AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday defended more security on the U.S.-Mexico border while Democratic challenger Lupe Valdez sought to breathe life into her flailing campaign at their only debate of a race overshadowed by the state's unexpectedly intense U.S. Senate contest at the top of the ballot.
Abbott is heavily favored to win a second term against Valdez, a former sheriff in Dallas who is the daughter of migrant farmworkers and would become Texas' first Hispanic, openly gay governor if elected. But her trailblazing run has wilted with little outside support and has been ignored nationally by Democratic groups.
Valdez, 70, cast herself as an antidote to years of social conservatism that have dominated Texas politics, which hasn't elected a Democrat to a statewide office in more than 20 years. She cited an immigration crackdown passed last year known as Senate Bill 4, which allows police to ask about immigration status during routine stops.
"There's a lot of things that we're doing that is causing fearmongering," Valdez said.
Abbott, 60, let Valdez's barbs slide just as he has done throughout a low-wattage race that has been overshadowed by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's fight for re-election against Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke. But the debate wasn't without some new twists.
A year after bucking other GOP governors nationwide and aggressively pushing for a "bathroom bill" targeting transgender people, Abbott said again pushing the issue was not on his agenda in 2019 if elected. The issue was opposed by Fortune 500 companies, sports leagues and police throughout Texas. The main version of the Texas bill proposed in 2017 would have required transgender people to use public bathrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate.
But he stopped short of saying he would veto such a bill if the Republican-controlled Legislature sends one to his desk. And while he signaled support for taking down a Confederate plaque in the state Capitol that rejects slavery as an underlying cause of the Civil War, Abbott said he would not order it removed on his own, even though lawmakers say he could do so.
Abbot instead called on the Legislature to act since it was the one that put the plaque up more than a half-century ago.
"I don't think the governor should unilaterally have authority to be dismissive of an act of the Legislature," Abbott said. "If you can do that with one issue, you can do that with virtually any issue. And I think that raises questions."
For Abbott and Valdez, their race is a far cry from the intensity of the Senate contest. Polls show O'Rourke with at least a chance to defeat Cruz and become Texas' first Democrat elected to the Senate in 30 years. The unexpectedly close gap has fueled attacks, energized big rallies and made for the most expensive Senate race in the country
On Saturday, O'Rourke is set to perform with country legend Wille Nelson, piling onto the fanfare. Campaigning is also fierce in congressional districts in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio where Republican incumbents are at risk.
But that urgency has been hard to come by in the race for governor, which speaks to both Abbott's dominant position and Valdez's struggles.
"It's been one of the most uninteresting races for governor in my memory," said Harold Cook, a Democratic political consultant who was an adviser to former Texas Gov. Ann Richards in the 1990s.
Few incumbents in the 36 governor races this year more hold more advantages than Abbott, who cruised to his first election by 20 points in 2014 and continued to raise millions of dollars throughout his first term.
In July, Abbott reported having nearly $29 million in the bank - more than 100 times more than Valdez.
Valdez, meanwhile, has turned off young Hispanic activists over cooperating with federal immigration agents while running a Dallas County jail system that is the seventh-largest in the country. Powerful national groups have also stayed away.
Emily's List, a prominent Democratic political actional committee that spends millions of dollars trying to elect more women to office, doesn't include Valdez among its eight gubernatorial endorsements for 2018. The group did not respond to an email with questions about Valdez, but on Friday announced that it had endorsed a new slate of Texas legislative candidates.
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber