The televised debate took place at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg. Ahead of the event, news broke that Abbott’s campaign had insisted on the debate hosting no in-person audience.
Going into Friday’s event, Abbott had a lead on O’Rourke, per recent polls. Earlier this week, a new Quinnipiac University poll of more than 1,300 “likely Texas voters” found that the incumbent Republican had the support of some 53% of those surveyed, while the challenger clocked in at 46%.
Abbott and O’Rourke each had a 96% support rating among their own parties, while independents skewed in favor of the Republican governor by seven percentage points.
Moderated by KXAN-TV news anchor Britt Moreno, the event also included panel discussions with Dallas Morning News political reporter Gromer Jeffers, KXAN’s Sally Hernandez and KSAT-TV’s Steve Spriester.
Here are how the candidates went toe-to-toe on several key issues during the war of words.
Unsurprisingly, the border and migration took center stage several times throughout the debate. Abbott defended his record and claimed O’Rourke would continue President Joe Biden’s “open-border policies,” while the Democrat echoed others who have accused the governor of political showmanship and stunts.
Since Biden entered the White House in January 2021, Abbott has led a conservative charge against the administration’s migration and border policies. Last March, he launched Operation Lone Star, a popular but controversial, state-led border crackdown involving the Texas Department of Public Safety and National Guard.
Early on, Abbott defended his ongoing effort to bus undocumented migrants to sanctuary cities including Chicago, D.C. and New York City. Asked why he didn’t send migrants to sanctuary cities in Republican states, Abbott dodged the question, arguing only that cities like D.C. and New York “have the infrastructure” to absorb new arrivals.
Abbott said Texas border communities “needed relief, and busing was one of the ways that provided them relief.” He also claimed New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ team had never contacted his office to coordinate bus arrivals. (Fabien Levy, Adams’ press secretary, disputed that assertion on Twitter, posting a screenshot of an apparent email they’d sent to Abbott’s team.)
.@GregAbbott_TX, not only did our office call you about this, but we followed up via email.
Always keep the receipts, folks! #TXGovDebate
(Redacted the names because the inquiries should be directed at @GovAbbott and not staffers.)
— Fabien Levy (@Fabien_Levy) October 1, 2022
The governor went on to claim O’Rourke has “flip-flopped on the border issue,” among others. “It’s clear that Beto just wants to perpetuate the open-border policies and mischaracterize exactly what’s going on.”
For his part, O’Rourke hit back by noting that Abbott’s spent billions on Operation Lone Star, throughout which at least eight National Guard members have died. “Ten thousand Guard members, $4 billion and it’s been a complete failure,” he said, arguing that Texas didn’t need more “stunts.”
O’Rourke also said Texas needed a guest worker program to fill labor gaps in the state’s job market. He added, “No one is for open borders, not the least of us who actually live on the borders.”
The gun control portion of the debate started with a moderator asking Abbott why he insisted Texas cannot raise the legal age to buy an assault weapon. The governor said the age couldn’t be raised from a purely “legal position,” citing recent court rulings.
“Any attempt to try to raise the age is going to be met with it being overturned,” Abbott claimed. “So, we need to get to the bottom of what is really ailing our communities, and that is the mental health that is leading people to engage in school shootings … and Texas is already addressing that.”
O’Rourke snapped back, noting that the families of children killed during the Uvalde mass shooting in May, when a gunman killed 19 kids and two teachers, hadn’t been permitted to attend the debate. He said “it’s been 18 weeks since their kids have been killed, and not a thing has changed in this state to make it any less likely that any other child will meet the same fate.”
“After all these mass shootings, this governor has done nothing except for make it easier for people who should not have a firearm to carry them publicly,” O’Rourke continued, “and this is what we get as a result.”
Asked about red flag laws, Abbott insisted he was “still against” such legislation “for the reason that it would deny a lawful Texas gunowner their constitutional right to due process.”
“If it’s an emergency, call a special session now.” – Beto O’Rourke
When it came to O’Rourke, a moderator pressed the Democrat on his now-infamous pledge to take away AR-15s and AK-47s during a 2019 debate. He doubled down, saying that the “only place 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, adding that raising the legal age to purchase a gun, implementing red flag laws and putting in place universal background checks.
Pressed on his response to the Uvalde massacre, Abbott said there was no need to call a special legislative session to “take action” in the wake of the shooting. “For six consecutive days after the shooting took place, I issued directives to make schools safer and to respond to the emergency in Uvalde, and then I remained engaged with the mayor, with the local leaders.”
Abbott went on to say he would “absolutely” deem school safety an emergency item in the next legislative schedule. O’Rourke shot back, “If it’s an emergency, call a special session now. Why wait until the next year?”
Although Abbott’s border policies have proven popular in recent polls, Texas’ new abortion ban is a more contentious issue.
During the debate, comments the governor made earlier this year about abortion and rape came back to haunt him. Abbott had previously said emergency contraception pills would be an alternative to abortion in the case of rape or incest.
“Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘alternative,'” Abbott hedged. “An alternative obviously is to do what we can to assist and aid the victim, and that is to help get them medical assistance that they need and the care that they need, but also to know what their options are.”
Those options, he continued, included state-provided living assistance and baby supplies.
“Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘alternative.'” – Greg Abbott
A moderator asked O’Rourke whether he supported “any limit” on how far into a pregnancy a woman could legally have an abortion. The Democrat responded that he only wanted to return the law to the standard previously set by the recently overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that codified abortion as a constitutional right.
Abbott claimed that O’Rourke supported “abortion of a fully developed child until the very last second before birth” and opposes providing healthcare “for a baby who survives an abortion.”
O’Rourke denied that charge, arguing that Abbott was only “saying this because he signed the most extreme abortion ban in America: no exception for rape, no exception for incest.”
Jeffers asked O’Rourke whether he supported defunding police, a claim that stems back to an interview the Democrat gave in the wake of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man.
“What I supported and what I continue to support is full funding for law enforcement, full funding that includes training to ensure that we’re treating everyone equally under the law and we definitely need accountability and justice,” he said.
The moderator then asked Abbott whether he bore any responsibility for crime in Texas, which the governor has put at the center of his reelection bid. He blamed policies like “defunding the police” and cashless bail for an uptick in crime.
The governor insisted that Texas cities wouldn’t be permitted to defund police departments.
The two candidates also traded barbs over education, a critical issue at a time when Texas has been hemorrhaging teachers across the state. Around 11.5% of Texas teachers quit their jobs ahead of the 2021-2022 school year.
O’Rourke said he proposes raising “the state’s share of funding,” which, he claimed, would also allow the state to reduce the costs of property taxes used to bolster school funding. “Per-pupil funding in the state is $4,000 less than our counterparts across the country,” he said.
The Democrat said he’d keep teachers in the classroom, claiming teachers in Texas are underpaid by $7,500 a year when compared with the national average. He also vowed to rid the state of the STAAR test, a standardized exam that tests students on reading, writing, math, science and social studies.
Abbott said he “created a new program that provides a six-figure salary for teachers.” The governor also said he’d “continue those pay raises going forward.”
He added, “In fact, 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.”