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Why is immigration such a big deal in the governor's race? Because it helps win elections

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke.
Patricia Lim & Gabriel C. Pérez
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke.

Gov. Abbott has been able capitalize on polling that shows immigration remains a top concern for Texans, even as abortion, school safety and gun violence compete for voters’ attention.

On the eve of early voting in Texas, incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott revisited what’s been familiar ground during his campaign for reelection: a gathering with law enforcement where Abbott can tout his controversial border-security efforts.

Speaking with border sheriffs in Corpus Christi Thursday, the Republican summarized what’s been a hallmark of his effort to convince voters he deserves a third term as governor — the border is open and dangerous and it’s President Biden’s fault.

Remember this: it was just two and a half years ago we had the fewest illegal border crossings in decades, and that's because of four measures that were put into place. And that is Remain in Mexico, the Title 42 policy, the end up catch and release and building a border wall,” Abbott said, referencing some of former President Trump’s immigration policies. “Now, just two and a half years later, under President Biden, we this past fiscal year had the most illegal border crossings ever.”

Abbott has been able capitalize on polling showing immigration remains a top concern for Texans, even as abortion, school safety and gun violence compete for voters’ attention. The economy is the only other issue that Abbott dedicated as much time and effort to as he seeks reelection.

“Immigration is one of those rare issues that really helps you mobilize the base, but at the same time doesn't alienate - and actually wins you votes with - more middle-of-the-road November voters.”

Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, who helped organize rallies at a West Texas detention facility during former President Trump’s tenure, still champions what he calls common sense reforms and solutions. But during his campaign he’s also embraced more moderate rhetoric, like the need for immigrants to come to the country legally. O’Rourke recently said he supported National Guard and state troopers supplementing the U.S. Border Patrol, but in a limited role compared to Abbott’s Operation Lone Star. That mission was announced in March 2021 and has sent thousands of Texas National Guard and Texas Department of Public Safety officers to the border.

“I would end the involuntary activation of these members of the Guard. I think there's still a role for those who volunteer to serve in a complimentary capacity, along with Border Patrol, along with some contingent of DPS state troopers,” he said during an interview with FOX News affiliates in Texas.

Democrats have assailed Operation Lone Star as a waste of taxpayer money and have even called on the Biden administration to investigate some of its funding mechanisms. At least five members of the National Guard assigned to the border mission have died by suicide, which has fueled criticism.

Though some have decried the operation as another example of a far-right lurch by the governor, political scientists said the explanation for Abbott’s focus on border security is a simple one: It’s working.

“It’s a winning issue with general election voters, people who aren't diehard Republicans. They still, on average, agree with the governor's policies and have a more negative opinion of the Biden administration's handling of the border than they do of the Abbott administration's handling of the border,” said Mark P. Jones, a professor in the Department of Political Science and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Political Science Fellow at Rice University. “Immigration is one of those rare issues that really helps you mobilize the base, but at the same time doesn't alienate —and actually wins you votes with — more middle-of-the-road November voters.”

It was just six years ago that some Texas House Republicans entertained a more moderate stance on immigration, and even championed a state-run guest worker program, as O’Rourke is currently proposing. But Donald Trump’s hardline stance on immigration created a model that Texas Republicans have embraced. Rebecca Deen, an associate professor of political science and the associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Arlington, said that’s suited Abbott well.

“I know that Governor Abbott is a very savvy politician, so he pays very close attention to the political winds and what will motivate and what is salient to his core base,” Deen told The Texas Newsroom. “That explains Governor Abbott’s move to the right over the last couple of years in preparation for this reelection bid. And so, I have always observed his policy actions and then also his rhetoric on the stump and where he's chosen to campaign. I've observed that through that lurch, that he's appealing to the electorate who is firmly in the pro-Trump camp.”

O’Rourke is presenting himself to voters in deep red Texas as a more thoughtful candidate, while also calling out what he says is hateful rhetoric by the Abbott camp. During a recent campaign stop in Midland, O’Rourke said migrants need to emigrate legally. But he also blasted Abbott for language the governor used in a campaign mailer days before the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 where a gunman killed 23 people to ward off what he believed was a Hispanic invasion of Texas.

“If you want to come to this country, you want to join a family member, you want to work a job, you want to claim asylum or seek refuge, we want you to be able to do that. But you have to do that legally,” O’Rourke said. “You have to do that in an orderly fashion. And we're going to make sure that we honor the laws on our side. You know, the current governor on the eve of that El Paso shooting where 23 of my neighbors lost their lives, sent out a mailer talking about an invasion, asking Texans to defend themselves and take matters into their own hands. What if Texas elected a governor who would work on rewriting our immigration laws to match our ideals and our values, our necessities, and the reality that we see?”

O’Rourke has also blasted Abbott’s recent bussing of migrants out of Texas and crowd-funding a state-built border wall as more proof that he is focused on stunts over solutions.

“We have, now eight years in, a governor who, through stunts like bussing migrants or involuntarily activating 10,000 members of the guard, nine of whom have lost their lives since Operation Lone Star has begun, or building a mile and a half of a border wall or trafficking in really dangerous rhetoric about invasions and Texans needing to defend themselves and take matters into their own hands, someone who hasn't made any of our legitimate problems and challenges at the border any better,” O’Rourke recently told The Dallas Morning News’s editorial board.

 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, left, and Gov. Greg Abbott during a debate in Edinburg on Sept. 30, 2022.
Courtesy of News Station
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, left, and Gov. Greg Abbott during a debate in Edinburg on Sept. 30, 2022.

During the only debate between Abbott and O’Rourke in late September, Abbott said the state shouldn’t be required to spend taxpayer dollars on border security. But he said that Biden has done nothing to address the problem and O’Rourke also ignore the problem if elected.

“Candidly, we shouldn't have to allocate any money for it, because this is all because of Joe Biden's failure to do the president's job to secure the border. We're only having to do that because of Joe Biden's failure and because it would be the same pathway that Beto would take us down,” Abbott said. The governor also mocked O’Rourke’s support of a guest worker program and said the Democrat could have proposed that during his previous failed campaigns.

“He talked about this guest worker program — He could have done that had he won the race for the Senate or won the race for president. That's not a job for governor,” Abbott continued. “The job of governor is [to] have to deal with the chaos caused by the Biden administration and his open border policies that better would replicate.”

Jones said it’s easier for the governor to move to the far right than it is for the challenger to embrace more moderate rhetoric in an effort to court center-right conservatives.

“(O’Rourke) adopted a sort of middle-of-the-road moderate policy, but that's not enough for most conservatives. And even for those conservatives who see it coming closer to them, they're unlikely to believe it,” Jones said. “It's easy for Republicans because they all share the same position. Democrats dislike the Biden administration's policy for different reasons. Moderate Democrats think it's too permissive. Progressive Democrats think it's too repressive.”

Abbott has accused O’Rourke of flip-flopping on border issues and in late September issued a statement highlighting the Democrat’s positions on Abbott’s deployment of the Texas National Guard to the border. Abbott said O’Rourke promised earlier this year to deactivate the troops.

“From border security to abortion to defunding the police, Both Ways Beto O’Rourke has run from his past positions several times during this campaign. Stay-tuned for Beto’s primetime Friday Night Flip-Flip showcase,” Mark Miner, the Abbott campaign’s communication manager said in a statement.

O’Rourke’s campaign said in response that Abbott’s tenure as governor has produced nothing more than political stunts that haven’t benefited Texas.

“Greg Abbott's eight years of failed policies and extreme political stunts are doing nothing to make Texans safer or our border more secure. Like all Texans, Beto wants order and security at our border,” campaign press secretary Tori Larned said. “As a border resident who is raising his three kids in El Paso, he is the only candidate in this race who will work with Republicans and Democrats alike to lead with solutions rather than stunts so we can finally establish a safe, legal, and orderly system of immigration that matches our values and meets our economic needs.”

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar

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Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom