The hour-long showdown at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley was the first time the two candidates were in the same room since May, when O’Rourke confronted Abbott at a news conference a day after the deadly school shooting in Uvalde.
Abbott’s response to that shooting, and his overall opposition to imposing restrictions on guns, dominated much of the first half of the televised debate, as did the governor’s highly publicized program of busing migrants from Texas to Washington, D.C., and other Democratic-run cities.
O’Rourke argued that Abbott valued “stunts” over solutions and that his actions and words have led to violence like the deadly 2019 shooting targeting Latinos in El Paso.
“This hateful rhetoric, this treating human beings as political pawns, talking about invasions and Texans defending themselves — that’s how people get killed at the Walmart in El Paso,” O’Rourke said. “This is incredibly dangerous for Texas and is not reflective of our values.”
Abbott accused O’Rourke of wanting to “perpetuate the open border policies and mischaracterize exactly what’s going on,” while pledging that his migrant busing program — which has been mimicked by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — will continue.
“There will be other cities in the future that also will be on the receiving end of migrants, because we will continue to have to move migrants, because [President] Joe Biden continues to allow more illegal immigrants to come into the state of Texas,” Abbott said.
Abbott is seeking a third consecutive term in a state dominated by Republicans. After some polls over the summer found O’Rourke within 5 percentage points of Abbott, more recent surveys have shown the governor with leads of 7 to 11 points.
On the fundraising front, O’Rourke turned heads by raking in more cash than Abbott during the three-month period that ended on June 30, setting a Texas record.
O’Rourke, a former member of Congress, is seeking his third office in four years, following a close but unsuccessful Senate bid in 2018 and a brief run for president after that.
While pressing the two candidates on the issue of gun control, debate moderators on Friday played a 2019 clip of O’Rourke vowing that “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47” if elected president. He has since softened his position.
“It’s clear to me that the only place that an AR-15 or an AK-47 makes sense is on a battlefield,” he said Friday. “But as governor of the state of Texas, I need to be focused on what we can get done.”
One step O’Rourke favors: raising the legal age from 18 to 21 for purchasing a firearm. Abbott has opposed those efforts, insisting that federal courts would deem any such law unconstitutional.
“We want to end school shootings,” the governor said. “But we cannot do that by making false promises. … Any attempt to raise the age is going to be met with it being overturned.”
The rest of the debate focused largely on the state's 2021 grid failure, when millions of residents lost power for days in subfreezing temperatures. O’Rourke blamed Abbott for the crisis and higher utility costs he said have stemmed from it.
“And the kicker is, the grid is still not fixed,” O’Rourke said.
Abbott accused O’Rourke of rooting for the grid to collapse again to score political points.
“I even guaranteed the power would stay on before we faced that winter afterwards, when Beto was campaigning saying that the grid was going to fail in the winter and summer,” Abbott said. “And his campaign hopes fell apart because the laws that I signed did secure the grid.”
The debate also touched on abortion, an issue that Democrats believe will boost turnout in races across the country this fall after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to the procedure.
Abbott branded O’Rourke as a supporter of “unlimited abortion at taxpayer expense” — a characterization O’Rourke disputed by saying he would fight for the same protections that were in place before the Roe reversal. For almost 50 years, states could not ban abortions before fetal viability, or about 24 weeks into a pregnancy.
“This election is about reproductive freedom,” O’Rourke said. “If you care about this, you need to turn out and vote. I will fight to make sure that every woman in Texas can make her own decisions about her own body, her own future and our own health care.”