For an hour in a largely empty room, Gov. Greg Abbott and challenger Beto O’Rourke locked horns over Texas’ most contentious issues in the first and last debate of the governor’s race.
There was no live audience to witness the two fire shots at one another over their accused failings, occasionally speaking over their time limits — and one another.
It was the first time the candidates met in person since O’Rourke stormed the governor’s press conference after the tragic Uvalde elementary school shooting.
The candidates grappled over border security, gun laws, school safety, abortion, police funding, lax bail policies, the power grid, and education.
Recent aggregated polling has put the race at an upper-single digit advantage in Abbott’s favor. As of Friday, the RealClearPolitics polling average has the incumbent up 8 points. In 2018, during O’Rourke’s challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the final RCP average settled at 6.8 points in Cruz’s favor, but the GOP senator only won by 2.6 points.
According to The Texan’s Texas Partisan Index, statewide elections have a rating of R-54%, meaning that Republicans have an 8-point advantage over their Democratic counterparts.
Another recent poll gauged the firmness of likely voters’ preferences between the two candidates, with over 95 percent of the candidate’s respective supporters dead set on their preference and only 6 percent open to changing their minds.
That all means O’Rourke has an uphill climb ahead of him, hence why he came out swinging in the debate that will be his only face-to-face clash with Abbott before November 8.
The first issue discussed was the one polling consistently atop voters’ priority lists: the border.
Asked how much more money should be allocated to Operation Lone Star (OLS), both candidates answered zero — but for different reasons.
“I’m telling you: zero dollars should be going to Operation Lone Star. And that’s what it would be if we had a president who was enforcing the immigration laws of the United States of America,” Abbott quipped.
O’Rourke flatly called OLS a disaster, citing the 2 million illegal immigrants encountered so far this fiscal year.
Uvalde was a feature as well, with O’Rourke invoking the 35 families of the victims who endorsed him earlier today.
“After losing 23 of my neighbors to somebody armed with a weapon of war, after talking to these families who could only identify their children in Uvalde by the shoes that they were wearing, it’s clear to me that the only place that an AR-15, AK-47 makes sense is on the battlefield,” O’Rourke said. “But as governor of the state of Texas, I need to be focused on what we can get done. Raising the minimum age of purpose to 21? We can get that done. A red flag law? We’ll get that done. Universal background checks? We will get that done.”
When asked about raising the age to 21 to buy a gun, Abbott answered, “It would deny a lawful Texas gun owner their constitutional right to due process.”
Abbott pointed to the state’s $100 million allocated toward school safety measures and said that further measures would be an emergency item next legislative session.
When it comes to the Texas power grid, O’Rourke called increasing electricity costs to pay for the grid’s post-2021 collapse weatherization “the Abbott tax.”
“Texas has one of the lowest electricity prices in the country,” the governor retorted.
O’Rourke shot back calling electricity “one of the fastest-growing costs” in the state.
When asked whether he supports efforts to “defund police,” O’Rourke retorted, “Of course I don’t, and no one does.”
He stated he supported “full funding for law enforcement” but that “we definitely need accountability and justice.”
“He didn’t say anything to criticize the City of Austin that defunded their police by more than $100 million,” Abbott shot back. “The law I passed will prevent any city from defunding the police because in Texas, we support our law enforcement. Period.”
The only semblance of agreement between the two came on property taxes when both stressed the need to increase the state’s share of school funding, compressing the local rates. But where O’Rourke indicated he’d support a straight-up injection of state dollars into the current system, Abbott underscored his support for eliminating the school district Maintenance & Operations rate — the single largest portion of local property tax rates.
Responding to his opponent criticizing the property taxes during his time as governor, Abbott insisted that local governments, not the state, are responsible for high property taxes. “The state of Texas does not levy a property tax,” he explained.
“Anybody who knows anything knows the state does not raise property taxes.”
But the governor did reiterate his call to use half of the State of Texas’ projected $27 billion budget surplus from this year to drive down property taxes.
O’Rourke suggested property taxes could be cut by legalizing marijuana “so we no longer spend half a billion dollars locking people up” and instead put that, and the tax revenue from marijuana sales, toward increasing the state’s share of the school finance system.
The Democrat then called on the state to expand Medicaid, an item that received some GOP support in the House before it all-but withered away when the time came to vote, when asked about how to keep housing prices affordable.
He said that between rising property taxes and energy prices, Abbott is “the single greatest driver of inflation in the State of Texas” — which the governor countered by pointing to the state’s economic resurgance relative to the rest of the country.
Both candidates pledged to give Texas teachers a raise if elected.
“I provided more funding for education than any governor in Texas history. I provided more funding for teacher pay raises than any governor in Texas history,” said Abbott. “Just as we have given them a pay raise in the past, we will continue those pay raises going forward.”
On abortion, O’Rourke reiterated his opposition to any legal restriction, saying, “I will fight to make sure that every woman in Texas can make the choice herself…and to return to Roe v. Wade.”
Abbott defended the state’s laws, citing his Catholic beliefs, and said that it’s the state’s role to help victims of rape receive the medical attention they need — a responsibility facilitated through the state’s $100 million Alternatives to Abortion program.
In total, the challenger attacked the incumbent’s record on any issue he could, while Abbott connected O’Rourke to the president’s policies and criticized him for flip-flopping.
“He’s flip-flopped on the border issue, he’s flip-flopped on the energy issue, such as energy jobs and the Green New Deal, he’s flip-flopped on defunding the police — whether it’s one issue or another, he keeps changing positions.”
O’Rourke concluded, saying, “I don’t think that Gov. Abbott wakes up wanting to see kids shot in schools or for the grid to fail, but that’s what’s happened during his time as governor.”
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.