At First Guv Debate Since 2006, Not Much Debating

Patrick Michels

Tonight, Greg Abbott was interviewed by a team of reporters in McAllen. The interesting thing about this interview, which sets it apart from others, is that Wendy Davis was being interviewed at the same time. They even sat close to each other.

Campaigning in Texas is a very strange affair these days. Most Republican nominees, assured of victory, hide: There’s nothing else needed to win. So we can credit Greg Abbott for a willingness to take part in a debate, I suppose, except this wasn’t really a debate. It was more of a structured Q&A with lots of TV cameras. The two candidates didn’t really engage each other—the format didn’t allow them much space to do so. The moderators didn’t ask any follow-up questions and the candidates only asked each other one question apiece. It was, for the most part, a recitation of talking points. The whole thing went down on a Friday evening during high school football season—a great time if you want to minimize viewership.

All Abbott needed to do in this debate was keep words coming out of his mouth in relative order, and this was a charge that he took with the utmost seriousness. There were no “gaffes.” Yes, many of the things he said didn’t make too much sense—like when he seemed to credit the deployment of the state’s National Guard deployment for SpaceX’s decision, years in the making, to build a launch site in Brownsville.

A lot of things about Abbott’s performance seemed … off. There were the little things, like when he mixed up the name of one of the moderators, but anyone could do that. There was something odd about the way Abbott talked: the way he related the story about “visiting with a young Latina of about college age” who “begged and pleaded” with him to secure the border. It was odd, too, how frequently he referenced his Hispanic in-laws to answer questions about issues in the RGV: as if he was saying, Some of my best family members are Mexican-American…

In truth, if this were not Texas, Greg Abbott had a debate performance to feel mildly insecure about. But this is Texas: The bar is very, very low here. We’re a couple of weeks away from the general election, and we still don’t know very much about Greg Abbott. Who is he? What motivates him? What kind of governor would he be?

If Davis did better, she didn’t shine. It’s still remarkable how much Davis feels the need to tack right on many issues, like the border, or the death penalty. She touted several times that she wanted “boots on the ground” on the border, just maybe not Perry’s National Guard deployment. She again called for a special session on the border crisis. Davis said she was a staunch supporter of the death penalty.

She was more aggressive, turning to Abbott at one point and blasting him for for cozying up to Ted Nugent. She accused Abbott of wanting to standardize test four-year-olds and said that if parents wanted to change that they’d need to form a PAC, hire a lobbyist and make a political contribution to the Abbott campaign. One of her best lines came when she told Abbott that cutting $5 billion from public education wasn’t liberal or conservative but “just dumb.”

Davis highlighted her core issues: Her advocacy for pre-K programs, raising the minimum wage, equal pay laws. She hit Abbott—or as much as she could, given the format.

The spin from Abbott’s team post-debate is that Davis had a “meltdown” and “talked over the moderator.” In fact it was one of the few moments that a debate threatened to break out—before the moderator cut her off.

All in all, it’s hard to see how the debate moves the needle for either candidate. But it’s Davis who needs the upset. Abbott is content to play it safe and not make any unforced errors.

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Published at 8:50 pm CST