EDINBURG, Texas (CN) — Former Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke squared off against Governor Greg Abbott Friday night in the first and only gubernatorial debate ahead of Texas’ super charged November election.
The hour-long debate, held at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus along the Texas/Mexico border in Edinburg, was the first face-to-face encounter between the two rivals since O’Rourke confronted Abbott about gun control at a press conference a day after the Uvalde massacre at Robb Elementary left 19 children and two teachers dead.
“I’m going to follow the lead of those families from Uvalde, that’s who I’m doing this for,” O’Rourke said Friday when the topic turned to gun control. “All we need is action and the only person standing in our way is the governor of the state of Texas.”
O’Rourke, who earlier in the day said he would carry with him during the debate a card signed by families from Uvalde and other mementos to remind him of the shooting victims, insisted that raising the minimum age to purchase an assault weapon from 18 to 21, a red flag law and universal background checks are all measures that the majority of Texans agree with and that he would sign into law if elected.
“We want to end school shootings, but we cannot do that by making false promises,” Abbott said.
He argued that a law raising the age of purchase to 21 would be found unconstitutional and that a special session on gun control, something many of the families of victims in Uvalde have been calling for in the 18 weeks since the mass shooting, is unnecessary.
“For six consecutive days after the shooting took place, I issued directives to make schools safer and respond to the emergency in Uvalde, and then I remained engaged with the mayor, with the local leaders,” the governor said.
Abbott and O’Rourke are locked in one of the most closely watched gubernatorial races of the midterm elections, although Abbott, a two-term incumbent seeking another 4-year term, holds a considerable advantage.
Public polling has consistently shown O’Rourke trailing Abbott by at least 5 percentage points and the Republican stronghold state hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since Ann Richards in 1990.
But O’Rourke has been bolstered by record-breaking fundraising unseen by any other Texas Democratic candidate. He has also gained traction more recently from his sharp attacks on Abbott’s record on gun control and abortion rights in light of the May 24 mass shooting in Uvalde and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
During the only scheduled debate of the race, the two candidates tried to paint the other as too extreme on abortion, with O’Rourke making the argument that rapists in Texas have more rights under the state’s abortion law than their victims do “because they can sue the families of their victims if they help their victim get an abortion and be able to win a $10,000 bounty in the process.”
Abbott meanwhile said O’Rourke was “for unlimited abortion at taxpayer expense,” a notion which O’Rourke called a lie.
The 2021 electrical grid failure, the teacher shortage in the state, law enforcement and immigration issues also made it into the debate.
Abbott repeatedly blamed President Joe Biden for what he called the “chaos” at the border, policies which he said O’Rourke would replicate if elected governor, and said that efforts like bussing illegal immigrants to Democratic-led states in the Northeast are necessary to protect Texas.
But O’Rourke, a former El Paso city councilman who became a Democratic superstar after coming within 3 percentage points of unseating Ted Cruz during his 2018 Senate run, called Abbott’s actions nothing more than “political theater for his political career” and called out his “hateful rhetoric” toward immigrants as dangerous.
At the conclusion of the debate, O’Rourke and Abbott shook hands with each other and the debate moderators before both departed the stage on opposite sides.
Earlier in the day, O’Rourke gathered with families affected by the Uvalde school shooting for a news conference in Edinburg where they demanded Abbott pass stricter gun laws and expressed their frustration for his refusal to call a special session on the topic.
“We would definitely love to be in the audience,” said Kimberly Rubio, whose 10-year-od daughter Alexandria “Lexi” Aniyah Rubio was killed in the mass shooting. “It’s extremely disrespectful.”
Texans will have the final say when early voting begins Oct. 24, two weeks ahead of Election Day on Nov. 8.
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