AUSTIN (KXAN) — Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and challenger Beto O’Rourke (D) met at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg Friday night for their only scheduled televised debate. The pair answered questions on several issues that are close to home for Texans — gun legislation in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting, abortion and immigration.
KXAN gathered political experts to discuss the crucial moments during the debate and how the candidates fared overall.
The former communications director for Abbott, John Wittman, and Travis County Democratic Party Chair Katie Naranjo agreed there weren’t really any breakout moments during the debate.
“In a debate like this, typically the challenger that is down really needs to have breakout moment. I didn’t see that tonight from Beto O’Rourke,” Wittman told KXAN’s Josh Hinkle.
Naranjo agreed but said the voters have the power to hold Gov. Abbott accountable.
During the debate, Abbott said border communities are being helped by his busing program, where migrants who cross into Texas can volunteer to be transported to cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Naranjo said Abbott’s programs, including Operation Lone Star, which was launched in March 2021 to address smuggling concerns, have “yielded no results.”
“This is not a Texas problem, it’s an international problem, it’s a humanitarian crisis, and if Gov. Abbott wanted to lead on issues like immigration, he would focus on bringing infrastructure down to the border patrol agents who need it as well as to the communities … instead of busing them to Chicago and Washington, D.C., for political ploy,” Naranjo said.
Wittman, on the other hand, backed Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, saying it has resulted in tens of thousands of migrant arrests and fentanyl being confiscated.
On the issue of immigration, O’Rourke said, “what we need is a safe, legal, orderly path for anyone who wants to come here to work, to join family or to seek asylum.”
“It sounds to me like Beto O’Rourke wants to simply open the borders and let everyone in,” Wittman stated in response to that.
Border Report Correspondent Sandra Sanchez said during the 12 minutes the candidates spent on the immigration topic, both candidates stayed within their narratives. But she said there were more factors about immigration to cover, aside from Operation Lone Star and the busing program.
“Did both of the candidates explain everything they should have? No. I expected Gov. Abbott to talk more about the border wall — the state-funded border wall,” Sanchez said.
“Why didn’t Congressman O’Rourke bring that up? Why didn’t he talk about how much money that cost the state and how long it’s taken to do it?” Sanchez continued.
When asked if emergency contraception is a viable alternative to abortion for victims of rape and incest, Abbott responded, “the state of Texas pays for that, whether it be at a hospital, at a clinic, or someone who gets a prescription because of it. Not only should it be readily available, but the state of Texas is going to pay for it.”
“I thank God that he is not an OBGYN, because he clearly does not know how Plan B works, as well as rape and/or being a victim of rape,” Naranjo said in response.
“I think one of the most powerful moments of this debate regarding abortion tonight was actually when Gov. Abbott spoke about his daughter, and the adoption that they went through and the importance of protecting innocent human life,” Wittman said in return.
Wittman went on to say O’Rourke “likes to throw around words like ‘extremism’ on this issue.”
During the debate, O’Rourke said on the topic of abortion, “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.”
“Beto talks a lot about all these things that he wants to do regarding guns, but he has to actually work within the confines of the legislature. The governor is not a king, the governor has to work with the legislature,” Wittman said of O’Rourke wanting to raise the minimum age to purchase AR-15s and wanting to enact red flag laws.
Families affected by the Uvalde school shooting have voiced in the past they want to raise the age requirement on purchasing semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21.
“When it comes to gun control, what voters in Texas have to decide is do they believe that Gov. Abbott is going to make it less safe or more safe for their children to be able to go to school … and what voters did not hear tonight was a solution,” Naranjo said, pointing to the permitless carry law that went into effect last year.
The law, House Bill 1927, allows Texans 21 and older to carry a handgun in public in the state. There are exceptions for felons and those under 21, and buyers will still be required to pass a background check at a gun store.
During the February 2021 winter storm, millions of Texans lost power in freezing temperatures and hundreds perished because of failures with the power grid, which is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
In response, Abbott helped pass legislation to overhaul and reform ERCOT, requiring weatherization for equipment and communication improvements during outages.
“The reality is is that the grid held up this summer because of the laws that Greg Abbott signed during the regular legislative session,” Wittman said.
However, Naranjo said, “no one’s been held accountable [for the grid].”
“What we need is more debates and more discourse in this governor’s race, and we haven’t even talked about important issues like health care, and the fact that we have a crisis in a nursing shortage and a crisis in our schools,” Naranjo said.