RealClearPolitics’ polling average for the race has Abbott up 8 points. Here are some themes to watch for during the clash.
O’Rourke to Come Out Swinging
Incumbency is an advantage for a reason, and Abbott has benefited from that like so many before him — which means O’Rourke has largely been the aggressor on the campaign trail.
Expect O’Rourke to key in on various issues against the incumbent; the power grid, abortion restrictions, and the Uvalde school shooting have all been among the challenger’s most frequent rhetorical attacks.
But the longest-running issue in O’Rourke’s arsenal, the power grid and the state’s response since the 2021 collapse, may not be quite as striking after the grid surpassed this summer’s tests of rising temperatures and spikes in electricity demand.
Recently, O’Rourke’s rhetoric has focused more on electricity’s rising costs that are a result of the post-collapse caution with which the state operates its grid — bringing on more backup generation earlier, which comes at a premium.
State Republicans passed in 2021 an abortion “trigger ban” activated by the court’s overturning of Roe. It banned abortion entirely and made the aiding of abortion a felony, but neither punishes the mother nor procedures meant to save her life in a medical emergency.
Since, O’Rourke and other Democrats have made abortion the top feature of their campaigns, specifically keying in on the law’s lack of rape-or-incest exception. His television ads have hit the incumbent for “signing the most extreme abortion ban in the country.”
Lately, Abbott has turned his rhetoric forcefully back on his opponent, defending the state’s laws by saying, “An abortion is taking the life of a baby, and our goal in passing the laws that were passed is to protect the lives of those babies.” He’s also hit O’Rourke for supporting abortion up until birth.
Back in May, when asked if there was any legal restriction he supports, the Democrat told The Texan that it’s “a decision for a woman to make.”
A large body of polling has shown most of the public support falls somewhere between the restrictions placed on abortion by Texas’ laws and O’Rourke’s position of no restrictions.
Post-Uvalde, O’Rourke has turned his sights on gun restrictions, including red flag laws, universal background checks, and raising the age to purchase a rifle to 21.
He’s also stated support for “removing AR-15s and AK-47s from [possession in] the community,” tempering it only by saying that if elected, he might have to “compromise some on that.”
O’Rourke has also linked the state’s recently passed permitless handgun carry law to the Uvalde shooting — a crime that didn’t involve a handgun.
Before the debate tomorrow, O’Rourke will host a press conference with some families of the Uvalde school shooting victims to call for an increase in the age to purchase rifles.
“It has been more than four months — 18 weeks — since Abbott told the 21 families in Uvalde that the sixth major mass shooting to occur on his watch ‘could have been worse,’” the O’Rourke campaign said in its release.
“These families have repeatedly led the call for accountability, justice and action after Texans experienced five of the deadliest mass shootings in American history during Abbott’s failed tenure.”
These issues, while not comprehensive, are likely to be among the rhetorical arrows O’Rourke slings at Abbott. And with a consistent deficit in the upper single digits, O’Rourke must gain some ground in the only one-on-one clash he’ll get with his opponent.
Abbott to Link O’Rourke to the White House
Both inflation and illegal border crossings are at substantial highs in the country, and both have been focused on by Abbott. Frequently, he’s aimed his ire toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and its inhabitant, President Joe Biden.
Abbott has also habitually linked O’Rourke to these troubles.
Biden’s favorability in Texas is poor, pegged at a net negative 18 points by the latest Quinnipiac poll. Likely voters polled put the border situation far atop the issue priority list, followed by abortion and then inflation.
O’Rourke has parted with the Biden administration on the border issue at times, calling for “order and the rule of law,” which includes turning back asylum seekers without credible claims. He’s also changed his tune on the existence of Title 42 — a federal provision that expedites deportations of illegal border crossers to prevent the spread of a communicable disease — which the Biden administration has tried to terminate since May.
In the span of a week, O’Rourke favored eliminating Title 42 enforcement, then criticized the White House for putting the cart before the horse on its discontinuation, and then settled on supporting its elimination over a longer period of time.
Border agents have encountered over 2 million illegal immigrants this fiscal year, which doesn’t take into account those crossing the border that avoid detection.
Abbott has continuously knocked the Biden administration for “ignoring the crisis at the southern border” and ramped up his Operation Lone Star — the state’s deployment of Texas National Guard troops to try and plug the many holes left by the federal government’s lax enforcement.
More recently, the governor begun busing illegal immigrants to other large self-described “sanctuary cities” throughout the nation, bringing with it national media attention, as well as designating Mexican drug cartels who traffic fentanyl as “terrorists.”
On inflation, Abbott has tied in both the federal government’s spending — highlighting the president’s recent edict to forgive portions of outstanding student loans — and Biden’s energy policies as drivers of price increases.
The governor has grappled with the president on the direction of energy — alleging the use of faulty data to justify ramped-up regulations on the Permian Basin’s oil and gas producers — and turned the cards on O’Rourke’s past statements.
During this campaign, the Democrat has voiced support for increasing oil and gas employment and production, specifically to supplant Russia as a top supplier to Europe. But during his presidential campaign and after, until this current campaign, O’Rourke supported policies like a cap-and-trade system, which sets limits and tradable credits for emissions in the private sector; prohibiting drilling on federal lands; and halting offshore drilling in the gulf.
When gas prices spiked in June, Abbott’s campaign hit their opponent: “With record gas prices sweeping Texas, the anti-energy policies promoted by extreme liberal Beto O’Rourke would only make the pain at the pump even worse.”
Similar jibes are likely to be levied during the debate.
In both issues, Abbott has a polling advantage. In an early September poll from the Dallas Morning News, the governor boasted a 24-point trust advantage among those polled for “securing the border,” an 11-point advantage on “improving our economy,” and a 14-point advantage on “reducing crime.”
The only area in which O’Rourke had the advantage was a 1-point lead in “bringing people together.”
Houston Casts a Texas-Sized Shadow
The state’s biggest city looms just as large in the political discourse as it is populous. It is used both as a progressive talisman and a conservative punching bag in statewide politics — a locus it often embraces.
Harris County has reported 720 homicides so far in 2022, a 65 percent increase from 2018. A growing number of those murders stem from offenders, often violent ones, released on low cash bail or personal bond who then go on to kill. People killed by offenders receiving those releases numbers 183 since 2018.
Abbott has made it a feature of his campaign, saying in a press conference, “The Harris County revolving bail door is literally killing people.”
He’s since pledged to reform state bail allowances even more than the state did last session.
Harris County and Houston are not the only places in Texas implementing this policy, but they have become magnets for criticism of it.
The county has also become the latest face of police “defunding” after the Texas comptroller handed down a finding of such, specifically due to the removal of over $3 million in rollover funds from constable budgets. The county has sued, objecting to that claim by the state.
The Abbott campaign has been up on television touting the state’s anti-defunding law for police departments passed last year and calling for additional bail restrictions.
Harris County has equally been in the limelight for election-related events, including being randomly selected for election audit this fall by the secretary of state for the second year in a row, along with its failure to include 10,000 votes in its primary election night totals.
O’Rourke has criticized the Republicans’ marquee election reform bill passed last year as a “voter suppression law.” During last year’s legislative sessions, O’Rourke rallied opposition to the election bills and raised money for state House Democrats who flew to Washington, D.C. to break quorum and bog up the process.
Part of the law was increased scrutiny over ballot-by-mail applications, resulting in a higher rejection rate by county elections offices. O’Rourke has criticized this, saying, “Instead of Abbott’s extreme, anti-democratic voter suppression agenda, we should pass online and same-day voter registration, reduce obstacles to voting by mail, and expand access to polling sites for Texans.”
While Houston and Harris County may not be mentioned by name in the debate, on these two issues especially, the state’s largest city and county loom larger than any other.
The contest commences at 7 p.m. Friday and will be broadcasted and streamable in every county in the state.
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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.