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Gov. Greg Abbott and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke clashed Friday night over immigration, abortion and gun control in the only planned gubernatorial debate before the Nov. 8 elections.
Throughout the debate, Abbott tried to depict O’Rourke as an acolyte of Democratic President Joe Biden who would drive Texas to the left and who constantly “flip-flopped” on issues like police funding, immigration and energy policies. O’Rourke, for his part, said he wanted to “prosecute the case” against Abbott and the governor’s failures on issues like fixing the state’s energy grid, lowering property taxes and preventing school shootings.
The debate at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg kicked off with a discussion on immigration, which consistently ranks as one of the top issues for Texas voters.
Abbott touted the $4 billion the state has allocated toward border security, including funding to deploy thousands of National Guard troops and Department of Public Safety troopers to the southern border to apprehend the large number of migrants crossing into the state. But he noted that the state shouldn’t be paying any money because the federal government should be stepping up to secure the border.
“What we’re doing is making sure that we are keeping our community safe, and this is completely different than the way things would be under Beto because he said months ago, ‘There is no problem on the border.’ He said that he would reduce immigration enforcement,” Abbott said.
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Abbott blamed Biden for the large number of migrants and deadly drugs, like fentanyl, crossing into the country through the Texas-Mexico border.
O’Rourke immediately went on the attack, saying Abbott was trying to deflect the blame on immigration as he would on other issues. He noted that Abbott’s expensive border mission has not had the impact of deterring border crossings.
“What we just heard from the governor is what we’re likely to hear over the course of this debate,” O’Rourke said. “He’s going to blame people like President Biden. He’s going to try to lie about my record, and he’s going to distract from his failures, whether it’s his failure to keep the lights on in the grid, his failure to address school shootings or his failure in immigration.”
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O’Rourke said Texas needs a “safe, orderly path” for migrants crossing the border that reflects the values and interests of the state, including a guest worker program.
The two candidates also clashed over the governor’s busing of migrants to Democrat-led cities like New York City and Washington, D.C., with Abbott questioning why O’Rourke did not criticize the busing of migrants by El Paso, his home city. O’Rourke said the two programs were completely different. (El Paso coordinates with the cities it sends migrants to, and Democratic mayors said Abbott refuses to give them any notice.) O’Rourke said Abbott was comparing “apples to oranges.”
Abbott said New York Mayor Eric Adams had never made contact with his office to try to coordinate the buses carrying migrants. But late Friday night, a spokesperson for Adams said on social media that the office had contacted Abbott and sent an email, which he posted with redactions. Dave Carney, Abbott’s top political strategist, reiterated after the debate that Adams had not contacted Abbott’s office.
The two candidates also traded barbs over gun control, which became a major issue on the campaign following the deadly shooting of 19 children and two teachers at a Uvalde elementary school in May.
Hours before the debate, a group of about 35 family members of the victims of the Uvalde shooting held a news conference with O’Rourke, announcing their support for him. They criticized Abbott for not taking action after the shooting and for refusing their call for the governor to call a special session to change gun laws to raise the legal age for purchasing an assault-style rifle from 18 to 21. Abbott has said he believes such a change to the law would be unconstitutional given recent court rulings.
At the debate, Abbott reiterated that he opposed the change in law “purely from a legal position” and said other states that had passed such laws — like Florida — would have to deal with legal battles. Abbott also said he was opposed to red flag laws because they would deny “lawful Texas gun owners their constitutional right to due process.”
The Uvalde families have called for the passage of red flag laws, which allow judges to temporarily seize firearms from people who are deemed dangerous. O’Rourke said he supports raising the age to buy assault-style rifles, red flag laws and universal background checks.
He also took Abbott to task for not calling a special session to change laws after the shooting. Abbott has said he would make “school safety” an emergency item in the next legislative session.
“If it’s an emergency, call a special session now,” O’Rourke said. “Why wait until the next year?”
O’Rourke also attacked Abbott for expanding gun access in the state by signing a law that allows Texans to carry handguns without a license or training if they are otherwise legally able to carry a gun, and for sending a video message to the National Rifle Association’s convention in Houston a few days after the Uvalde shooting.
“I want every parent out there to know that the lives of your children are more important to me than the NRA or any special interests or any other political consideration,” he said. “I will prioritize them ahead of everything else.”
O’Rourke said there should be accountability for the Uvalde shooting “up and down the ballot, beginning with Greg Abbott.”
But O’Rourke faced tough questions about his own position on guns. During his 2020 presidential run, he famously said he would take assault-style rifles from gun owners. Asked to clarify his position on the confiscation of such rifles, O’Rourke said, “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,” O’Rourke said, listing off raising the age to buy assault-style rifles, red flag laws and universal background checks as his priorities.
On abortion, moderators pressed Abbott on remarks he made months ago, advising victims of rape to seek Plan B, a form of emergency contraception, to avoid becoming pregnant. Abbott said the state would pay for emergency contraception and make it readily accessible at hospitals and clinics.
When asked if Plan B was the alternative to an abortion for victims of rape, Abbott stumbled.
“An alternative, obviously, is to do what we can to assist and aid the victim. And that is to help get them the medical assistance that they need and the care that they need,” Abbott said. He said the state could offer living assistance and “baby supplies” to rape victims who give birth to children.
Texas preemptively passed a “trigger law” banning almost all abortions, including those in instances of rape and incest, that went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade.
Emergency contraception is out of reach for the lowest-income Texans, many of whom are uninsured and face a dearth of state programs to access resources like Plan B to prevent pregnancy.
Moderators pressed O’Rourke to clearly state whether he supported any limit on abortions. O’Rourke said he would push for a return to abortion statues established by the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that created constitutional protections for access to abortion.
“This election is about reproductive freedom. If you care about this, you need to turn out and vote,” O’Rourke said. “I will fight to make sure that every woman in Texas can make her own decisions about her own body, her own future and her own health care.”
Abbott touted his success in improving the reliability of the state’s energy grid, saying the lights stayed on in the state despite record demands this summer due to record heat.
“Beto was campaigning saying that the grid was going to fail in the winter and summer, and his campaign hopes fell apart because the laws that I signed did secure the grid,” he said.
O’Rourke said the state’s failure to address issues with the power grid followed a pattern under Abbott’s leadership.
“Warned about school violence and gun violence, specifically against children — does nothing. Warned about problems within child protective services or foster care program, does nothing. And it gets worse: Warned before February 2021 that we had problems in the grid, did nothing,” O’Rourke said, adding that the state’s grid is not prepared to withstand cold weather this winter.
Abbott blasted O’Rourke for “fear mongering” and said in reality “the grid is more resilient and reliable than ever.”
Abbott also attacked O’Rourke for past statements in support of a movement to decrease funding for police departments. O’Rourke said at the debate that he wants police departments fully funded and voted to increase police salaries 12% in the six years he sat on the El Paso City Council. But he also said he wanted accountability when “officers abuse the public trust.” He turned the attack on Abbott for not listening to police chiefs who asked him not to pass Texas’ permitless carry law and said that has led to upticks in violent crime in some areas of the state.
Abbott said the increase in homicides in places like Harris County stems from bail policies imposed by local officials, an issue the Legislature has tried to address over the last few sessions. But Abbott said his record supporting police was clear because he pushed for a law that would punish cities if they pulled money away from their police departments.
“In Texas, we support our law enforcement officers, period,” Abbott said.
The two candidates were also asked about how they would provide long-term tax relief for Texas property owners. O’Rourke said he would do so by finding new sources of revenue like expanding Medicaid, which would provide some relief to taxpayers who are paying for uncompensated indigent care in their communities. He also said he’d increase the state’s share of public education funding to 50% and make corporations pay their “fair share” of property taxes, and he said the legalization of marijuana could create an additional revenue fund for the state.
Abbott said he wanted to use half of the state’s estimated $27 billion surplus next session to provide homeowners with property tax relief by driving property tax rates down.
“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,” Abbott said.
In his closing statement, O’Rourke said Abbott was “incapable or unwilling to make the changes necessary to prioritize the lives of our fellow Texans.”
“That’s why it’s on all of us to make sure that we have change at the ballot box this Nov. 8,” he said. “I’ll keep your lights on, make sure to keep your kids safe [and] reduce property taxes, and we’ll prioritize the lives of each and every single Texan in the state.”
Abbott touted his success over his two terms, including ranking No. 1 for the state with the most jobs added, for Blue Ribbon Schools and for Tier 1 research universities.
“I’m running for reelection to keep Texas No. 1, to cut your property taxes, to secure the border, to keep dangerous criminals behind bars and to keep deadly fentanyl off our streets,” he said. “Together, we will keep Texas No. 1.”
William Melhado and María Méndez contributed reporting.
Disclosure: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.