By Eric Bradner, CNN
Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke clashed over gun restrictions in a debate Friday night, with O’Rourke claiming that Abbott blames “everybody else” for mass shootings while “misleading this state.”
“It’s been 18 weeks since their kids have been killed, and not a thing has changed in this state to make it any less likely that any other child will meet the same fate,” O’Rourke said in their debate at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg. “All we need is action, and the only person standing in our way is the governor of the state of Texas.”
Abbott was shown a video of a child in Uvalde asking why Texas will not raise the age minimum to buy assault-style rifles. He said he believes such a move would be “unconstitutional” under recent court rulings.
“We want to end school shootings, but we cannot do that by making false promises,” Abbott said.
Abbott also said he opposed “red flag” laws, saying that those laws “would deny lawful Texas gun owners their right to due process.”
O’Rourke, meanwhile, did not back away from comments that he made as a 2020 presidential candidate, in the wake of the racially motivated mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart in 2019, that he would seek to confiscate assault-style rifles such as AR-15s and AK-47s. But he said as governor, he would be “focused on what we can get done.”
He said that would include raising the age minimum to purchase such firearms to 21, implementing universal background checks and enacting “red flag” laws.
“This is the common ground,” he said, citing conversations with Republican and Democratic voters, as well as families of those slain in Uvalde.
Friday night’s showdown was the only scheduled debate between Abbott, the Republican seeking a third term as governor, and O’Rourke, the Democratic former El Paso congressman whose near-miss in a 2018 race against Sen. Ted Cruz electrified Texas Democrats.
Democrats have not won a gubernatorial race in Texas since Ann Richards was elected governor in 1990. The party also hasn’t won a statewide race in the Lone Star State since 1994 — Democrats‘ longest statewide losing streak in the country.
Abbott, who is viewed as a potential 2024 presidential contender, has consistently led in the polls. A Quinnipiac University survey conducted September 22-26 found the governor with a 7-point edge over O’Rourke among likely voters, 53% to 46%.
The most recent campaign finance reports in mid-July showed O’Rourke keeping pace with Abbott’s fundraising, but the incumbent maintained a significant cash-on-hand edge with $46 million in the bank to his challenger’s $24 million.
On the campaign trail, O’Rourke has criticized Abbott’s opposition to abortion rights — the governor signed a so-called trigger law last year that went into effect in August and bans nearly all abortions in the state following the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. The Democrat has also criticized the Abbott administration’s management of the power grid during last year’s winter freeze and the governor’s rejection of gun restrictions in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting.
O’Rourke famously confronted Abbott and other officials at a news conference in Uvalde the day after the shooting, saying, “The time to stop the next shooting is right now and you are doing nothing.”
Abbott, meanwhile, has campaigned on tough border security policies, including busing migrants out of state to Democratic-run cities up North to protest the Biden administration’s immigration policies. He has also accused O’Rourke of seeking to undercut police funding, saying in an ad that O’Rourke wants to “defund and dismantle the police.” It was a reference to O’Rourke’s comments in 2020, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, praising protesters for targeting “line items that have over militarized our police.” O’Rourke has said he does not support cutting funding for police in Texas.
“Look, I don’t think Greg Abbott wakes up wanting to see children shot in their schools or for the grid to fail, but it’s clear that he’s incapable or unwilling to make the changes necessary to prioritize the lives of our fellow Texans. That’s why it’s on all of us to make change at the ballot box,” O’Rourke said in his closing remarks.
In his closing, Abbott said: “I’m running for reelection to keep Texas No. 1 — to cut your property taxes, to secure the border, to keep dangerous criminals behind bars, and to keep deadly fentanyl off our streets.”
The two also sharply diverged on abortion rights, an issue that has moved to the center of the gubernatorial race after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Abbott signed into law a measure that restricts abortion except to save the life of the mother and in certain health emergencies.
O’Rourke said he would seek to return Texas to the abortion protections that existed under Roe v. Wade.
“This election is about reproductive freedom. If you care about this, you need to turn out and vote,” O’Rourke said. “I will fight to make sure that every woman in Texas can make her own decision about her own body, her own future, and her own health care.”
Abbott said O’Rourke’s position on abortion is “the most extreme,” casting O’Rourke as supporting the right to abortions up until birth.
“No one thinks that in the state of Texas,” O’Rourke shot back. “He’s saying this because he signed the most extreme abortion ban in America: No exception for rape, no exception for incest, it begins at conception, and it’s taking place in a state that is at the epicenter of a maternal mortality crisis, thanks to Greg Abbott — three times as deadly for Black women.”
Abbott was asked whether emergency contraception is a viable alternative for victims of rape and incest.
“It’s incumbent upon the state of Texas to make sure that it is readily available,” he said. “For those who are victims of sexual assault or survivors of sexual assault, the state of Texas pays for that, whether it be at a hospital, at a clinic, or someone that gets a prescription because of it.”
He also touted the state’s “alternative to abortion program,” including living assistance and baby supplies, for those victims.
Abbott touted reforms to the power grid after the deep freeze, pointing to record high temperatures this summer.
“Time and again, the power grid was able to keep up, and it’s because of the reforms that we were able to make. The power grid remains more resilient … than ever before,” he said.
But O’Rourke said the power failure was “part of a pattern” during Abbott’s almost eight years in office, and that the governor had been warned about the possibility.
“The grid is still not fixed,” O’Rourke said, pointing to higher energy bills, Toyota stopping its third shift in San Antonio “because it was drawing too much power,” and Texas residents receiving conservation notices over the summer.
“All Beto does is fear-monger on this issue, when in reality, the grid is more resilient and more reliable than it’s ever been,” Abbott responded.
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