(NewsNation) — Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke faced off Friday during their only debate before the November election.
The candidates addressed several issues that transcend the Texas election and speak to a larger national audience, including border security, access to firearms and abortion.
The debate, hosted at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, was broadcasted nationally exclusively by NewsNation.
O’Rourke said Abbott is “scared” to lose his re-election campaign in November and claimed that’s why the governor scheduled the debate for a Friday night — when attention is usually turned to high school football.
As of Tuesday, Abbott held an eight-point lead over O’Rourke with less than 50 days until the Election, according to an Emerson College Polling/The Hill survey published earlier this week.
Abbott garnered national attention earlier this year when he began sending busloads of migrants to liberal strongholds like Chicago, New York and Washington D.C. For months, Abbott has butted heads with the federal government over Congress’ lack of action at the border.
Pressed on the matter Friday, Abbott explained why hasn’t sent migrants to so-called sanctuary cities in Republican-led states. Destinations like New York, Chicago and D.C., he said, are “so large and have the infrastructure that’s available” to help aid with the record-number of migrant encounters at the Southwest border.
“They (border cities) were overrun with the number of migrants,” Abbott said. “They needed relief and bussing was one of the ways of providing them relief.”
O’Rourke, who is from El Paso, fired back and criticized Abbott for “treating humans as political pawns.”
“This hateful rhetoric, treating human beings as political pawns, talking about invasions and Texans defending themselves is how people get killed at the Wal-Mart in El Paso, (as well as) the gentlemen in Hudspeth that we just learned about yesterday,” O’Rourke said. “This is incredibly dangerous for Texas and is not reflective of our values.”
Other efforts by Abbott to secure the border have included the launch of Operation Lone Star — an initiative that sent members of the Texas National Guard and Department of Public Safety to the border in response to an influx of migrants.
Alternatively, O’Rourke has advocated for border technology such as sensors, surveillance towers, and drones capable of detecting crossings between ports of entry.
He’s also suggested increasing processing capacity to allow for more efficient screening for asylum eligibility and criminal background checks. He says the U.S. can deter illegal migration by guaranteeing legal pathways and supporting the economy with a guest worker program that allows migrants to fill labor shortages.
O’Rourke was quick to criticize Abbott for the governor’s handling of the Uvalde, Texas shooting that killed 19 students and two teachers.
“There should be accountability up and down the ballot beginning with Greg Abbott,” O’Rourke said.
The pair sparred over funding to the local police department and who should face consequences for the widely criticized police response.
“(The victims’ families) are rightfully angry and I can feel their pain,” Abbott said. “No parents should lose a child… We want to end school shootings but we cannot do that by making false promises.”
Abbott noted that attempts to raise the minimum age to purchase AR-15-style weapons have failed in the past. He also claimed that red-flag laws aimed at identifying potentially violent people and barring their access to firearms before a shooting occurs violates gunowners’ “constitutional right to due process.”
“We need to get to the bottom of what is really ailing our communities and that is mental health that is leading people to engage in school shootings and Texas is already addressing that.”
If elected, O’Rourke said he would “make progress and take action where this governor has failed.”
“Raising the minimum age of purchase to 21? We can get that done,” O’Rourke said. “A red flag law? We’ll get that done. Universal background checks? We’ll get that done.”
Texas is home to one of the nation’s most strict abortion bans, which doesn’t include exceptions for rape or incest.
O’Rourke has spent much his campaign speaking about anti-abortion matters and advocating for the abortion access previously guaranteed under Roe v. Wade.
“I will fight to ensure that every woman in Texas can make her own decisions about her own body her own future and her own healthcare,” O’Rourke said.
Abbott defended the state’s abortion laws Friday, touting Texas’ Alternatives to Abortion program.
“The state, through our Alternatives to Abortion program, provides living assistance, baby supplies, all kinds of things that can help them,” Abbott said.
He also underscored access to the emergency contraception Plan B pill as a preventative measure against unintended pregnancy.
A group of voters comprised of six Democrats, six Republicans and seven independents showed that both candidates’ remarks garnered them additional support, most notably for O’Rourke.
Abbott was in the lead with 40% support at the outset of the debate and O’Rourke with 27%. Another 33% of voters in the focus group were undecided.
After the debate, 43% supported Abbott, 50% supported O’Rourke and 7% were undecided.