PAUL J. WEBER, Associated Press
DALLAS (AP) — Ebola, ethics and education dominated the final debate between Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis on Thursday night before Texas voters choose one of them as their first new governor in 14 years.
Fallout from a new scathing audit of how Republican Gov. Rick Perry awarded a half-billion in taxpayer dollars to private businesses made this a livelier and looser debate than the first one earlier this month. With Election Day only 35 days away, Davis must now hope her performance closes the gap in the polls.
Hours after federal officials confirmed that a patient in Dallas had the first diagnosed Ebola case in the U.S., Abbott and Davis vowed to keep Texans safe if there were more cases on their watch. Both agreed with the immediate response, which Abbott said included quarantining the ambulance used to transport the patient.
But from there, common ground gave way to clashes.
“Mr. Abbott, you are talking out of both sides of your mouth,” Davis said when the topic turned to classrooms and proposals by Abbott to give school districts more control.
It came after Davis was pressed twice about putting a price tag on her plan for education, which remains the biggest policy issue in the race. She wouldn’t give a number, but said that not increasing state spending would only push costs down to local schools.
Abbott said per-pupil spending — a category that Texas ranks near the bottom nationally — isn’t the way to look at the problem.
“No business starts out by saying we need to spend ‘X’ amount and then create a product,” he said.
But the most pointed exchange was about the audit of Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund. The report found that roughly $172 million was given to private companies that never submitted applications for lucrative economic development awards.
Abbott has taken criticism for open records rulings from his office that blocked the release of documents involving those companies. Abbott said auditors found no wrongdoing by his office, and after Davis accused him of failing as a watchdog, he accused her of profiting from one of the awards.
Davis’ title company in Fort Worth closed the deal for the outdoor retailer Cabela’s. Davis said she was salaried and didn’t receive extra profits based on individual deals.
“I have always acted within the ethical guidelines and have been very careful to do so,” Davis said.
Bigger stakes confronted Davis in this final debate — and a bigger audience. The prime-time slot all but guaranteed more viewers than the first debate two weeks ago on a Friday night in high school football-crazy Texas, which most observers scored as a political draw.
But the status quo between now and Nov. 4 will likely not be enough for Davis to become the first female and Democratic governor of Texas since Ann Richards was elected in 1990. Her record-breaking fundraising for a Texas Democrat — more than $27 million as of July — and national profile haven’t elevated Davis from underdog status.
She hardly needed debates to get her message on TV: Davis began the month having already spent close to $5 million on ads, which was slightly more than Abbott, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity. Nine in 10 have been negative spots, including a new one Thursday set in a school hallway that attacked Abbott on education.
Even if the debates didn’t shake up the race, at least Texas voters got debates before picking a governor this year. Perry refused to square off against his Democratic opponent during his last re-election bid, making these the first in a Texas general election since 2006.