(NEW YORK) — On Friday — for the first and only time — Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and his Democratic challenger, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, will meet face-to-face for a debate less than six weeks before Election Day.
Both candidates come to the stage with long political careers, well-known records and established public personas.
Abbott has been governor since 2015 — the position has no term limits — and was the state attorney general and a member of the Texas Supreme Court before that.
He has defined his tenure based in part on Texas’ economic performance and also on his hardline stances on abortion access and on immigration across the southern border, saying he is focused on reducing the flow of drugs and human trafficking.
His Operation Lone Star, where state troopers and National Guard members patrol the Texas border with Mexico, was one such major initiative to address that. But it has drawn scrutiny both for its success — given its price tag and given that migrant arrests remain at all-time highs — and what the federal government suspects may be civil rights violations.
Abbott’s office has said President Joe Biden’s border policies are to blame and that criticism of Abbott’s immigration policies amounted to “attacking the only state taking unprecedented actions to do the federal government’s job.”
More recently, Abbott has also been sending migrants from Texas via bus to Democratic-led cities such as Chicago, New York and Washington, drawing outcry there that he is using people as part of a political stunt. He said it is a necessary protest of the White House’s border strategy.
O’Rourke, who is running to unseat him, is a former representative for El Paso and announced last fall that he would run for governor. He previously ran against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz but narrowly lost in 2018; he then went on to unsuccessfully seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.
The last Democratic governor to represent the Lone Star State was the late Ann Richards, from 1991 to 1995, leaving office after being defeated by George W. Bush.
Friday’s debate may well focus on a handful of topics that that either been priorities or pitfalls for both candidates. Immigration, a perennial focus for voters in Texas, is likely to come up with each candidate pressing different points — on how best to handle people who seek to cross the border. O’Rourke may also cite the state’s power grid failure during deadly winter weather last year while Abbott could cite O’Rourke’s embrace of gun law changes in a state where gun ownership is popular — but which was also the site of the Uvalde school massacre in May.
Abortion, too, splits Abbott and O’Rourke, given that Abbott signed a ban on abortions without exceptions for rape or incest. (Abbott’s website states that he wants to “defend the culture of life in Texas.”)
Recent polls indicate that O’Rourke has more work to do with voters and may be on the defensive on some issues. FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of the best polling shows Abbott with an approximately 7-point lead over O’Rourke.
According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, the Texas-Mexico border ranks as the No. 1 issue among likely voters along with that group narrowly backing Abbott’s migrant busing (51-47% approval). However, O’Rourke has a slight advantage over Abbott with Hispanic voters (49-48%).
O’Rourke has called his fluency in Spanish is a “competitive advantage.”
Abbott, for his part, has downplayed the certainty of a close race: “This game ain’t over yet, and we’ll see how close it is when all is said and done,” he said earlier this month.
Some O’Rourke supporters are optimistic.
“Beto has done the work on the ground,” said Jen Ramos, a political specialist for Jolt Action. ” He not only focused on South Texas communities and Latino communities before he even decided to run for the governorship but has made a key point on talking to voters that have not been spoken to historically, in any gubernatorial election.”
The debate will begin Friday at 8 p.m. ET and will be telecast throughout the state and on Nexstar’s national cable news network.
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