Abbott agrees to gubernatorial debate – but O’Rourke says 1 is not enough

The Democratic challenger has proposed three additional town hall-style debates across the state.

By Rhonda FanningAugust 10, 2022 4:22 pm,

The debate over debates is heating up in Texas.

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign said he would attend one – and only one – debate against his Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, on Sept. 30 in the Rio Grande Valley. O’Rourke’s campaign was quick to reply, saying he’d be happy to debate “at a mutually agreed upon date and time,” but that one was not enough, requesting three additional town hall-style events around the state.

Natasha Altema-McNeely, associate professor of political science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, joined Texas Standard to talk about what Texas voters can expect between now and November.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: It sounds like Abbott’s campaign is adamant about doing just one televised debate; that’s the same thing that happened back in 2018, when the governor agreed to one debate with then-challenger Lupe Valdez. What do you make of that?

Natasha Altema-McNeely: It appears that Abbott and his campaign are focused on the idea that this round of gubernatorial elections is not competitive. And as I read yesterday, O’Rourke is about 5 percentage points behind Abbott. And so it would appear that the mindset with Abbott’s camp is that, okay, maybe it’s not as competitive as anyone anticipated and therefore one debate is enough. But that may change.

I know this is speculation, but what could change that? If the polls tighten, for example – if you were Abbott, would that make you more or less inclined to debate? 

If I were in his position or if I were a member of his campaign team, I would continue to keep an eye on the polls and to see if this if the margin is, in fact, going to tighten. We do know that in the last round of campaign fundraising, O’Rourke raised more money than the governor. However, Abbott still has more money on hand. And so I think things like that would be on the governor’s radar and his campaign team’s radar. Also, anything can happen between now and the actual election. And so it depends on how Texans view existing issues or any upcoming events as well.

What do we know about how much these kinds of debates move the needle for voters?

We do see that voters who are committed to voting for either candidate will remain committed. However, debates, and as I implied before, any upcoming events, are very significant for potential voters who may not be fully committed to either candidate. And so for those types of voters – some may call them swing voters, if you will – how these candidates handle questions regarding very controversial issues, whether they’re responding to these issues or talking about how they would address them if they should happen in the future, these debates could be very helpful in their decision-making process.

And if in the next few months we see that Abbott agrees to have these town hall meetings, that would be especially helpful for potential voters who want to have that opportunity to ask him these very hard questions, to see how he’ll react, and then also to see how his opponent would address those issues and to give him an opportunity to talk about any issue or the issues that are important to his campaign.

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