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WATCH: Abbott, O’Rourke to face off in sole Texas gubernatorial debate

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The Democratic challenger and the Republican incumbent face off on Friday at 7 p.m.

Edinburg, Texas, sits about 20 miles from the Mexico border and is home to around 100,000 people.

Its residents had historically supported Democrats. But in the 2020 presidential election, voters in the Rio Grande Valley made national headlines after supporting Republicans.

On Friday night, Edinburg will become the only town to host a gubernatorial debate between Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and his challenger, Beto O’Rourke.

“The location of the debate in the Rio Grande Valley reflects the fact that both the Democratic and Republican Party are feverishly fighting over the votes of Hispanic voters,” Joshua Blank, the research director of the Texas Politics Project, said. “The Rio Grande Valley, for better or worse, has become — at least symbolically — ground zero for this fight.”

This year's race for governor looks like it'll be one of the most competitive in recent Texas memory.

Both candidates also seem to acknowledge this by talking with constituents their respective parties may have previously overlooked.

Blank says the competitive nature of the state has made campaigns also focus on rural votes.

“You're seeing more attention given two groups in the electorate, over which both parties are competing not necessarily to win, but maybe to do better with than they have in the past,” Blank said.

Beto O’Rourke

As part of O’Rourke’s campaign, the Democratic and former congressman has hosted more than 70 events across 65 counties in Texas. Most of them have been in rural towns.

In an interview with The Texas Newsroom after a town hall in Lampasas last month, O’Rourke said he doesn’t want to write anyone off.

“The things we are talking about — you heard them at these meetings — how can we improve public ed? How do we expand Medicaid so more people can see a doctor? How do we get broadband internet?” O’Rourke said. “We do it by coming together and we do it in communities that others have taken for granted.”

O’Rourke said he believes there's a way to find common ground with those who don’t want to vote for Abbott, but might also be turned off by the Democratic Party.

He is betting on working with Republicans and others on immigration.

“I think we can find consensus and common ground on ensuring that we have at a minimum a Texas-based guest worker program that matches our values, our needs, our economy,” O’Rourke said.

Greg Abbott

Meanwhile, Abbott has made immigration the core issue of his reelection campaign.

He's blamed Democrats, mainly President Joe Biden, for the recent increase in migrant crossings.

“Because of Biden’s open border policies, it does nothing but create even more chaos down here,” Abbott said during a recent interview with Fox News.

In the last several months, Abbott's beefed up initiatives to curb illegal migration — even though that’s the role of the federal government, not the state.

Still, Abbott has deployed Texas National Guard troops to the border. He initially said there were 10,000 troops in the Southern border, but The Texas Tribune reported earlier this month the number had been reduced.

Abbott has also bussed migrants seeking asylum to other states — including Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Eric Adams, the mayor of New York, recently said he was contemplating sending New Yorkers to Texas to door knock for O’Rourke.

Abbott told Fox News he’d actually welcome that.

“There could hardly be anything better to aid my campaign against Beto O’Rourke than to have Beto O’Rourke aided by a bunch of New Yorkers,” Abbott said.

The border and Latino voters

Abbott’s campaign has also been focusing on Latino voters, something the Republican Party has also been doing.

Abbott recruited former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman to spread the message. In July, the Republican hosted a press conference in Dallas, while the Texas Democratic Party hosted its biennial convention nearby.

“Our Latino community is experiencing a reawakening — we are on the cusp of change,” Guzman said. “We won’t be taken for granted by the Democrats.”

But there’s not enough evidence to show Latino voters are shifting Republican.

A recent Telemundo poll showed that out of 625 registered Hispanic voters statewide, 54 percent said they’d vote for O’Rourke, while 31 percent said they’d vote for Abbott.

On the border, 48 percent of the voters in Brownsville and McAllen said they’d vote for O’Rourke, and 37 percent said they’d vote for Abbott.

In Corpus Christi, Laredo, and El Paso, 54 percent said they’d support O’Rourke, with 32 percent preferring Abbott.

Joshua Blank, with the Texas Politics Project, said it makes sense for Abbott to only agree to do a debate on the Rio Grande Valley.

“There's really no incentive for him to participate in any more debates than necessary, which I think he and his team have determined is one,” Blank said, who believed the move “is more of a reflection of the Abbott campaign’s position and campaign strategy.”

He also said it makes sense for Abbott to continue doubling down on immigration.

According to recent polling by the Texas Politics Project, that’s the top concern for most Texans.

“This is an issue that the governor is very comfortable campaigning on,” Blank said. “Ultimately, if the election were held today, Greg Abbott would probably win comfortably … (but) there still is the possibility that we'll see shifting in the polls between now and Election Day,” based on the latest ads and external events.

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