(TEXAS) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and his Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke faced off in a debate on Friday less than six weeks before Election Day.
The debate — the first and only planned debate for the gubernatorial race — took place at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburgh, where Abbott and O’Rourke sat at tables with no audience as they clashed over some of the biggest issues facing the state.
The two candidates sparred over immigration, abortion and gun control, with the Uvalde school shooting being one of the hottest topics of the debate.
Nineteen children and two adults were killed at Robb Elementary School on May 24 in what is the deadliest shooting ever at a Texas public school.
O’Rourke held a press conference with Uvalde families affected by the shooting before the debate, speaking about the need for gun reform. O’Rourke also alleged that Abbott banned the families and others from attending the debate, to which Abbott’s team responded that both candidates had agreed to the rules of the debate.
The first debate question regarding gun control opened with a video of a Robb Elementary survivor stating that in Texas, an 18-year-old cannot buy beer, but can purchase an assault-style weapon similar to that which killed her classmates in Uvalde.
When asked to explain their view on the issue, Gov. Abbott said any attempt to raise the legal purchasing age will be met “with it being overturned” and that he aims to address “what is really ailing our communities” which he cited was mental health issues.
O’Rourke rebutted Abbott’s claim that any attempt would be immediately overturned, pointing to Parkland, Florida, where 23 days after its own mass school shooting, the legal purchasing age limit was raised and is still being held, years later.
“All we need is action and the only person standing in our way is the governor of the state of Texas,” he said.
Abbott said he approves of expanding background checks to include juvenile records but is still against red flag laws. O’Rourke sidestepped questions on whether he supported confiscating AR-15-style weapons as he focused on what he believes he can get done as governor: raising the minimum age of purchase to 21, implementing red flag laws, and requiring universal background checks.
When asked about preventing another Uvalde, O’Rourke pointed criticisms at Abbott, who he said “has not lifted a finger to make it any less likely that any of our kids will meet that same fate.”
Here’s what the candidates had to say on other hot-button issues facing Texans.
Abbott has been in the national spotlight over his busing of migrants from Texas to Democrat-run states and cities across the country, spending at least $12 million on the effort. Most recently, Abbott bused migrants to Washington near Vice President Kamala Harris’s residence.
The panel showed a clip of New York City Mayor Eric Adams speaking on the busing of migrants saying he has reached out to the Texas governor’s office to coordinate a plan. Adams says the governor has refused to do so.
“Mayor Adams has never called my office, never talked about it in my administration. And so, what he’s saying is just flat out false,” said Gov. Abbott. “There has been communication between non-governmental organizations in Texas as well as the ultimate location, whether it be Washington, D.C., or New York.”
O’Rourke, speaking on the busing of migrants, said “We don’t need any more stunts. We need solutions. We need those coming here to follow our laws. We need to make sure our laws follow up.”
The two also disagreed on Operation Lone Star, an initiative started by Abbott to place more troopers at the border, with Abbott saying the $4 billion program was only necessary because of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies. “I’m telling you $0 should be going to Operation Lone Star and that’s what it would be if we had a president who was enforcing the immigration laws of the United States of America,” Abbott said.
O’Rourke said Operation Lone Star was a failed system and is not deterring people from arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Abortions in Texas have all but ceased after the state’s trigger law went into effect on Aug. 25. The trigger law established civil and criminal penalties for performing banned abortions and prohibits the procedure with few exceptions, including cases where a pregnancy poses serious health risks to the pregnant woman.
During the debate, the panel of moderators played a clip where Gov. Abbott said victims of rape and incest can get the Plan B pill that can “prevent a pregnancy from occurring in the first place.”
Yet when asked is emergency contraception a viable alternative to abortion for victims of rape and incest, Gov. Abbott said, “Well, it depends on what you mean by alternative. An alternative obviously, is to do what we can to assist and aid the victim, and that is to help get them medical assistance that they need and the care that they need, but also to know what their options are. They’re going to know that [in] the state there are alternatives to abortion program provides living assistance, baby supplies, all kinds of things that can help them also with increased funding for prenatal and postpartum care.”
When O’Rourke was asked if he would support any limit on when a woman can’t have an abortion, he said this election is about reproductive freedom.
“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 and will work with the legislature and my fellow Texans to return us to the standard that Texas women want in the first place, Roe vs. Wade,” he said.
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