AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Friday’s Texas Governor’s Debate came at a crucial time for Beto O’Rourke. With just five weeks to go before Election Day, polls show the Democratic challenger with a deficit in the high single digits to incumbent Governor Greg Abbott.

Polling released earlier in the week by Emerson College Polling and The Hill showed Abbott with an 8-point lead over O’Rourke. The challenger faces the challenge of winning over a shrinking pool of undecided voters.

The debate had few headline-making moments, which may have worked against O’Rourke.

“It was actually a pretty non-dramatic debate, which I think is a really good thing for Greg Abbott,” said John Wittman, a consultant who previously worked as Abbott’s director of communications.

“Typically, the challenger who is down really needs to have that breakout moment. I didn’t see that tonight from Beto O’Rourke,” Wittman added.

Travis County Democratic Party Chair Katie Naranjo agreed there was no breakout moment in the debate, but she saw O’Rourke creating an opportunity by highlighting certain issues.

“I think the reality is accountability has been established, the lack of accountability the Governor has…,” Naranjo said, referencing Abbott’s immigration policies and stance on gun regulations.

“If you as a female voter, a mom sitting there listening myself, think holding people accountable that is a breakaway moment, then it gives voters the power to hold the Governor accountable,” Naranjo said.

Access to abortion question highlights stark differences between Abbott and O’Rourke

The Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade helped make abortion a larger factor in the November election. Texas now has laws in place to ban abortion, with no exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

A survey by Emerson College Polling and The Hill asked Texas voters whether the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade would make them more or less likely to vote. The results showed 54% saying they would be more likely to vote in November. A significant minority, 41%, replied that the ruling made no difference in whether they would vote.

During Friday night’s debate, Governor Abbott reiterated that the state should make sure that Plan B emergency contraception is available for victims of sexual assault.

“Whether it be at a hospital, at a clinic, or for someone who gets a prescription because of it, not only should [Plan B] be readily available, but the state of Texas is going to pay for it to make sure that it is available for them,” Abbott said, in response to a debate question.

O’Rourke said the state laws backed by Abbott go too far.

“This election is about freedom,” he said on the debate stage and exhorted Texans to go to the polls.

“If you care about this, you need to turn out and vote. I will fight to make sure every woman in Texas can make her own decision about her own body, her own future, her own healthcare,” O’Rourke vowed.

State of Texas host Josh Hinkle spoke to two policy insiders about the statements on abortion from the candidates. John Wittman previously managed the communications team for Governor Abbott. He now is a founder of Wittman Public Affairs in Austin. Katie Naranjo is the chair of the Travis County Democratic Party. She’s a healthcare advocate and the CEO of a small business in Austin.

What follows is a transcript of their discussion:

Josh Hinkle: Katie, I want to start with you what we heard the governor saying focused a lot on emergency contraception and access to that. What did you think when you heard what he had to say?

Katie Naranjo: I thank God that he is not an OBGYN, because he clearly does not know how Plan B works, as well as rate and or being a victim of rape. And while this is one facet of reproductive health care, there are many other issues that are at play here. We’re talking about constitutional rights. A person in Texas who is able to carry a child has less rights today than they did when Governor Abbott first went into office. And he has made it not only illegal to seek an abortion in the state of Texas, in terms of rape or incest, but also we have an attorney general fighting to make sure in the life of a mother that people are still prosecuted if they ain’t abandon abortion in Texas.

Josh Hinkle: What do you think John?

John Wittman: Well, I think one of the most powerful moments of this debate regarding abortion tonight was actually when Governor Abbott spoke about his daughter and the adoption that they went through and the importance of protecting innocent human life. And I think that was actually a really powerful moment that connected a lot with voters. You know, Beto likes throw around words like extremism on this issue. But the reality is, is that Beto doesn’t believe in any limits on abortion whatsoever. Up until 39 weeks, he refused to answer the question again, tonight. He is on the record saying that he doesn’t believe in any limits on abortion. So as much as he loves to throw around the word extremism, he’s got a real problem with that.

Katie Naranjo: Do you know, anyone that’s actually ever had an abortion at 39 weeks?

John Wittman: I’m sorry, why is that…

Katie Naranjo: Exactly. Again, that’s using political ploys and talking extremes on reproductive issues…

John Wittman: Then why is it so hard for Beto to say that you shouldn’t be able to have an abortion at 39 weeks?

Katie Naranjo: Why does the Republican Party want to expand more rights while you know what’s going on in my body than protecting the innocent lives, as you so claim, when it comes to children in schools or in church?

John Wittman: I don’t think there’s anything extremism without trying to protect innocent human life. And that’s what Governor Abbott is all about.

Katie Naranjo: Except when it comes to gun control. That’s our issue here. We want to make sure that women are forced to give birth and then we don’t want to actually protect the children when they’re born.

John Wittman: I still don’t know where Beto O’Rourke stands on the issue after tonight.

Swayed by the message – voters react in real time to Abbott vs O’Rourke debate

During Friday’s debate, Nexstar reporter Jackie Kingston observed as a panel of 20 voters watched the debate. Each member of the panel used a dial to register their reaction in real time to what the candidates said on stage.

The dials captured a strong reaction to how the candidates spoke about actions taken after the school shooting in Uvalde.

“This is going to be an emergency item,” Governor Abbott said, referencing how he planned to make school safety legislation one of his priorities for state lawmakers when they convene in January. “Over the summer, I requested special committees to be working already, so they will be ready when the session starts,” Abbott added.

The Governor has faced criticism for deciding not to call lawmakers back for a special session to pass school safety legislation rapidly before next year. O’Rourke echoed that criticism on the debate stage.

“Why not call a session right now? Why wait until next year?” O’Rourke asked. “Gun violence is the leading cause of death of children in this state. Why are you waiting to save lives?”

The gun debate drew strong responses from members of the panel. A mother, who is also a teacher spoke out about how the Uvalde shooting resonates with her and others.

“You don’t have to be somebody that’s in the classroom every day like me, you don’t have to be somebody who drops your kids off every day to understand and know the impact of Uvalde, ” she said. “Moving forward, you know, in the future, never letting anything like that ever happen again.”

Another panelist noticed that there was no audience in the debate hall. The two campaigns agreed on rules for the debate, which included no live audience. But O’Rourke posted a picture of an empty debate hall on social media hours before the debate, blaming Governor Abbott for the rule. Abbott’s campaign denied the accusation.

“That to me was very telling,” the panelist said in a live interview during Nexstar’s post-debate coverage. “I went in here undecided, open mind. But you know, reading that earlier today, definitely swayed me in a more negative way towards Mr. Abbott,” he explained.

Before the debate, each panelist used the dial system to indicate whether they were leaning toward voting for Abbott, O’Rourke, or if they were undecided. Abbott had 40% support going in, O’Rourke 27%, with 33% undecided.

After the debate, Kingston asked the panel to vote again, to indicate who they would support at the moment. The undecided numbers dropped significantly, shrinking from 33% to 7%. Governor Abbott’s support rose slightly, to 43%. Beto O’Rourke’s numbers shot up, rising to 50%.

Now that you’ve heard the two candidates for governor in Texas debate the biggest issues of the 2022 campaign, we want to know who you think had the best showing.

Did incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott do enough to win your support and hold onto his seat? Did Democrat Beto O’Rourke have the big night he hoped for to gain the support from enough voters to send him to Austin? We’re sharing the poll above across the state of Texas to see what debate watchers thought of Friday’s performance.

Check back over the next few days to see the latest results from this unscientific debate poll. 

Guns and the Grid

“Beto talks a lot about all these things that he wants to do regarding guns, but he has to actually work within the confines of the legislature. The governor is not a king, the governor has to work with the legislature,” Wittman said of O’Rourke wanting to raise the minimum age to purchase AR-15s and wanting to enact red flag laws.

Families affected by the Uvalde school shooting have voiced in the past they want to raise the age requirement for purchasing semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21.

“When it comes to gun control, what voters in Texas have to decide is do they believe that Gov. Abbott is going to make it less safe or more safe for their children to be able to go to school … and what voters did not hear tonight was a solution,” Naranjo said, pointing to the permitless carry law that went into effect last year.

The law, House Bill 1927, allows Texans 21 and older to carry a handgun in public in the state. There are exceptions for felons and those under 21, and buyers will still be required to pass a background check at a gun store.

During the February 2021 winter storm, millions of Texans lost power in freezing temperatures and hundreds perished because of failures with the power grid, which is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

In response, Abbott helped pass legislation to overhaul and reform ERCOT, requiring weatherization for equipment and communication improvements during outages.

“The reality is that the grid held up this summer because of the laws that Greg Abbott signed during the regular legislative session,” Wittman said.

However, Naranjo said, “no one’s been held accountable [for the grid].”

“What we need is more debates and more discourse in this governor’s race, and we haven’t even talked about important issues like health care, and the fact that we have a crisis in a nursing shortage and a crisis in our schools,” Naranjo said.