DALLAS (NEXSTAR) – Throughout Friday’s one-hour Texas Governor’s Debate, we polled voters and tracked their live reaction to what was said by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and challenger Beto O’Rourke (D).
As you might imagine, some of the more controversial issues stood out as moments that drew a line in the sand between the two men vying to become the Lone Star State’s next governor. Abbott and O’Rourke sparred at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in their only scheduled debate.
Nexstar Media Group, which hosted the debate, worked with an outside research company to put together the panel. Though some voters lean in a certain direction, panelists said they could be swayed based on what the candidates have to say.
Here are a few of the moments that created the largest divided during our panel:
Gun laws in Texas
When Abbott and O’Rourke mentioned their very different ideas on gun laws, our focus group showed a clear divide — largely among party lines.
Guns are a big focal point ahead of the election, especially after the May 24 Uvalde tragedy, when 21 people — including 19 children — were killed in a shooting at Robb Elementary School. It’s the third-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
Abbott, who has an A+ rating from the NRA, received criticism for Texas’ gun policies, which allows Texans ages 21 and up to carry a handgun in public without a permit or training under House Bill 1927. It’s what’s known as permitless carry. Additionally, there have been calls to raise the age requirement to 21 for AR-style weapons — which was the type the Uvalde gunman, 18, obtained legally.
Last month, Gov. Abbott told supporters at a campaign event: “It is clear that the gun control law that they are seeking in Uvalde, as much as they may want it, it has already been ruled to be unconstitutional.” The governor continued, saying that 18-year-olds have been able to buy rifles for a century and a half “and we didn’t have school shootings. But we do. Maybe we’re focusing our attention on the wrong thing.”
Abbott has urged for increased law enforcement and investment in mental health resources to help curb violent attacks.
An O’Rourke representative told the Texas Tribune in August if elected he’d work on bipartisan legislation to raise the age requirement on assault-style weapons.
“What we need is action,” O’Rourke said on the debate stage Friday. “And the only person standing in our way is the governor of the state of Texas.”
O’Rourke says under his governorship, permitless carry would be repealed, in addition to tightening purchase restrictions and enacting red flag laws. While the former representative previously said he’d “take your [gun owners’] AR-15, your AK-47s,” he walked back these comments in February, saying he’s “not interested in taking anything anything from anyone” and intends to defend the Second Amendment while also making meaningful changes.
Future of abortion
The Hill explains Abbott told the Dallas Morning News that Texas wants to support victims and that “by accessing health care immediately, they can get the Plan B pill that can prevent a pregnancy from occurring in the first place.”
Some critics and health care advocates say disparities in access — economically, ethnically — still keep many pregnant people from getting prescribed the pill. The University of Southern California explains the various ways even those in blue states can be barred from access.
When the issue came up during Friday’s debate, it created clear differences among voters.
The governor made national headlines just shy of a year ago for comments made after the implementation of State Bill 8, which was at that time the most restrictive abortion bill in the U.S. Under SB 8 — now superseded by the trigger law — abortions were banned after about six weeks, which is earlier than many people even realize they are pregnant.
During a press conference on the bill, Abbott was asked whether or not the bill was cruel to victims of rape. Abbott responded that the bill still gave victims six weeks to get an abortion, so it does not force victims to have their assaulter’s child.
Instead, Abbott posed a different solution to the issue of rape, saying, “Let’s be clear: rape is a crime. And Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets.”
Per his website, Abbott says while strides have made to end abortion during his governorship, more must be done.
According to O’Rourke’s website and previous comments, O’Rourke says he believes women should have reproductive freedom. The Democratic candidate went so far as say (in a TV ad) Abbott’s laws are “the most important thing” for voters to know about him.
“I will veto any future legislation that seeks to further control women, including Republican proposals to limit access to contraception, prevent Texans from crossing state lines to seek reproductive care, and prosecute businesses that pay for employees to seek care in other states,” O’Rourke says via his website.
It doesn’t appear O’Rourke has given any specifics on time frame for abortion measures yet.
Police funding and crime
An Abbott ad released earlier this month claimed O’Rourke wants to “defund and dismantle” law enforcement. “He wants to punish the police, not the criminals,” Abbott says in the ad. Clearly, the ad has made an impact with voters because the issue being brought up in Friday’s debate immediately sent GOP-leaning voters in one direction and Democrats in the other.
In 2020, during the wave of protests following the murder of George Floyd, O’Rourke made several comments in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and of police reform. As Texas Tribune reports, while O’Rourke says he supports “demilitarizing” police and transitioning some funding toward crime prevention resources, he said this July at a town hall he doesn’t support “defunding” police.
“I don’t see eye-to-eye with you on defunding the police,” O’Rourke told an attendee, per the Texas Tribune. “I want to make sure we can count on the police and that means making sure they have the resources and funding they need, the training that they need.”
Meanwhile, an O’Rourke campaign spokesperson, Chris Evans, told Tribune that as a member of the El Paso City Council, O’Rourke voted to increase police funding several times.
Per his website, O’Rourke says he wants to spend police funding more wisely, on programs like “mental health care, addiction treatment, housing support, and youth services that prevent crime before it happens.”
O’Rourke says having more social workers and diversion courts will free up police to focus on violent crimes.
Based on Gov. Abbott’s recent focus on crime at the border, reasons he’s given for increased crime are what he calls the Biden administration’s “open border” policies and lack of support from the federal government. The governor has frequently related migrant crossing at the border with influx of crime in non-border areas.
Speaking strictly about “ordinary” city crime, Texas Department of Public Safety’s Crime in Texas 2021 report (using 2020 data), showed reported crimes in Texas cities/towns were down from 2019, though the number of violent crimes within that number were up. The report was released this time last year, so new numbers may be available in the coming weeks.
Moderator Gromer Jeffers asked Abbott twice during the debate why crime has increased under his watch. He blamed the increase on larger Texas cities he considers lax on crime.
Texas’ power grid
Texas’ power grid failure during the February 2021 winter storm left millions without power in freezing temperatures for days — and it’s clearly still top of mind with voters. When Abbott discussed his response and how he feels he’s improve the grid, our panel showed a clear divide.
“The power grid remains more resilient, more reliable than ever before,” Abbott said.
In November 2021, Abbott explained that a roster of laws he signed will make the grid more effective. The governor said the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which directs the vast majority of electricity in Texas, is working to be proactive rather than reactive. Additionally, Abbott said he met with natural pipeline transmitters who said they’re winterizing.
ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission said earlier this month that Texas’ power supply was in good shape going into fall. Abbott praised the two organizations on their implementation of his laws, saying Texas’ grid “is stronger than ever before.”
Last December, O’Rourke called out Abbott over the disaster again, saying the governor is leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for fixing the state’s energy grid through higher electric bills.
“This is the “Abbott Tax” — because Greg Abbott, the Governor of Texas, has failed to prepare our electricity grid and has failed to do anything meaningful after the failure of that grid to make sure we don’t have other problems going forward.”
Per his website, O’Rourke says as governor he’d work to “fully weatherize the power grid to withstand extreme weather and connect Texas to the national grid so that we can draw down power when we need it most. We’re going to prevent energy corporations from price gouging Texans in the future and dramatically reduce Texans’ energy bills going forward.”
Election Day is Nov. 8. Dates and hours during the early voting period may vary based on where you live.