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Immigration, guns and abortion dominate Abbott, O’Rourke debate in the Rio Grande Valley

Michael Minasi (left) Julia Reihs (right)

Texas voters got their first and only chance to watch the candidates for Texas governor go head-to-head as incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott and his challenger, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, debated live from the Rio Grande Valley on Friday.
The debate at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley was hosted by NEXSTAR media group. It was the only debate both camps agreed to have, despite the O’Rourke campaign asking for more face-to-face contests in a matchup that’s garnered the most attention of all the statewide races on the ballot in November.

The debate was hosted by KXAN news anchor Britt Moreno, and the panel of journalists asking questions include Sally Hernandez of KXAN, Gromer Jeffers of The Dallas Morning News, and Steve Spriester of KSAT San Antonio, KXAN reported.
You can watch a replay of the debate, courtesy of KXAN, below:

O’Rourke, a former City Council member and congressman from El Paso, is looking to be the first Democrat elected to a statewide office in Texas since the mid-1990s. Abbott was first elected governor in 2014 and is seeking his third term. He was previously the state’s attorney general.

Recent polling indicates O’Rourke is still the underdog. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed that 53% of likely voters planned to cast their ballot for the incumbent while 46% said they supported O’Rourke. 

Immigration and border security

The debate took place only days after two migrants were shot, one of them fatally, in Hudspeth County in far West Texas on Tuesday.

A preliminary investigation showed that a truck with two men inside pulled over and shot at a group of illegal immigrants standing alongside the road getting water.

On Wednesday, Michael and Mark Sheppard were arrested in connection with the shooting. Michael Sheppard is former warden of the West Texas Detention Center in Sierra Blanca, a private detention facility. He was fired from his job shortly after the incident.

During the Friday debate, O’Rourke condemned the anti-immigration rhetoric prevalent in the current election cycle:

“And I'll tell you — this hateful rhetoric, this treating human beings as political pawns, talking about invasions and Texans defending themselves — that's how people get killed at the Walmart in El Paso. The gentleman in Hudspeth that we just learned about yesterday. This is incredibly dangerous for Texas and its not reflective of our values.”

Abbott countered with a claim that the city of El Paso is busing migrants across state lines in a similar fashion to his Operation Lone Star border security mission.

“It’s clear that Beto just wants to perpetuate the open border policies and mischaracterize exactly what's going on," Abbott said. "He refuses to acknowledge that the city of El Paso, because they are so overwhelmed by Joe Biden's open border policies, they too are having to bust migrants out of their communities because they have no way of keeping them there.”

El Paso is working with FEMA and faith-based groups in cities in the U.S. to relocate a select group of migrants who need assistance. Abbott’s project is using taxpayer money to send migrants to New York City and Washington D.C.

Operation Lone Star has long been the source of conservative rhetoric portraying the Texas-Mexico border as suffering from an extreme immigration crisis.

But Kim Davis, a voter from McAllen, told TPR that was not an honest representation of where she’s lived for most of her life.

"It's not what the news — and especially Fox (News) — shows the border. It’s not like that," she explained. "Yes, we have violence. ... But it's nothing like what they say. It's perfectly safe. It's not like the cartels are running across the border selling the drugs (and) shooting us. It's nothing like that. So I mean, all that was misinformation."

More than 800 migrants died on the U.S.-Mexico border in the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Abbott has made border security a main theme of his campaign and has painted O’Rourke as a standard bearer of what Republicans call President Joe Biden’s “open-border” policies.


The governor also responded to his controversial comments on emergency contraceptives during the debate. He was asked to clarify his comments made earlier this month on whether they served as a viable alternative to abortion for pregnancies from rape or incest.

“Well, it depends on what you mean by an alternative," he 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.”

Abbott added that emergency contraceptives are a responsibility of the state to carry for victims of rape.

Gun violence

Gun violence was another issue covered in the debate, which came more four months after the Robb Elementary school shooting in Uvalde. Nineteen students and two teachers were killed.

O’ Rourke strongly criticized Abbott for not enacting gun control policies. He referenced conversations he had with victims’ families before the event. They pressured Abbott to call a special session of the Texas Legislature to address gun reform, specifically raising the age to buy an assault-style weapon from 18 to 21.

“It's been 18 weeks since their kids had been killed," he said, "and not a thing has changed in the state to make it any less likely that any other child will meet the same fate.”

Abbott disagreed that gun control policies could prevent school shootings.

“We need to get to the bottom of what is really ailing our communities," he said. "And that is the mental health that is leading people to engage in school shootings.”

Both candidates agreed accountability at every level for the Uvalde shooting was needed.

Abbott met supporters at a watch party in McAllen immediately after the debate. On Saturday, he planned to speak to Texans for Greg Abbott and Texas Victory Weekend breakfast in Harlingen.

Early voting begins Monday, Oct. 24, and runs through Friday, Nov. 4. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.

TPR's Jerry Clayton, Carolina Cuellar, Gaige Davila and Pablo de la Rosa contributed to this report.

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Julián Aguilar