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Immigration, abortion, the economy and guns are expected to be major topics of conversation Friday night as Republican Gov. Greg Abbott faces off against his Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, in their only planned debate ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
Abbott, who is seeking a third term in office, is leading in the polls by single-digit margins and will look to push his priority issue of border security to the forefront of the debate, along with the country’s struggling economy under the watch of Democratic President Joe Biden.
O’Rourke, who came within 3 percentage points of unseating Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, is expected to attack Abbott’s resistance to gun restrictions after the Uvalde school shooting in May, his record on the state’s electricity grid that led to widespread power outages during last year’s deadly winter freeze and his support of the Legislature’s move to ban nearly all abortions in the state.
“This is a race where a choice between the two candidates could not be more clear,” said Rebecca Deen, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “If you think about a Venn diagram, I’m not quite sure if there’s any overlap. So you’re just going to see the two folks appealing to the things that they know their voters want to hear.”
For Abbott, that means he’ll likely be talking about the $4 billion he’s invested into Operation Lone Star, an attempt to slow the number of migrants crossing into the state by deploying thousands of National Guard service members and Department of Public Safety troopers to the border and providing additional funding to local officials in border counties seeing large number of migrants crossing through their jurisdictions.
“The governor wants to highlight his concerns about the security of the border,” Deen said. “He wants to blame President Biden for what he calls a ‘porous border,’ an increase in illegal immigration, the recent sponsoring of buses [full of migrants] to cities in the north. The way that he talks about the sharing of the burden that Texas experiences with the cost of undocumented immigration, all those things are winners for the governor.”
O’Rourke will need to walk a tightrope in acknowledging a problem at the border while at the same time outlining his vision for a better way to deal with the large number of migrants arriving in Texas every day. This month, federal authorities announced that the number of migrants encountered by officials at the U.S.-Mexico border surpassed 2 million during the 2022 fiscal year, the first time the country has crossed that threshold.
Michael Adams, a political scientist at Texas Southern University, said the immigration issue could give O’Rourke an opportunity to launch into Abbott, particularly on some of the more controversial parts of the border mission, like the busing of migrants to Democrat-led cities.
“This is a race where a choice between the two candidates could not be more clear. If you think about a Venn diagram, I’m not quite sure if there’s any overlap.”
— Rebecca Deen, political science professor, UT-Arlington
“He would have to make the governor out to be someone who is very callous and not considerate of immigrants,” Adams said. “He’ll want to push for much more of a human approach.”
But that will be a challenge, as polls show that Abbott’s border security policies are largely popular with the Texas electorate. A Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation poll this week showed that 54% of voters are supportive of Abbott’s efforts to bus migrants to cities in other states.
On the issue of abortion, O’Rourke is expected to paint Abbott’s signing of a law that banned nearly all abortions in the state as too extreme.
Sylvia Gonzalez-Gorman, a political science professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said Republicans, including Abbott, have struggled with some female voters since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down constitutional protections for abortion this summer and triggered into effect a Texas law that bans nearly all abortions in the state. O’Rourke has capitalized on that issue in campaign stops and is expected to hit on it during the debate.
“When it gets to the abortion issue, that gets more sticky because that includes no abortion for incest, rape, [even] if it’s a young woman or a child. [Abbott’s] going to have a tough time navigating that space,” Gonzalez-Gorman said. “If you listen to the GOP talking points, there’s not a cohesive message for them.”
Democrats have banked on the issue to flip voters to their side this election cycle and saw some promising signs last month when voters in Republican-led Kansas rejected an attempt to do away with the right to an abortion in the state.
But polling has shown little movement on the issue, Adams said.
“Beto was hoping that the Dobbs decision would give them some traction, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of movement in terms of getting new women voters to come over,” he said.
The two candidates will also likely spar over their approach to gun safety, with the May school shooting in Uvalde that left 19 children and two teachers dead still fresh in the minds of many Texans.
O’Rourke has pushed for gun safety measures and advocated for raising the age for owning a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21. The families of Uvalde shooting victims have joined him in that call and will hold a news conference before the debate asking Abbott to call a special legislative session to pass that change into Texas law.
But Abbott has resisted that call, saying he does not believe it would be constitutional given recent court rulings on gun laws, despite the fact that such a law is still in effect in Florida. Abbott has also taken O’Rourke to task for his comments during his 2020 presidential run that he would take away semi-automatic rifles from gun owners, which turn off voters worried about their ability to own guns.
Gonzalez-Gorman said the Uvalde shooting has changed the way some people view gun rights and provides an opportunity for O’Rourke to appeal to parents worried about more school shootings.
“Uvalde has been a different way for people to talk about guns,” she said. “For maybe that undecided voter that has children in school, that’ll be relevant to that voter.”
But Abbott remains firmly in the driver’s seat in the race, Adams said, and will aim to dictate the tone of the debate by tying O’Rourke to Biden’s economic policies during a time of high inflation when some families are struggling to keep up with the cost of living. He may also draw attention to O’Rourke’s past comments supporting the Black Lives Matter movement when he complimented their efforts to “defund these line items that have overmilitarized our police and instead invest that money in human capital.” In July, O’Rourke pushed back at a town hall on the idea of taking funding away from police departments and said he wants to make sure officers have the resources and training they need.
That could put O’Rourke in a difficult position because he has to defend past statements while trying not to alienate independent voters whom he needs to close the gap with Abbott.
“He cannot get too far out on those issues because he’d get painted as a liberal,” Adams said, adding that O’Rourke will want to try to portray himself as a “common sense” politician who can work with Republicans.
But even if O’Rourke is able to strike that balance, the independent voters he’s seeking may not get the message. That’s because the debate will happen at the same time as Friday night high school football games throughout the state, dragging down the live audience for the only debate of the gubernatorial race.
That means the candidates will have to think not just about how the live audience reacts to their positions, but about how those talking points get used in newscasts and campaign ads after the debate.
“It’s always true with debates that the sound bites matter,” Deen said. “But especially for this event because of the low likelihood that there will be a large live audience.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley have been financial supporters 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.