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Washington Whispers: Why the Abbott v. Beto Brawl in Texas Matters

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.


Beto O’Rourke angrily confronted Gregg Abbott in May about the Texas governor’s evasive response to the Uvalde school shooting
Beto O’Rourke angrily confronted Gregg Abbott in May about the Texas governor’s evasive response to the Uvalde school shooting

The hotly contested race for governor in Texas continues to seesaw. The current governor, Republican Gregg Abbott, was ahead in the spring, but former Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke cut into Abbott’s lead after the Uvalde, Tex. school massacre on May 24th and the Supreme Court evisceration of Roe v. Wade on June 24th. And here we go again: Abbott has taken a commanding lead again as autumn is now upon us.

According to a University of Houston-Texas Southern University poll in early September, Abbott was 7 percentage points ahead of O’Rourke—49 percent of Texans supporting Abbott, and only 42 percent for O’Rourke.

By September 19, a poll conducted by the Dallas Morning News with the University of Texas at Tyler, from September 6-13 surveying nearly 1,300 registered voters, showed Abbott with a growing lead, 49 percent to O’Rourke’s 28 percent, 9 points ahead.

Abbott’s handsome lead may, in part, be the result of an incumbent’s advantage in name recognition and access to airwaves, as well as money to buy that access. In August, Abbott flooded TV with negative ads that, for weeks–due to O’Rourke’s conservation of lesser funds and unexpected illness–went unanswered, leaving Abbott’s campaign essentially the only one on the air.

According to the Washington Examiner, Abbott spent $10.3 million on broadcast, cable and digital ads between August 16 and September 15, while O’Rourke spent only $1.9 million. An additional $1.8 million was spent by memorably named “Coulda Been Worse,” an anonymous group of donors opposing Abbott. But the amount spent by O’Rourke and Coulda Been Worse combined could not compete with Abbott’s ability to spend—especially since Abbott also is sitting on a mighty war chest of $46 million, much of which will be available for use as the election approaches.


Texas Governor Gregg Abbott (l) and challenger Beto O’Rourke
Texas Governor Gregg Abbott (l) and challenger Beto O’Rourke (r)

It is no wonder, then, that Beto has conserved his ammunition for the fall. According to the Washington Examiner, he reserved about $9 million in advertising that began after Labor Day, and is expected to last through Election Day on November 8.

To further complicate his challenge of Abbott, Beto was out of commission in August with a bacterial infection for some crucial campaign days. But he is now back on the trail with a vengeance. If Beto’s performance in his 2018 race against incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz is any indication, Beto is likely to continue to hit that trail hard. In the 2018 campaign, Beto traveled to every county in Texas, almost beating Cruz—a true accomplishment in a state which has not elected a Democrat to a statewide office since 1994. Cruz only topped Beto by 2.6 percent, the closest U.S. Senate race in Texas since 1978. Reportedly, Beto is taking a similar approach in this governor’s race. And he still has some time to play catch up in the polls.

But horserace aside, the substantive question is what will reach Lone Star hearts and minds? What will it take for a majority of Texas voters to show their humanity and vote accordingly?

Beto O’Rourke’s appeal to voters is based in human issues, among them women’s rights to make decisions about their own health and bodies, and stricter gun policy after Texas’ recent mass school shootings.


Under the heartless Texas anti-abortion law signed and defended by Gov. Abbott, there is no exception for rape or incest, although, according to the Texas Politics Project, 80 percent of Texans—including more than 70 percent of Republicans—support abortion access in those situations. People convicted of performing an abortion can receive a sentence of up to life in prison and a fine of at least a $100,000. The anti-abortion legislation also authorizes private citizens to file civil suits against anyone who aids and abets an abortion in the state, with a minimum award of $10,000.


Ever since the Uvalde school massacre, carried out by a man who legally purchased two AR-style rifles just after his 18th birthday, O’Rourke has been pushing for red-flag laws, universal background checks, and raising the minimum age for buying AR-style weapons to 21. According to polls, these proposals are popular in Texas. Moreover, the families of Uvalde victims, the Uvalde city council, and the Uvalde School Board have asked Gov. Abbott to call a special session to raise the minimum age for making such purchases. Thus far, Abbott has stubbornly refused.



Instead, Abbott has tried to change the subject from his opposition to women’s rights and his failure concerning the Uvalde school shooting fiasco to his campaign on border security and immigration. His most recent gambit has been to transport immigrants by bus from Texas border towns to New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. And Abbott’s political twin, Republican Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis is aiding Abbott in this inhumane endeavor by trickery, enticing asylum seekers in Texas onto planes with false promises of housing and employment, and then unceremoniously dumping them in so-called sanctuary cities in the Northeast. Those cities had no notice that they were coming, so were totally unprepared and had to scramble to help them.


Sadly, Abbott’s cruel strategy appears to be going over well in his own state. According to the Dallas Morning News, a majority of Texans approve of how Abbott is handling immigration at the Texas-Mexico border, 52 percent to 39 percent, approving of actions like truck inspections and the deployment of National Guard and state police. Busing of immigrants to northern cities was approved by 54 percent.


Still, some Texans are shocked by the callously sadistic quality of Abbott’s actions. Christopher Alston of Plano, Tex., told the Dallas Morning News that the immigrant busing is, “just a scar on humanity and a real true crime.” He added, “Those people are destitute and then they get jacked around like they’re a card, like it’s a game. We need to relocate Abbott to the middle of Russia.”

On the other hand, Eva McElhearn of Denison, Tex. told the newspaper that the busing was “a good step because someone needs to address the situation and Texas shouldn’t just be the only one having to deal with the illegal immigrants coming over the border.”

McElhearn’s thinking is not evil but a shortsighted view which ignores the suffering Abbott is deliberately causing—as well as his refusal to work with those trying to formulate a sustainable yet compassionate immigration policy.

The result of the Abbott-O’Rourke contest will tell the rest of us just what kind of human beings Texans are. And this race, one of most closely watched matchups in the U.S., may well be a bellwether for the direction of the nation.


 

Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.


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