Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Friday defended busing migrants out of state to liberal cities, while his Democratic rival, Beto O’Rourke, called Abbott’s rhetoric on immigration “hateful” and said his conduct in the aftermath of a mass shooting should disqualify him from serving in the state’s top job.
The contentious exchanges came during a fast-paced televised debate Friday evening — the only such scheduled meeting between the two candidates competing in one of the most closely watched contests of the fall. The hour-long exchange, in Edinburg, near the state’s southern border, was dominated by disputes over guns and immigration. It was largely consistent with the competition in recent months, in a state still reeling from a mass shooting in May.
“There should be accountability up and down the ballot, beginning with Greg Abbott,” O’Rourke said as he accused the two-term governor of failing to act to prevent the deadly mass shooting at a school in Uvalde, Tex., and to take meaningful actions in the aftermath of it to prevent another one. “I think he has lost the right to serve this state in the most important position of public trust.”
Abbott, who is leading in most polls, sought to blame many of the state’s woes on President Biden, invoking his name four times during the first 12 minutes of the debate — largely to blame Biden for the increase in migration across the southern border.
Abbott used a legal argument to push back on a demand from O’Rourke and some of the shooting victims’ families who want the state to raise the age limit for buying certain firearms to 21. Florida passed a similar measure in the aftermath of the Parkland mass shooting.
“No parent should lose a child, we want to make sure we do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Abbott said of the shooting. “We want to end school shootings. But we cannot do that by making false promises.”
He argued that lifting the legal limit for purchasing weapons would be struck down by the Supreme Court.
Abbot said law enforcement officers present at the schools should face consequences for their inaction. “There needs to be accountability for law enforcement at every level,” he said.
O’Rourke has centered much of his campaign on gun control since the May massacre at Robb Elementary School left 21 dead, including 19 children. Hours before Friday’s debate, O’Rourke held a news conference with the victims’ families.
In addition to raising the age for firearms purchases, O’Rourke is proposing to require universal background checks and enact red flag rules that allow officials to temporarily confiscate weapons from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.
O’Rourke evaded a question about his previously stated support for confiscating AR-15-style weapons, though he did not reiterate that position.
The debate pitted O’Rourke, a former presidential candidate, against a Republican who some see as a future White House aspirant. Yet there was nobody in the audience at Abbott’s request, O’Rourke said during the debate.
Abbott is seeking a third term as governor and has focused much of his campaign on his push to secure the southern border. During the debate, Abbott argued that his programs to stem immigration are needed, but argued they’re only necessary due to federal failures. He has spent about $4 billion on Operation Lone Star and deployed about 10,000 members of the National Guard to the border amid a major increase in crossings.
Abbott has also drawn headlines by busing migrants to New York, Chicago and Washington — including sending some to be dropped off in front of Vice President Harris’s residence.
The governor defended the program by saying the cities he opted for have the resources and capabilities to accommodate migrants, an assessment that elected leaders in those cities have disputed.
Pressed by a moderator about why Abbott has only sent migrants to states governed by Democrats, Abbott suggested that another round of buses would be deployed to other cities that he did not name.
“There will be other cities in the future that also will be on the receiving end of the migrants,” Abbott said. “We will continue to have to move migrants.”
Abbott also said that smaller communities in Texas needed help handling the influx. “They needed relief,” Abbott said. “Busing was one of the ways of providing them relief.”
O’Rourke characterized the program as a taxpayer-funded stunt that amounts to what he called “political theater for his political career.”
“We don’t need any more stunts. We need solutions,” O’Rourke said.
At one point, O’Rourke directly confronted Abbott about how he is treating migrants who come to the state.
“I’ll tell you this hateful rhetoric, this treating human beings as political pawns, talking about ‘invasions,’” O’Rourke said before he was cut off. “That’s how people get killed at the Walmart,” he said, referencing a 2019 mass shooting in El Paso by an accused gunman who said he was targeting Mexicans.
Relatively little time during the exchange focused on abortion, even though Texas has implemented a restrictive ban that has drawn national attention.
But O’Rourke indicated that it is a defining issue. “This election is about reproductive freedom,” he said. “If you care about this, you need to turn out and vote.”