, where they’re making arrest and turning back illegal immigrants as well as what we’re doing to help local communities and by busing them from the area where Border Patrol is dropping them off to sanctuary cities in northeastern parts of the country.”
O’Rourke, however, called the operation “political theater”.
“$4 billion into Operation Lone Star, we’re seeing not fewer but more encounters at our border right now. What we need is a safe, legal orderly path for anyone who wants to come here to work, to join family, or to seek asylum,” said O’Rourke.
O’Rourke also praised El Paso officials for working to secure the border in his hometown. However, during his failed 2020 presidential campaign, O’Rourke actually called for removing the wall currently in place in El Paso. The Sun City also has bused illegal aliens on its own to New York City.
The Uvalde school shooting was the next topic, giving O’Rourke the opportunity to double down on his calls for gun control, saying he would raise the age to buy an AR-15 from 18 to 21.
During his presidential campaign, however, O’Rourke said he was in favor of complete confiscation, infamously declaring, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15.”
When pressed on the issue, O’Rourke indicated that he still held that position but wanted to be pragmatic.
“It’s clear to me that the only place that an AR-15 or an AK-47 makes sense is on a battlefield. But as governor of the state of Texas, I need to be focused on what we can get done,” said O’Rourke.
Abbott, meanwhile, pointed out that raising the age would be unconstitutional.
“It’s a false promise to suggest that we can pass a law that will be upheld by the Constitution to raise the age and here’s why,” explained Abbott. “The most recent federal court of appeals decision on this particular issue said that it was unconstitutional for a state to raise the age from 18 to 21 for a person to buy an AR-15. So any attempt to try to raise the age is going to be met with it being overturned.”
Abbott also reiterated his opposition to so-called red flag laws, saying they would deny a lawful Texas gun owner their constitutional right to due process. He did, however, say legislation in response to the shooting would be an emergency item when the state legislature reconvenes in January.
On the topic of abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe vs. Wade earlier this year, O’Rourke refused to say he would support any restrictions on abortion at any time.
“I will fight to make sure that every woman in Texas can make her own decisions about her own body, her own future and our own health care,” said O’Rourke. “And I will work with the legislature and my fellow Texans to return us to the standard that Texas Women won in the first place. Roe vs. Wade. That’s the standard that answers your question.”
Abbott, however, placed his focus on the availability of the Plan B pill to rape victims.
“It is incumbent upon the state of Texas, to make sure that it is readily available for those who are victims of sexual assault or survivors of sexual assault. The State of Texas pays for that, whether it be at a hospital, a a clinic, or for someone who gets a prescription because of it. And so not only is it should be readily available, but the state of Texas is going to pay for it to make sure that it is available for them,” said Abbott.
Other notable moments from the debate included a reversal from O’Rourke on defunding the police. After supporting the movement in 2020, O’Rourke said was in favor of “fully funding law enforcement.”
Abbott, meanwhile, stated his support for eliminating school property taxes.
“My goal is to eliminate the school property taxes imposed in the state of Texas so that people can genuinely own their own home without being taxed out of it,” said Abbott, while pointing towards the state’s $27 billion surplus.
The debate will likely be the only one to take place before the election. Early voting begins on October 24. Election day is on November 8.