Gov. Greg Abbott, Beto O’Rourke spar in debate. Will it have impact on governor’s race?

AP

Democrat Beto O’Rourke may have outperformed Republican Greg Abbott in Fridays gubernatorial debate, but it’s unlikely to be enough to cause major changes in the race’s final weeks, experts say.

“I think overall, it’s unlikely to move the needle too much in the campaign,” said Matthew Wilson, an SMU associate political science professor.

O’Rourke had a slightly stronger performance and stayed disciplined and Abbott didn’t make mistakes, Wilson said. But experts also agreed there weren’t any breakthrough moment for O’Rourke — something that could help a candidate who is trailing in the polls.

Issues discussed during the campaign ranged from the border, gun laws, property taxes and police funding to abortion access, the power grid and education.

Early in the debate, moderators began with the topic of immigration, Abbott hit the Biden administration for its border policy and sought to connect Beto to the Democratic president. Abbott touted Texas’ response, including the busing of migrants to other parts of the state.

“What we’re doing is making sure that we are keeping our communities safe, and this is completely different than the way things would be under Beto,” Abbott said.

O’Rourke fought back: “What we just heard from the governor is what we’ll likely hear over the course of this debate,” O’Rourke said. “He’s going to blame people like President Biden. He’s going to lie about my record, and he’s going to distract from his failures.”

Both criticized the other for being untruthful. Abbott accused O’Rourke of flip-flopping on issues. O’Rourke would hammer areas where he thinks Abbott has failed as governor.

Friday’s debate at the Edinburg campus of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is expected to be the sole debate between Abbott and O’Rourke ahead of the Nov. 8 election. O’Rourke has agreed to several town-hall style debates where voters can ask questions, but Abbott’s campaign said Friday’s debate would be the “first and only.”

Polling has consistently had Abbott ahead of O’Rourke in a state where it’s been years since a Democrat was elected statewide. But the margin has been in the single digits, with a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday putting O’Rourke 7 points behind Abbott.

Immigration and border security was found to be the top issue among Texas voters in a poll by the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin. It’s an issue that’s been central to Abbott’s campaign thus far. Following it in importance to voters were the economy, abortion and gun violence. The later two policy areas have been focuses for O’Rourke.

“Overall, O’Rourke performed well, and made multiple convincing points and at times had Abbott on the defensive, but nothing happened in this debate that is likely to move the dial in the race, which remains headed on course toward a Abbott victory, with the only question being if Abbott’s margin victory will be in the mid-single digits or mid-teens,” Rice Political Science Professor Mark Jones said in an email.

He noted that “reasonable people can differ on whether O’Rourke or Abbott performed slightly better than the other ... or were equal.”

Both campaigns sent emails to reporters declaring their respective candidate the debate’s winner.

Jones said Abbott did best while talking about immigration, and O’Rourke was strongest when talking about gun laws and the response to the May school shooting at Robb Elementary.

When the topic of abortion access was raised, O’Rourke was asked if he supports any limits on when a patient can have an abortion. O’Rourke said he supports limits as decided in Roe v. Wade. Abbott was asked about whether Plan B is a viable abortion alternative for someone who is pregnant as a result of rape or incest, in response to comments in a recent interview on the show Lone Star Politics.

“Well, it depends on what you mean by alternative,” Abbott said. “An alternative obviously, is to do what we can to assist and aid the victim and that is to help get them medical assistance that they need and the care that they need, but also to know what their options are.”

Leading up to the debate

The campaigns’ debate-day strategies previewed what was to come later in the evening.

Hours before Abbott and O’Rourke met on the debate stage, O’Rourke was joined by families whose children were killed in the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde. They called for stricter gun laws following the attack where 19 students and two teachers were killed. They asked that O’Rourke be elected come November.

O’Rourke called for raising the age of purchase for assault-style firearms to 21. He also supports a “red flag” law and universal background checks.

“I think we have our answers,” said Kimberly Rubio, the mother of Lexi Rubio, during the news conference. Rubio was asked if there was anything she’d be listening for during the debate. “I think we’re interested in the rest of Texas seeing what a failure he is.”

Abbott’s campaign announced billboards in the Rio Grande Valley. Photos from the campaign showed one likening O’Rourke to President Joe Biden and a billboard touting employment figures under Abbott. Another featured O’Rourke’s presidential bid Vanity Fair cover where he was quoted saying “I want to be in it. Man, I’m just born to be in it.”

“Not so much,” the sign reads.

Linking O’Rourke to Biden has been a consistent thread by Abbott’s campaign. The president has had lackluster popularity in Texas.

“As Beto O’Rourke faces off against Governor Greg Abbott on stage at the debate, he won’t be able to run from his extreme liberal policies that are wrong for Texas,” Abbott’s Communications Director Mark Miner said in a statement. “The Beto-Biden agenda of open borders, defunding the police, and energy jobs would destroy the Lone Star State.”

In a email to reporters, the governor’s campaign highlighted what it cast as O’Rourke’s “extreme views” compared to Abbott’s “record of success” on issues of policing, border security, energy the power grid, the economy and education.

Ahead of the debate, O’Rourke opposed the event’s lack of an audience, blaming Abbott. Abbott’s campaign pushed back that the rules were agreed to weeks ago, and O’Rourke’s team was complaining at the last minute.

“Abbott wants the debate to be as least impact and visible as possible and to not provide the Beto campaign with any sound bites or video that that they can use in their ads,” said Jones, the Rice University political science professor, ahead of the debate.

What do Abbott, O’Rourke need to do post-debate?

Early voting starts on Oct. 24, which means candidates have only a few more weeks to make their pitch before voters head to the polls.

With the election’s in it’s final phase, both candidates also need to have a coherent message, said Wilson of SMU.

“I think for both of them it will largely be a negative message, pointing out why the other candidate is the inadequate choice for governor,” Wilson said. “So we will see lots of negative ads, but the critique needs to be consistent. You don’t want to be all over the map.”

For Abbott the key is to not make any mistakes, he said. For O’Rourke it’s to generate unprecedented turnout. Wilson saw potential for O’Rourke to galvanize young, liberal-leaning women who may be motivated over the issue of abortion.

Candidates will move from persuasion to mobilization, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor.

Abbott will need to focus on keeping the Republican coalition together; O’Rourke has to get Democrats to show up to the polls, he said.

“They’ve got to get their votes out,” Rottinghaus said.

The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 11.