DALLAS – Republican candidate Greg Abbott has reversed his decision to appear in the only gubernatorial debate to be broadcast statewide on television.
Abbott and his Democratic opponent, Wendy Davis, had both agreed to participate in a roundtable debate in Dallas on Sept. 30.
But on Friday morning, Abbott's team reversed an earlier decision and said it will not participate alleging concern over the format.
"Due to our inability to agree on specific details of the format, Attorney General Greg Abbott will regretfully not be participating in the WFAA debate," said Robert Black, senior campaign adviser on Friday morning.
Black, a former spokesman for Governor Rick Perry, joined the Abbott campaign on Aug. 4 as a debate consultant.
But onMay 28, Wayne Hamilton, Abbott's campaign manager sent a letter to WFAA accepting the terms of the debate. His letter is posted in its entirety at the bottom of this page.
"From grassroots events to policy announcements and roundtable discussions, we have made our personal engagement with voters a focal point," Hamilton wrote to WFAA in May.
"We are deeply disappointed that the Abbott campaign has not lived up to the commitment it made to participate in this important debate," said Mike Devlin, President and General Manager of WFAA-TV. "WFAA has produced numerous debates which are balanced and fair to all the candidates. This debate would be no different. The citizens of Texas deserve to hear from the candidates for the most important office in the state."
Democrats slammed Abbott's reversal.
"It's no surprise that Greg Abbott is pulling out of a long planned debate the day after he was defeated in court for protecting billions in public education cuts that have led to overcrowded classrooms, teacher layoffs and shuttered schools," said Zac Petkanas, Davis spokesperson, in a statement. Greg Abbott is clearly too afraid to defend his record of siding with insiders at the expense of Texans -- whether it's defending funding cuts for classrooms, siding with a corporation against a victim of rape or letting his donors take tens of millions of taxpayer dollars intended for cancer research. This is nothing short of an insult to the voters of Texas."
"Attorney General Greg Abbott is a coward," said Will Hailer, Executive Director of the Texas Democratic Party. "Backing out of a debate shows his campaign isn't ready for prime time. He and his team have a fundamental disrespect for Texans and he is unwilling to have his ideas questioned by the press and everyday voters."
At least one Republican was publicly critical of Abbott, as well.
"To cancel one's appearance in the only scheduled statewide televised debate, given the importance of this particular office, is unconscionable," wrote Republican State Senator John Carona in an email to WFAA. "Greg Abbott is wrong to do this to the voters of Texas. He should have to defend his record, which is not without blemish. This, as you undoubtedly recognize, is the new strategy of the those relying on the vote of the far right. I'm a staunch Republican, but this is one more embarrassing move by a Republican candidate that either can't or won't defend his position on the issues."
Roundtable debates don't formally time responses for candidate answers. The looser format is designed to create a conversation and give voters a more candid look at candidates and their positions.
The Dallas debate was scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sept. 30 and would have been broadcast on all of Texas' Gannett stations including WFAA-TV in Dallas – Fort Worth, KHOU-TV in Houston, KENS-TV in San Antonio, KVUE-TV in Austin, along with other affiliates in Amarillo, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, San Angelo and Tyler.
Outside of those Gannett markets the debate was going to be available to any radio and television station in the state. In addition, the debate would have been streamed on-line at all of the Gannett websites in Texas.
Gannett stations currently reach 83% of Texans.
Strategically, Abbott's team likely revealed the news on Friday morning before the long holiday weekend. Currently Abbott and Davis are only scheduled to appear together in one debate in McAllen later this month.
Davis originally requested multiple debates statewide but Abbott said he would only do two – one in McAllen and the one in Dallas.
The most recent Rasmussen poll showed Davis closing in on Abbott but the attorney general still retains at least an eight point lead, according to that survey.
Late Friday afternoon, Abbott announced that Dallas' PBS affiliate, KERA-TV, has agreed to host a formal debate on September 30. Davis did not immediately agree to it after committing to the first one that Abbott backed out of today.
"Voters deserve a thoughtful and substantive policy discussion on how the next governor will lead Texas. Greg Abbott looks forward to sharing his vision for Texas' future and participating in the upcoming debates," said Wayne Hamilton, Abbott's campaign manager in an emailed statement.
Gannett guaranteed live coverage on all 10 of its television stations in Texas which reach 83% of the state. It's uncertain if any television station outside North Texas has agreed to simulcast KERA's debate.
The Davis campaign shot back at Abbott following the KERA-TV debate announcement.
"There have been reports that the Abbott campaign has 'committed' to another debate, but as we learned today Greg Abbott's commitments don't mean very much," said Zac Petkanas, communications director for the Davis campaign in a statement late Friday afternoon. "Wendy Davis has already committed the evening of September 30 to a debate on WFAA. The station has asked to have a discussion on Tuesday, September 2, to discuss options given the recent developments and, as Wendy Davis is someone who honors her commitments, the campaign looks forward to having that discussion."