5 takeaways from the Abbott-O'Rourke Texas governor's debate

WASHINGTON, D.C. (The Hill) — 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 on Friday evening. 

The debate — hosted by Nexstar Media Group, which also owns The Hill — gave the candidates an opportunity to stake out 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 policy stances, the one-hour debate was a mostly civil affair while the candidates did open 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, offering 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 bid in 2024.

Here are five takeaways from the Texas gubernatorial debate.

1. Barbs fly but debate remains a subdued affair

The hourlong debate was a mostly staid affair; there were no outbursts or raised voices. But that doesn’t mean that Abbott and O’Rourke didn’t take opportunities when they could to rehash the past and bring up each other’s shortcomings. 

“Gov. Abbott’s grid failure is part of a pattern over these last eight years. Warned about, for example, school violence and gun violence specifically against children, does nothing,” O’Rourke said. “Warned about problems within child protective services, our foster care program, does nothing, and it gets worse. Warned before February 2021 that we had problems in the grid, he did nothing.”

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

“He’s flip-flopped on the border issue. He’s flip-flopped on the energy issue, such as energy jobs and the Green New Deal. He’s flip-flopped on defunding the police. Whether it’s one issue or another, he keeps changing positions,” Abbott said.

2. Candidates paint each other as extremists

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

One key policy area in which attacks were leveled was abortion. 

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

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

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

3. Biden emerges as GOP boogeyman

Abbott took multiple opportunities to ding President Biden during the debate as he sought to tie O’Rourke to the president amid Biden’s lagging approval ratings.

“We shouldn’t have to allocate any money for it because this is all because of Joe Biden’s failure to do the president’s job to secure the border,” the governor said in response to a question over whether more money should be given to Operation Lone Star, which was aimed at tackling border crossings between U.S. and Mexico. 

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

At one point during the debate, O’Rourke pushed back at Abbott’s assertions against the president, arguing that he was blaming people like Biden but that the “buck stops on your desk.”

4. No mention of Trump

While Donald Trump and the multiple state and federal investigations he’s been embroiled in have consistently shadowed the midterm races, the former president was not mentioned once during the debate.

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

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

The decision by O’Rourke to eschew mention of Trump also comes after criticism during the last election cycle that Democrats were focused too heavily on trying to tie Republicans to the former president.

Likely 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, voters are unlikely to have come away from Friday night’s event with changed minds.

That will likely be an asset to Abbott given that he’s currently leading in the polls, and it’s likely a setback for O’Rourke given there were no clear moments when he was able to successfully land a damaging blow against the governor.

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