Five takeaways from the Abbott-O’Rourke debate showdown in Texas

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke traded barbs and sought to paint each other as inherently out of touch with the state in their first and only televised debate Friday night.

The debate — hosted by Nexstar Media Group, which also owns The Hill — gave the candidates an opportunity to weigh in on policy positions and address a range of issues from the Uvalde school shooting to teacher retention to border security. While the candidates touched on some political positions, the one-hour debate was a largely civil affair as the candidates opened old wounds and tried to paint each other as extremists.

The debate comes at a crucial time for O’Rourke, as recent polls show him trailing Abbott, giving him an important opportunity to reach voters in the final stretch of the race. At the same time, the hour discourse comes amid speculation that the Texas governor might seek a presidential run in 2024.

Here are five takeaways from the Texas gubernatorial debate.

Barbs fly, but debate remains a subdued affair

The hour-long debate was a largely stale affair; there were no outbursts or raised voices. But that doesn’t mean Abbott and O’Rourke didn’t take opportunities when they could to revive the past and bring up each other’s shortcomings.

“Governor Abbott’s grid failure is part of a pattern over the last eight years. The warning about, say, school violence and gun violence specifically against children does nothing,” O’Rourke said. “The warning about problems in child protection, our foster care program, does nothing, and it gets worse. Warned before February 2021 that we had problems in the network, he did nothing.”

At the same time, Abbott touched on the Democrat’s failed bid to win a Senate seat in 2018 and the White House two years later. He also argued that O’Rourke was inconsistent in his views.

“He’s flip-flopped on the border issue. He’s flip-flopped on the energy issue, like energy jobs and the Green New Deal. He’s flip-flopped on defunding the police. Whether it’s any issue, he keeps switching positions ,” Abbott said.

Candidates paint each other as extremists

Both candidates sought to portray each other as extremists, albeit in different ways.

A key policy area where attacks were made was abortion.

“Beto’s position is the most extreme because he not only supports the abortion of a fully developed child until the very last second before birth, he is even against providing medical care to a baby who survives an abortion. He is for unlimited abortion at the expense of the taxpayer,” Abbott claimed.

“That’s not true. That’s a complete lie,” O’Rourke denied. “I never said that. And no one thinks so in the state of Texas. He says this because he signed the most extreme abortion ban in America. No exception for rape, no exception for incest.”

Both men also labeled each other wildly out of touch on issues like immigration. Abbott claimed, for example, that O’Rourke said he would reduce immigration enforcement and downplay the situation at the border.

Biden emerges as the GOP boogeyman

Abbott took several opportunities to poke fun at President Biden during the debate as he tried to tie O’Rourke to the president amid Biden’s lagging approval ratings.

“We shouldn’t have to put money toward it because it’s all because of Joe Biden’s inability to do the president’s job of securing the border,” the governor said in response to a question about whether more money should be given to Operation Lone Star, which aimed to tackle border crossings between the US and Mexico.

“We only have to do it because of Joe Biden’s failure and because it would be the same path that Beto would take us down,” he added.

At one point during the debate, O’Rourke pushed back on Abbott’s allegations against the president, claiming he blamed the likes of Biden, but that “the buck stops on your desk.”

No mention of Trump

While former President Trump and the many state and federal investigations he has been involved in have consistently overshadowed the midterm races, the former president was not mentioned once during the debate.

Although references to Trump would likely rouse the GOP base in Texas, the absence of any mention of the former president allowed both Abbott to focus on state-specific issues.

And it suggested that O’Rourke also sees the key to winning over with Texas voters is to focus on core issues like immigration, abortion and gun violence — not the former White House occupant.

O’Rourke’s decision to avoid mentioning Trump also comes after criticism during the last election cycle that Democrats were too focused on trying to tie Republicans to the former president.

Probably not a game changer

Given the civil nature of the debate and the fact that neither candidate demonstrated much of a shift in rhetoric or policy stance, it’s unlikely that voters came away from Friday night’s event with a changed mind.

That is likely to be an asset for Abbott as he leads in the polls, and it is likely to be a setback for O’Rourke as there were no clear moments when he was able to land a damaging blow against the governor.

Instead, O’Rourke will have to trust that his casting of himself as a foil to the two-term incumbent and a message of change will be enough to sway voters in November.

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