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Texas State University in San Marcos will host the first in a series of four scheduled general election debates next year on Sept. 16, school officials announced Monday.
The university will be the first in Texas to host a presidential debate, school officials said.
“It’s fitting that the only university in Texas to graduate a U.S. president will be the first university in Texas to host a presidential debate,” Texas State University System Chancellor Brian McCall said, referring to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who graduated from what was then Southwest Texas State Teachers College in 1930. “This is an exciting time at Texas State, and we can’t wait to showcase our great university before a global audience.”
Information on tickets is not yet available. For more information about Texas State and the upcoming debate at the University Events Center, visit debate.txst.edu.
Having the debate in Texas ensures a prominent role for a discussion on border security, a recent focus of Gov. Greg Abbott, who endorsed former President Donald Trump during a visit to the border Sunday.
As part of his efforts to tighten border security, which has cost Texas billions of dollars, Abbott sent state troopers and National Guard members to the border to arrest migrants crossing the Rio Grande as part of Operation Lone Star, the governor’s border security mission. Some of the arrests have become the subject of civil rights lawsuits against the state.
Recently, Trump has pledged to bring back a ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries and has refused to commit to not reestablishing a controversial policy that resulted in family separations.
The decision to host the debate in San Marcos may come from a desire to avoid one of Texas’ bigger metropolitan areas, like Dallas, Austin or Houston, which have clear political preferences, said Mark Jones, political science fellow at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. The choice to avoid the state’s flagship universities, the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, might have followed similar thinking, he said.
“Holding it at UT would be sort of seen as leaning too far to the left and holding it in College Station would be too far to the right,” he said.
Voter turnout in Hays County, where Texas State is located, has been steadily increasing in recent presidential elections, but saw a large jump of 12 percentage points in 2020. In 2020, President Joe Biden won Hays County by 10.83%. In 2016, Trump won the county by 0.83%, four years after Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the county by 10.38%.
Presidential debates typically have little sway on public opinion, Jones said, but voters will keep a close eye on how Biden performs on the debate stage.
“The 2024 debates are not going to be normal debates because of the high level of scrutiny of President Biden's cognitive abilities and ability to effectively think on his feet, which his team has very much protected him from,” he said. “It's not unreasonable to say that the best tests, or the best evaluations of Biden's mental acuity and ability to function without a teleprompter, or scripts or the protection of his team will be the debates.”
Texas State President Kelly Damphousse said the idea of the university applying to host a presidential debate had been in the works before he took over the position in April 2022. Damphousse said the university, midway between San Antonio and Austin, is well-positioned to host the large number of visitors expected for the debate, with enough hotels and airports located in both cities.
The overall cost of hosting the debate is expected to be about $5 million which will include the cost of additional infrastructure. Jack Martin, distinguished alumnus and former chair of the Texas State University System Board of Regents, will chair the Texas State Presidential Debate Committee, which will coordinate fundraising efforts related to the debate.
“There's going to be some costs to the university to run this,” Damphousse said. “We can manage it, but we'll also be asking friends to help us with the funding as well.”
With a current intense political climate, Damphousse said he hopes the debate will be a chance for Texas to pivot the national conversation back to a civil place.
“We think having a healthy debate, in a setting like the presidential debate, can be a step toward more civil communications between both parties and all entities,” he said. “And we want to be part of that.”
Carla Astudillo contributed to this story.
Disclosure: Texas State University System has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.