The candidates running for Texas governor, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis, held their first televised debate on Friday in heavily Hispanic South Texas, in the border county of Hidalgo in the Rio Grande Valley.
The county is 90 percent Hispanic. It was the first gubernatorial debate on the border since 1998.
Republicans have won every statewide office in Texas for 20 years, but the fast-growing Hispanic population tends to vote Democrat, and many Republicans believe their survival lies in recruiting Hispanic supporters.
Carlos Sanchez, editor of Hidalgo’s largest newspaper, The Monitor, calls the event the Rio Grande Valley’s debut.
“I think this election cycle is a demonstration that smart statewide candidates are taking the valley and Hispanic voters very seriously,” Sanchez says.
The Davis-Abbott debate follows a summer in which Hidalgo County made national headlines. Thousands of undocumented children from Central America came over the border, filling detention centers. Gov. Rick Perry deployed 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the border.
In their debate, Abbott and Davis both supported the surge in law enforcement, because Washington hadn’t secured the border.
Then Davis called Abbott insensitive to the citizens here. She recalled a speech he gave linking border crime to “third-world corruption.”
“Comments from my opponent calling this area third-world are inappropriate,” Davis said. “They label a community.”
“I made that statement about corruption across the state of Texas — not targeting the Rio Grande Valley,” Abbot answered.
Abbott said he in fact feels a personal responsibility to root out anti-Hispanic rhetoric, because he has a personal stake in the community.
“I’ve been married into a Hispanic family for 33 years now,” he said. “My wife and I celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary last month.”
Abbott has made more than a dozen trips to the valley during his campaign, and broadcasts ads in Spanish. In a region with higher-than-average unemployment and many immigrants, though, Davis’ backing of a higher minimum wage and drivers licenses for undocumented people have a welcome ring. Abbott opposes both.
Latino voters alone probably won’t swing this governor’s election, but candidates clearly believe they’re an important part of winning.
At Friday’s debate, Sanchez said he hopes the hoopla over the debate gets more valley residents to the polls.
“The notion they can show up and demonstrate that their political clout can be transferred through numbers is the most exciting thing that’s happening in this auditorium tonight,” he said.