Supporters of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott watch his debate with Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke.
AP Photo / Eric Gay

Did the Abbott-O’Rourke Debate Change Anything?

One focus group found that the Democratic challenger won over voters at the Texas governor's debate, but it's unclear if most of the electorate paid attention.

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The conventional wisdom among political observers in Texas about this one and only gubernatorial debate was that Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke needed to somehow, someway have a breakthrough against an incumbent governor who—despite taking a drastic rightward lurch and presiding over an increasingly long list of disasters—has proven resilient in the polls. Governor Greg Abbott, meanwhile, had to simply avoid a major blunder. 

Now the debate is over and the dynamics of the race are the same as they were before. O’Rourke is consistently trailing in the polls by more than five points, most voters in Texas have made up their minds, and any of those still undecided likely won’t hinge their vote on what they saw (or more likely, didn’t see) this Friday night. 

O’Rourke turned in a competent performance, repeatedly pressing the case that Abbott’s governing of Texas has been an unmitigated disaster for seven years—on gun violence, school safety, crime, border security, education, the electric grid, and on and on.

“Governor, the buck stops on your desk. You blame everyone else. You blame Joe Biden,” O’Rourke said of the incumbent. 

Abbott largely managed to avoid stepping on any landmines, making headline-grabbing blunders, or answering any questions he didn’t want to, while using every chance he got to call O’Rourke a fearmonger, a liar, a flip-flopper, and a radical. 

He sidestepped direct questions about whether he personally supported raising the age to 21 for purchasing assault-style rifles—as families in Uvalde have called for—saying that it was “purely my legal opinion.” Asked whether he, as governor for two terms, had any direct responsibility for the rise in violent crime, Abbott blamed Austin for “defunding” its police and Houston for its bail reform policies (without mentioning that, last year, he targeted Houston by passing his own statewide bail restriction law plus penalties for cities that reduce police funding). 

“Governor, the buck stops on your desk. You blame everyone else.”

Asked what he would do to provide long-term relief amid soaring property taxes for homeowners, Abbott committed to using more than half of the state’s projected $27 billion budget surplus (much of which is one-time money created by playing fiscal musical chairs with federal pandemic relief funds) to “buy down” local property rates, an inherently short-term fix that Republicans have resorted to before. 

O’Rourke went after Abbott for saying that the root cause of school shootings is mental health while the state ranks last in overall funding and he cut the state budget for such programs by over $200 million last Legislative session. Abbott retorted that the state is not, in fact, dead-last in mental health funding, claiming it is now middle of the pack thanks to his actions. 

He also committed to making school safety an emergency item in the next session, “just like I’ve done in the past”—implicitly acknowledging that his past efforts in response to mass shootings were insufficient. 

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When asked to respond to the criticism that he has become much more of a right-wing ideologue while in office, peaking with his signing of the most extreme abortion ban in the country, Abbott took a practiced, soft, and somber tone talking about his Catholic faith and pro-life beliefs, which he said only grew stronger when he adopted his newborn daughter. He doubled down on his stance that women who are raped can access Plan B to prevent pregnancy since abortion is no longer an option. Beyond that, he said, the alternative was to simply go through with pregnancy with meager prenatal assistance and “baby supplies” provided by the state’s Alternatives to Abortion program. 

For his part, O’Rourke said that, on immigration and border security, he’d focus on “solutions over stunts.” He criticized Abbott’s Operation Lone Star as a politicized boondoggle, but said he’d support more targeted deployments of Department of Public Safety troopers and volunteer National Guard soldiers on the border. 

Asked about his infamous “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15s” comment during his presidential campaign, O’Rourke said it’s still his personal belief that those weapons should not be legal, but that as governor, he’d focus on achievable policies with bipartisan support like raising the age to 21, expanded background checks, and red-flag laws. 

On property taxes and education, he pledged to increase the state’s share of public school funding in order to ease the burden created by school districts’ property taxes. 

Abbott said that after changes made to energy policy after Winter Storm Uri, the electric grid is “more resilient and reliable” than ever—as evidenced by the lack of blackouts during this past winter and during the record-breaking heat wave this summer. O’Rourke pointed out that there were still conservation notices issued during peak heat waves and that everyday Texans have been stuck with the tab from the grid failure by paying increasingly high utility bills. 

Like most political debates, 60-second or 30-second limits for answers and 15 seconds for retorts proved woefully inadequate in delivering a real debate about complex and critical issues—or accountability of any kind for the governor. 

Does this change the race at all? According to a focus group held by Amarillo’s KAMR TV news station, Abbott went into the debate ahead 40-27, with 33 percent of voters undecided. After the debate, O’Rourke was leading 50-43, with just seven percent still undecided. We’ll see if the rest of those who tuned in from the broader electorate were similarly moved. 

Back to your regular programming.