Abbott, O'Rourke lead off election year with visits to border cities

Gov. Greg Abbott, left, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke. (The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune)

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The race for Texas governor was kickstarted Saturday as Gov. Greg Abbott and Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke returned to the campaign trail along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Abbott formally announced his bid for a third term in McAllen, saying he was running to "keep Texas on the right course." Minutes earlier, O'Rourke was back on the stump in his hometown of El Paso, accusing Abbott of not listening to border communities like his.

During Abbott's roughly half-hour speech in McAllen, he focused on issues that included taxes, education and law enforcement. The governor largely avoided some of the most dramatic chapters he has faced in his second term, including the coronavirus pandemic and the power-grid failure after February's winter storm. While Abbott did not mention O'Rourke by name, he made a few clear references to him and broadly attacked Democrats.

"We cannot let big-government liberals redesign our state with the progressive agenda that is destroying some parts of America," Abbott said. "We need a proven winner who will fight to secure the future of Texas. That is why today I am in the Rio Grande Valley to officially announce my reelection."

Abbott delivered the speech at his campaign's Hispanic Leadership Summit, a notable setting as Republicans set out ambitious plans for 2022 in South Texas. President Joe Biden underperformed last year in the predominantly Hispanic, traditionally Democratic area. Abbott, who according to exit polling received 44% and 42% of the Hispanic vote in his past two campaigns, has made clear he wants to win the Hispanic vote in his reelection bid.

Touting his two terms in office, Abbott criticized Biden, saying he had not done enough to secure the border. The governor claimed that, under his leadership, Texas "responded with the strongest border security effort by any state ever in the history of the United States of America." That has included Texas' own border wall, which began construction last month, and the deployment of thousands of National Guard troops to the border. That deployment has faced criticism from Abbott's challengers in both parties, following reports of suicides and pay issues.

Addressing supporters outside a brewery in El Paso, O'Rourke said border communities do not want walls and "militarization." But O'Rourke said Abbott does not trust border communities to develop their own solutions to immigration challenges.

"We want people who come to this country to do it the right way, to follow the law," O'Rourke said. "We want there to be order and not chaos, but we have the best idea, because of the best experiences, in how to make that happen."

The dueling events marked the starting gun of the election year in Texas, especially for Abbott. He is launching a statewide media buy Monday, and his campaign has promised he will appear at 60 events before the March 1 primary.

Both Abbott and O'Rourke have to get through that primary before facing one another. O'Rourke faces minimal primary opposition, while Abbott has a group of challengers who have been hounding him from the right for months. While polling has shown him in a comfortable position heading into March, Abbott has spent the past year moving the state firmly to the right by championing laws that, for example, allow permitless carry of handguns and impose restrictive abortion measures.

Those laws have been at the center of O'Rourke's case against Abbott, along with the COVID-19 pandemic and the grid failure that left millions of Texans and has been linked to 246 deaths. Abbott, who has expressed confidence that lawmakers have done enough to prevent another grid collapse, did not broach the topic in his McAllen speech. He mentioned COVID-19 twice, but primarily focused on laws he pushed that prevent government officials from closing churches during emergencies and that provided civil liability protections for businesses that operated during the pandemic.

Abbott sought a contrast with O'Rourke by promoting the permitless carry law, which proponents call "constitutional carry."

"While some have threatened to come and take your guns, I signed more than 20 laws to protect your Second Amendment rights, including making Texas a 'constitutional carry' state," Abbott said.

As a 2020 presidential candidate, O'Rourke vowed during a debate that "Hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47." At the time, he was promoting a mandatory buyback of assault weapons, which he proposed in response to the 2019 El Paso Walmart massacre that targeted Hispanics. O'Rourke has stood by that proposal in his current campaign.

In recent days, O'Rourke has been increasingly focused on Abbott's border-security blitz, including the reports of poor conditions for National Guardsmen. He has said Abbott is using the troops as "political pawns."

On Saturday, O'Rourke said Abbott sees border communities as a "prop" to spread fear about immigrants. He also called out Abbott for a fundraising letter he sent before the Walmart shooting in El Paso that implored supporters to "DEFEND" the border.

"Here in El Paso, we know — perhaps better than anyone else — that those aren't just words," O'Rourke said.

During his speech, Abbott offered a handful of sharp attacks on Democrats but otherwise focused on promoting his accomplishments during his tenure and making promises for his next term. He specifically promised to deliver a "bill of rights" to ensure further property tax relief and another one to make sure parents have a greater say in their children's education. Specifics about the policies he would propose were not immediately available.

But the theme of parental rights was particularly noteworthy, especially as Republicans nationally zero in on it as a rallying cry for the midterms. The GOP, including Abbott, has been especially concerned with parents' role in education, arguing parents should have more say in curriculum and championing laws that seek to limit the teaching of what they characterized as critical race theory. It was a top issue in the Virginia governor's race last year where Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

"Parents are losing a voice when it comes to their children’s education and even their health care," Abbott said. "Many parents feel powerless to be able to do do anything about it. That must end."

Erin Douglas contributed reporting.