EDINBURG, Texas — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke took a safe, but predictable, route in Friday night’s debate, the only one expected in the Texas gubernatorial race.
No one would be blamed for thinking expectations for the debate started out high. Throughout the day, on social media, the O’Rourke campaign was taking frequent jabs at Abbott’s refusal to host a live audience on the UT Rio Grande Valley campus in Edinburg. But by the time questions landed during the hour-long debate on Friday night, most of the answers were predictable.
The debate panel – Sally Hernandez of KXAN, Steve Spriester of KSAT and Gromer Jeffers of the Dallas Morning News – chewed up almost 20 minutes of the debate with a discussion of the border. Abbott talked about what he called the disaster created by the Biden administration. O’Rourke discussed the need to create an orderly path for a guest worker program.
Operation Lone Star, the $4 million a year program to secure the border with Texas law enforcement personnel, has failed to mitigate the influx of refugees, O’Rourke said.
“(Abbott) promised us that it would deter people from coming into this country. We’ve only seen more people come. Now they get a bus ride to Chicago or Washington, D.C. or New York,” O’Rourke said. “We don’t need any more stunts. We need solutions. We need those coming here to follow our laws. We need to make sure our laws follow our values.”
Abbott denied the effort – and the bus trips – were a stunt, saying the operation began after meetings with local officials, who claimed migrants had overrun their communities.
Abbott stuck to his position on gun control, saying that raising the age on the possession of assault-style weapons would likely be struck down, given recent court decisions.
“What I do support is making it a felony for someone to lie on a background check. I signed that into law last year. I approved expanding background checks to include juvenile records, also proof of making it a crime for criminal gangs to buy or to possess a gun,” Abbott said. “But I’m still against red flag laws for the reason it would deny a lawful Texas gun owner their constitution rights to due process.”
Nineteen states and Washington, D.C. have red flag laws, which would allow law enforcement – and sometimes family members – to petition a court to confiscate firearms from people who may be a danger to themselves or others.
For his part, O’Rourke softened his position on his oft-quoted position that “we will take away your AR-15s,” saying such a mandate was unlikely to get widespread support. Instead, he supported universal background checks, raising the age to 21 to own assault weapons and the passage of a red flag law in Texas.
“We’ll make progress and take action where this governor has failed,” O’Rourke said.
Abbott did not back down from his support of Texas’ stringent anti-abortion laws, saying victims of rape or incest should have access to Plan B, the so-called “morning after pill” that prevents pregnancy from occurring when taken within three days of unprotected sex.
Abbott also spoke passionately, and personally, about the adoption of his daughter. Abbott was paralyzed from the waist down when a tree fell on him during a jog in 1984. He was a recent law school graduate who married his wife, Cecilia, in 1981.
“As a Catholic – my wife and I – we’ve been pro-life our entire lives, so much so that it grew even stronger,” Abbott said. “When we adopted our daughter, on the day she was born, I was the first person to hold her after she was born. And I’ve seen firsthand the power that adoption can have, and it just further strengthened my belief in the power of giving life to every child possible, seeing how it can happen so successfully.”
O’Rourke continues to support a woman’s right to abortion, which was granted under Roe v. Wade in 1973. That was the law of the land, and one that should continue to stand, he said.