Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Democratic rival Beto O’Rourke are set to go head-to-head in their first, and most likely only, in-person debate Friday evening scarcely more than five weeks before Election Day.
The highly anticipated matchup, being held at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and aired by News Nation, poses potential risks and rewards for both candidates, an opportunity to trade barbs face to face after months of launching attacks on the campaign trail and through political ads.
Based on recent polling, the race is headed for the closest margin a Texas gubernatorial election has seen in more than 20 years. But with Abbott consistently leading O’Rourke by 5 or more percentage points in multiple polls, the debate carries very different stakes for the two candidates.
“Abbott has the most to lose given that the status quo is if nothing changes, he wins,” said Mark Jones, political science fellow at Rice University in Houston. “For Beto, the debate is extremely important because it gives him the opportunity to perhaps shift the dynamic of the campaign or force Abbott to do or say something that he later regrets.”
But even if one candidate scores points or blunders, will voters notice? The debate takes place when many Texans will be sitting in the stands of their local high school football stadium.
The race is one of several gubernatorial contests attracting national attention where issues such as abortion, border politics and a flagging economy socked by high inflation have brought federal issues into state campaigns.
Could this debate move the needle?
While the debate does provide a chance for both candidates to land some punches, Jones is doubtful that the debate will have an impact on undecided voters and the election's outcome.
“The only time debates move the needle is if one of the candidates makes an egregious error … but, by and large, most debates pass unnoticed,” said Jones. Scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Friday, the debate will be competing for voters’ attention during Friday night football and other end-of-the work-week social activities.
Though O’Rourke has proposed an additional four town-hall style debates, Abbott has not yet agreed to that idea, with his campaign implying that Friday's debate is the only one he is willing to attend.
Early voting starts Oct. 24. Election Day is Nov. 8.
Abbott bets on the border
For Abbott, Jones said the strategy will be to maintain his steady lead.
“If the status quo doesn't change between now and Nov. 8, I think we're looking at an Abbott victory with the principal doubts revolving around what the margin of victory would be,” Jones said.
“The fact that the polling has been pretty consistent suggests that (the Abbott team) feels pretty comfortable where they are. Obviously, a 10-point lead is better than a 5-point lead, but I think that they're pretty happy with the fact that this has been stable,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor.
In a state where Democrats have not won a statewide election in decades, Abbott holds a significant advantage in his bid to win a third term, analysts say. Abbott is further bolstered by his war chest of more than $45.7 million, based on the most recent campaign finance report covering February to June of this year. His campaign already has aired four statewide TV ads, and two Spanish-language ads.
According to an analysis by the non-partisan election forecasting site FiveThirtyEight, Abbott is "clearly favored" to win the race. Out of 100 possible outcomes or scenarios the analysis simulated, Abbott won 94 out 100.
Abbott has catered his campaign messaging to the Republican base, focusing on the issues that are most popular among GOP voters, especially highlighting his efforts to address border security and the influx of migrants on the Texas-Mexico border.
“Border security issues poll well in the state," Rottinghaus said, adding that he was surprised that busing of migrants to other states polls fairly well. “It’s not overwhelming, but you've got a majority of Texans who approve and so … that's a winning issue for Abbott.”
Abbott’s key focus during the debate will likely be to double down on his main talking points and avoid making any egregious mistakes that could hurt him among Republican base voters, Jones said. But he also will have the opportunity to go on the offensive by grouping O’Rourke with national Democrats, including President Joe Biden.
Typically in midterm elections, the incumbent party in the White House doesn’t fare well. Jones said Abbott’s goal will be to harness Texans' frustration with the Biden administration and direct it toward Beto.
“It's far too easy for Abbott and the Abbott campaign to now tie (O’Rourke) to the Biden administration, because during 2018, Beto did not run as a national Democrat, he ran as sort of a unique Texas Democrat. Whereas after in 2020, when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, he ran as a national Democrat, and that's the image that has remained with him,” Jones said.
"When Beto ran for Senate, he just skated on a skateboard," Abbott told the USA Today Network on Tuesday. "When he ran for president the first time, he really took policy positions, and they were part of the leftist progressive agenda that repel people in Texas. The values that he has stood for are not Texas values. I will make that clear during the debate."
O'Rourke focuses on gun access, abortion
For O’Rourke, the debate presents a critical opportunity to score points against Abbott.
“I think his strategy is to probably go on the emotional angle to try to provoke Abbott into some type of response that can be used against him later on,” Jones said. “There'll be amplified media coverage if something occurs, so I think if you're Beto, you're trying to paint Abbott into a corner. Get him to say or do something that he would later regret.”
O'Rourke will seek to attack Abbott’s record with a particular focus on his stances on gun access and abortion, given the recent mass shooting in Uvalde and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end constitutional protections for abortion.
Both politically seismic events have had a mass mobilizing effect among Democrats nationally, giving the party more optimism that the midterms might not bring the red wave that pundits had been forecasting. And with both issues particularly relevant in Texas, they’ve been core parts of O’Rourke’s campaign strategy.
Abbott has signed several bills over multiple sessions loosening gun restrictions, including legislation last year that ended the requirement to obtain a permit to carry a gun. And this year, he has rejected demands by some to call a special legislative session to address gun safety and has dismissed as unconstitutional raising the minimum age to purchase an assault-style rifle, a step Uvalde families are pushing for. On abortion, he signed a near-total ban on the procedure, which took effect this summer.
“He's in a weak spot in that he wholeheartedly opposed gun control legislation, and he supported the trigger (abortion) law,” Jones said. “He can waffle a little bit on it, but by and large, he owns those policies, his policies on gun control and abortion, which are in the minority now. For abortion, it’s only in the minority because they didn't include a rape and incest exception. If they'd done that, he'd be pretty close to the majority, but they did.”
Based on recent polling, Abbott isn't aligned with the majority of Texans on those issues. According to the most recent poll from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, a large majority of Texas voters support at least some access to abortion, especially in case of rape or incest. The only exception in the Texas ban is when the life of the pregnant person is in jeopardy.
A majority of Texas voters also indicate they support some gun restrictions, including raising the minimum age to purchase assault-style rifles from 18 to 21.
“One thing for sure O’Rourke is going to do is talk about the impact of gun violence, and he will definitely bring these very emotional examples," Rottinghaus said. "And if Greg Abbott cannot show the emotions that parents and communities feel when they sort of get to these issues I think that it might make him look too robotic.”
Any particularly fiery moments in the debate also would provide fodder for O’Rourke in TV and social media ads.
“Beto needs to pull out all the stops and do everything he can to get earned media coverage to connect with voters to try to mobilize people who otherwise wouldn't turn out to vote,” Jones said.
Appealing to moderates, independents
From February to the end of June, O’Rourke raised a record-breaking $27.6 million — the most any candidate for statewide office in Texas has ever raised in a single reporting period. Those dollars have funded three TV ads that have aired statewide and one Spanish ad.
Several videos in O’Rourke’s robust social media campaign feature Republican voters who attest that, despite their previous voting record, they would be voting for O’Rourke in this election after seeing the Democrat on his recently concluded marathon 49-day campaign tour across the state. O’Rourke appeared at more than 70 town hall-style events in more than 65 counties, marketed as a grassroots campaign for all Texans.
Rottinghaus says O’Rourke’s main challenge moving forward will be to peel off any undecided, moderate or independent voters who might be dissatisfied with the direction of the Republican Party in Texas, and try to convince them Abbott is undeserving of a third term in office.
“Swaying reluctant Republicans, moderates and independent-leaning conservatives is job one for Beto O'Rourke,” Rottinghaus said. “Democrats are going to come out in big numbers for him; we're seeing big rallies the way we saw in ‘18 and ‘20. So he's going to get those Democrats to come out, but if he's going to win, he's got to take a bite out of Abbott's natural advantage among the Republican base.”
But for O’Rourke, that’s a tall ask in a race that has become a battle of the bases.
“The biggest challenge for both sides is that this is a very polarized race, where partisans are already committed to their candidate and there are a few undecideds,” Rottinghaus said. “So I think we will see a lot of time spent on base mobilization, and O’Rourke will spend time and money trying to specifically target people who will potentially leave the Republican ticket or leave the Republican base temporarily.”
“We want to use the hour of the debate to prosecute the case against Greg Abbott and make it very clear for voters why he should not have four more years,” said O'Rourke campaign spokesman Chris Evans. “Whether it's the six major mass shootings to happen on his watch since he took office, whether it's rising crime since he took office, whether it's the grid failing and 700 people dying, whether it's property taxes going up 40% since he took office … on any given issue, we're going to be able to talk about how Greg Abbott has failed Texas and point out how Beto is also able to offer a better path forward.”
Corpus Christi Caller-Times reporter John Moritz contributed
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas governor campaign: O'Rourke, Abbott face off in Friday debate