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After tense Greg Abbott, Beto O’Rourke debate, what’s next in Texas governor’s race

With just over a month before the Nov. 8 election, the race hinges on who will effectively turn out their party’s faithful voters.

By Gromer Jeffers Jr.

Greg Abbott y Beto O'Rourke
Greg Abbott y Beto O’Rourke tendrán su primer debate el viernes 30 de septiembre.((Photos by Lynda M. Gonzalez, left, and Rose Baca, right)

EDINBURG — Last week’s debate in the race for Texas governor between Gov. Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke offered each the chance to make closing arguments to a large television and digital audience.

Though some observers have said O’Rourke had his best debate since becoming a high-profile candidate in 2018, it wasn’t enough to stir what’s been a plodding pace, with Abbott, the Republican incumbent, maintaining a significant lead in most polls.

“One of the things that really sticks out is just how much continuity there is from where this race started several months ago,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

He said O’Rourke has argued that Abbott is responsible for all that’s wrong and all that hasn’t been done to move Texans forward. The issues the Democrat is pounding include curbing gun violence, fortifying the state’s power grid, restoring abortion rights for women, protecting voting rights, improving access to health care and retaining good teachers.

In contrast, Henson said, Abbott is running on Texas’ strong points, including the economy, while casting O’Rourke as a liberal who would wreck the energy industry, exacerbate border security problems and partner with President Joe Biden to implement what the governor calls a socialist agenda.

Voters had heard it all before the debate.

“I don’t think either of them had a particularly bad night, but I didn’t see anything that really changed,” Henson said.

The debate marked Abbott and O’Rourke hitting the final turn in the race for governor. Now the finish line is in sight.

With just over a month before the Nov. 8 election, the race hinges on who will effectively turn out his party’s faithful voters.

“Both of these campaigns are going to have to really beat the bushes in trying to drive up turnout,” Henson said. “You’re going to see O’Rourke playing to his advantage and trying to continue to mobilize Democrats, particularly on abortion and guns, and then try to exploit the deeply negative feelings that Democrats have towards Gov. Abbott.

“And Abbott is going to do his own version of that and continue to bank on the negative image [of O’Rourke] that they’ve worked very hard over a long period of time to build.”

Harlingen resident Brenda
Harlingen resident Brenda Kruse shakes hand with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott during a door-knocking campaign event in Harlingen, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. (Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

Turning out party loyalists is an easier task for Abbott, since analysts from both parties agree that, typically, more Republicans vote in statewide elections than Democrats. The results back up that contention, with Democrats winless in statewide contests since 1994. Ann Richards was the last Democrat to win a race for governor in 1990.

O’Rourke has spent much of his campaign trying to persuade voters in red counties to dump Abbott, a seemingly necessary approach if there aren’t enough Democrats in the electorate to win without Republicans and independent voters.

But recently, O’Rourke has been trying to add new or infrequent voters to his side, evident in the tour of Texas colleges he began last week.

Democratic gubernatorial
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke addresses the crowd at a post-debate watch party in Edinburg, TX on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. (Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

The former congressman is also paying attention to Democrats who may slip through the campaign cracks. On Saturday, he hung out with members of Black sororities and fraternities, an event set up by state Rep. Jasmine Crockett, the Dallas Democrat poised to replace Eddie Bernice Johnson in Congress. O’Rourke also attended the State Fair Classic between Prairie View A&M and Grambling State University, both historically Black colleges.

Meanwhile, Abbott spent part of Saturday at a campaign event in Edinburg. The governor has predicted he’ll win the Texas Hispanic vote, and the GOP is making a strong push to build on gains in the Rio Grande Valley.

If Abbott does beat O’Rourke for the Hispanic vote, it would seal his reelection and serve as a major setback for Democrats, who are relying on Latino voters to power them to success in statewide elections.

Five weeks is plenty of time to shift an election, so polling on the race is still only a snapshot.

But victory begins with a stout voter turnout effort, so what happens on the ground between now and Election Day has more significance than throwing jabs at a debate.

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