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Immigration, guns and abortion dominate Abbott, O’Rourke debate in the Rio Grande Valley

Texas Governor Greg Abbott sits at a desk and answers a question during the gubernatorial debate as his Democratic challenger, Beto O'Rourke, looks on.
Photo courtesy "News Nation"
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Texas voters had their first and only chance to watch the candidates for Texas governor go head-to-head Friday night as incumbent Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Beto O’Rourke debated live from the Rio Grande Valley.

During the hour-long event, candidates stuck to talking points that have dominated this election season so far. Abbott painted O’Rourke as a Biden clone on immigration, while the Democratic challenger said Abbott’s stances on guns and abortion aren’t a fit for Texas.

The first and only debate between Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Democrat Beto O’Rourke proved there is no love lost between the candidates as they traded barbs over abortion, gun laws, immigration and the economy on Friday in the Rio Grande Valley.

O’Rourke came into the hour-long debate trailing Abbott by single digits. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed that 53% of likely voters plan to cast their ballot for the incumbent while 46% said they support O’Rourke.

The debate was hosted by KXAN anchor Britt Moreno, and the panel of journalists who asked questions included Sally Hernandez of KXAN, Gromer Jeffers of The Dallas Morning News, and Steve Spriester of KSAT in San Antonio.

Immigration

Abbott wasted little time linking O’Rourke to President Joe Biden and the White House’s border policies, under which migrant encounters and deaths on the country’s southern border have reached record levels. Abbott mentioned Biden’s name at least three times during the segment and accused O’Rourke of changing his stance on border policy, including whether the Texas National Guard is needed to beef up security in the region.

“Farms and ranches are run over. Communities are disrupted. Homes that are [being] invaded. Remember this, 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,” Abbott said. “It’s clear the Beto just wants to perpetuate the open-border policies and mischaracterize exactly what’s going on.”

O’Rourke followed by laying into Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, a multi-billion-dollar, border security effort that began in March 2021.

O’Rourke cited a recent Texas Tribune story stating migrant apprehensions and encounters have increased since Abbott launched the operation, which O’Rourke characterized as a $4 billion boondoggle that has led to soldier suicides and mistreatment of migrants. He added that Abbott had years to fix the problem but failed to try until it was politically expedient.

“This guy’s been governor for eight years and this is where we are today, [with] some of the worst levels of engagement and encounters, fentanyl trafficking and human smuggling that we’ve seen. That’s a result of stunts — not solutions.”

Abbott argued his actions are designed to save lives.

“These are efforts to protect our state. There is a record amount of fentanyl coming across the border. Texas law enforcement has seized enough fentanyl to kill every man, woman and child in the entire country. And this is because of Joe Biden,” Abbott said.

O’Rourke later pushed back against some of the rhetoric espoused by immigration hardliners that he said leads to violence and death. He lumped Abbott in with that group when invoking the 2019 shooting at a Walmart that killed 23 people.

“This hateful rhetoric — this treating human beings as political pawns, talking about invasions and Texans defending themselves — that's how people get killed at the Walmart in El Paso,” O’Rourke said.

The alleged gunman in that shooting drove from the Dallas area to El Paso to ward off what he said was an “invasion” by Hispanics, law enforcement said. O’Rourke also mentioned a shooting earlier this week in Hudspeth County where a former prison warden and his brother were charged in connection with a fatal shooting of an undocumented immigrant, adding “This is incredibly dangerous for Texas and is not reflective of our values.”

Gun control

The gubernatorial debate took place about four months after an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 students and two schoolteachers at an elementary school in Uvalde. In the shooting’s aftermath, Abbott has repeatedly pushed back against calling a special legislative session to address gun violence. Abbott said the Texas Legislature instead took measures over the summer to prepare for the upcoming session in January.

“This is going to be an emergency item. Over the summer, I requested special legislative committees to begin working already so that they will be ready, when we begin the session, to address” the issue, Abbott said.

Before the debate O’Rourke held a press conference with family members of some Uvalde victims who said Abbott should have called a special session to address age restrictions on gun purchases. Abbott has maintained that it would be unconstitutional to raise the age to buy an assault-style weapon from 18 to 21.

“Any attempt to try to raise the age is going to be met with it being overturned. 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,” Abbott said.

O’Rourke repeatedly asked why the governor is holding back.

“If it’s an emergency call a special session now. Why wait until the next year?” 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 than any other child will meet the same fate. All we need is action. And the only person standing in our way is the governor of the state of Texas.”

Abortion

Texas is one of several states to pass a so-called trigger law that bans most abortions. It went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling which decriminalized abortion. Abbott was asked about his recent comments that a person who becomes pregnant due to rape or incest — which are not exceptions in the new Texas law — can take an emergency contraceptive known as Plan B.

When asked if that was the only alternative for victims of rape, Abbott didn’t answer directly, instead saying it was on the state of Texas to provide that.

“It's 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, at a clinic, or for someone who gets a prescription because of it,” he said.

Abbott also labeled O’Rourke a supporter of abortion without limits. When asked to clarify his stance, O’Rourke didn’t specify when he thinks the procedure should not be performed, instead saying he supports what was decided in the Roe v. Wade ruling.

“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. 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,” he said.

There wasn’t a live audience during the debate, which led off Friday’s sparring even hours before the event. O’Rourke said Abbott insisted on an empty debate hall to avoid Texas voters.

“It'll be empty — no seats filled — because Abbott refuses to face those he's failed these last eight years,” he said in a tweet Friday featuring a photo of the empty auditorium. Abbott’s campaign responded that details of the debate were decided mutually.

“The terms of debate were agreed to by both campaigns months ago, and now, at the last minute, Beto doesn't like them," Mark Miner, the communications director for the Abbott campaign, told the Houston Chronicle. "He's a fraud surrounded by incompetence.”

O’Rourke, a former city council member and congressman from El Paso, seeks to be the first Democrat elected to a statewide office since the mid-1990s. Abbott was first elected to the position in 2014 and is seeking his third term. He was previously the state’s attorney general.

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar