Texas Democrats hope threat to Roe v. Wade will energize their voters ahead of the midterm election

People rallying for abortion rights march down Congress Avenue in Austin on May 3, 2022. (Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune, Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune)

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Less than two hours after Politico reported Monday evening that the U.S. Supreme Court appeared ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, Beto O’Rourke leaped into action.

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“It’s never been more urgent to elect a governor who will always protect a woman’s right to abortion,” the Democratic gubernatorial candidate tweeted.

The next morning, he hosted an Instagram Live with Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood and the newest member of his campaign. By noon, he emailed supporters asking for a donation to help him fight for reproductive rights. He quickly scheduled abortion rights events in Austin and Houston through the end of the week.

O’Rourke, who is polling 11 points down from Gov. Greg Abbott, is seizing on a moment that Democrats have long feared was coming — the end of a constitutional protection for the right to have an abortion. But many Democrats said they’re hopeful that the looming threat of such a stunning political sea change could provide the strongest opportunity yet to energize their voters heading into an election year in which Republicans have been expected to dominate in Texas and beyond.

“Everyone’s got to pull their oar in the same direction, and we’ve got to do it with a common purpose,” said Wendy Davis, a former Democratic state senator who rose to prominence in 2013 for a 13-hour filibuster of a bill to restrict abortion access in Texas. “I know I intend to really lean into that message as we go into November — that we have a real opportunity to break through and elect Democrats at the statewide level from Beto O’Rourke down in a way that we haven’t before.”

On Tuesday, the high court confirmed the leaked draft opinion is authentic but cautioned that it does not represent the “final position” of the judges. If Roe is ultimately overruled, a “trigger law” passed last year would ban abortion in the state.

“For a lot of people who have believed the courts would backstop the political efforts, they now are thinking differently about who is going to protect these fundamental rights,” said U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, D-Houston. “We need to vote for people that are going to protect our freedom, our autonomy, our ability to make these personal and private decisions. We have to do that at the ballot box.”

Fletcher said she knows campaigning for abortion rights can win elections in Texas, because she’s done it before. In 2018, she won her Houston congressional district that was formerly held by George H.W. Bush and considered a Republican stronghold. She did so as a staunch advocate for reproductive freedom, drawing upon her experience volunteering for Planned Parenthood.

“That freedom to choose is very much a part of our values as Texans,” Fletcher said.

Fighting a red wave

Even with an energized voter base, Democrats in Texas are facing a difficult set of circumstances heading into the midterm election.

President Joe Biden is deeply unpopular in Texas, and Republicans are running on two resonant issues that are unlikely to subside before November: the highest inflation in 40 years and an increase in migrant border crossings that the GOP has painted as a disaster for national security.

And for district races, it’s a numbers game. Last year, Republicans in charge of redrawing the state’s political boundaries essentially eliminated swing districts for Texas legislative and congressional seats, making it that much harder for Democrats to flip seats from red to blue.

Even some Texas Democrats acknowledged the immensity of the obstacles before them.

“[Roe v. Wade] is definitely a rallying cry for many. But there’s also, of course, the inflation and economic factors that a lot of people are paying attention to,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. “So whether or not this will supersede those and lead to an outcome that would be more favorable to Democrats remains to be seen.”

State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a progressive from Dallas who is in a runoff election for Texas’ 30th Congressional District, was skeptical that her party wouldn’t squander the opportunity.

“It seems like we continue to get it wrong. It seems like we continue to not be able to maximize on the opportunities that are presented for us,” Crockett said. “I hate to say that this is an ‘opportunity’ because it’s bigger than that.”

She said voters ask her about why Democrats deserve their vote over this issue, as both Biden and former President Barack Obama made promises to pass federal legislation protecting the right to an abortion. Obama did not get it done during his eight years, and under Biden’s administration, similar legislation is expected to stall in the Senate.

The U.S. House has passed a law that would codify Roe. But the bill has failed in the Senate and looks to fail again next week.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said it was unlikely that Congress will be able to pass a law to legalize abortions in the absence of Roe.

“Honestly, we have to now focus our attention on November,” she said. “The Senate is not going to take any action to protect women, to protect privacy, to protect reproductive freedom, because we don’t have a large enough majority. So what does this mean? This means we have to win more elections.”

A GOP backfire?

Republicans have long pushed for overturning Roe since the case was decided in 1973. Texas lawmakers have worked steadily to pass numerous anti-abortion rules over the past two decades — an effort that culminated in last year’s law that bans the procedure after around six weeks of pregnancy.

But an outright ban of all abortions in Texas is a more extreme measure than most voters want, polls show.

A Wednesday poll from the University of Texas at Austin — which was conducted before the leak of the draft opinion indicating the high court favors overturning Roe v. Wade — found that 54% of Texans would oppose an outright ban on abortion if the 1973 case falls. On the other hand, 35% of poll respondents indicated they would strongly or somewhat support such a ban.

Joshua Blank, the research director of the Texas Politics Project, said its polling has consistently found that a “small minority” of Texas voters support banning abortion under all circumstances. The majority of voters, he said, support some level of access.

However, Blank cautioned that the end of Roe v. Wade could put public opinion on abortion in uncharted territory.

“This is a policy area where people tend to know what they think and they tend to hold reinforcing views, and those views rarely change,” Blank said. “However, those views have all been developed under the framework of Roe v. Wade. So I don’t think anyone can say with certainty going ahead the impact that half or more states severely curtailing or totally prohibiting access will have on people’s attitudes” and politics.

Anti-abortion activists argue that Democrats are the ones out of touch on abortion. They acknowledge the polling on Roe v. Wade does not appear favorable to the GOP but said that’s because most people do not fully understand the landmark case’s impact and what its overturning could mean.

“The poll numbers have been similar to that year after year after year, and in Texas and other states, the pro-life movement keeps advancing,” both in policy and politics, said Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life. He joked that every GOP candidate who his group interviewed for the March primary was “more pro-life than Mother Teresa.”

John Seago, legislative director of Texas Right to Life, argued Republicans were actually more of a threat to themselves than Democrats in November, saying they cannot let their voters grow complacent in a post-Roe world.

“I think Republicans really have an obligation to cast a vision that the pro-life movement is not finished,” Seago said, adding that the GOP should turn its efforts to ensuring district attorneys enforce abortion restrictions.

Several Texas Republican leaders have so far had a restrained response to the potential for the end of Roe, focusing their immediate comments on condemning the nearly unprecedented leak of the draft opinion.

Abbott, backed by an eight-figure campaign operation that spends lavishly on polling and other data, was noticeably quiet in the immediate firestorm following the leak. In his first known interview on the topic on Tuesday, he exclusively focused his comments on the leaking of the opinion, instead of addressing its substance or impact.

Abbott was a little more talkative on the subject in another radio interview Wednesday — especially when it came to the politics of the issue going forward.

“My first election for governor was a referendum on the issue of abortion,” Abbott said. “[Wendy Davis] was hailed as the abortion savior, but she lost to me by 20 percentage points. The same fate will meet with Beto on the campaign trial, who is even worse on the abortion issue than Wendy Davis was.”

Davis disputed that at a news conference with O’Rourke on Thursday morning in Austin, arguing most voters did not truly know Abbott in 2014 and “defaulted to their Republican voting habit.” Plus, she added, that was back when voters assumed Roe v. Wade would remain a “backstop” to any abortion restrictions in Texas.

Seago said Republicans “have a lot of education to do about the implications of Roe” and “have to overcome the sky-is-falling rhetoric from the left.”

Down-ballot candidates

O’Rourke said the Roe v. Wade news brings the issue of abortion rights even more into focus for voters, including those who were already on his side as well as those who were not.

“It’s people who maybe never really thought about this because they could never imagine it would get this bad here in Texas, and now it is,” O’Rourke said in an interview. “I think there are a lot of voters in Texas who will now be listening to what we have to say and thinking about the fact they have an alternative to a governor who has targeted every single woman — whether she’s Democratic, Republican or independent — in the state of Texas.”

Beyond the governor’s race, Democrats also see the issue taking on new significance in the contest for attorney general, which is currently in a Democratic primary runoff. One of the candidates, Rochelle Garza, is a former lawyer for American Civil Rights Union who focused on abortion rights and she has called the attorney general’s office the “last line of defense” if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Farther down the ballot, though, Democrats do not have many competitive races, thanks to the Republican-led redistricting process that happened last year. Davis alluded to that during the Austin news conference while impressing upon voters that redistricting does not affect statewide races.

Competitive down-ballot races are mostly in South Texas — and Democrats are largely playing defense there.

In national Republicans’ best pickup opportunity in South Texas — the 15th Congressional District — the two Democrats vying for the nomination in a runoff both made clear they disagreed with overturning Roe v. Wade on Tuesday. One of them, Michelle Vallejo, has been more outspoken on the issue and has the support of abortion-rights groups like EMILY’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

The Republican nominee for the district, Monica De La Cruz, responded to the Roe v. Wade bombshell by playing up her anti-abortion credentials.

“As a pro-life single mother, I believe every effort should be made to protect and honor life,” De La Cruz said in a statement.

Republicans — and some political observers — believe Democrats could face headwinds making a general-election rallying cry out of abortion in South Texas. The region is predominantly Hispanic, and Hispanic voters tend to have more nuanced views on abortion than at least Democrats writ large.

Progressives in South Texas are working to challenge that narrative.

“I think that some of the suggestion that South Texas is socially conservative and therefore is hostile to reproductive freedom is really a false and unfounded conflation between some people’s personal discomfort with abortion and their desire to impose their view or have politicians impose their view on other people,” said Kristin Ford, a spokesperson for NARAL.

NARAL has been on the ground for months in Texas’ 28th Congressional District, where anti-abortion Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo is in a primary runoff against progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros. But Democrats are far from united on the idea that Cisneros, who vocally backs abortion rights, is the best candidate to hold on to the South Texas seat in November.

U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., seemed to give voice to those concerns while campaigning Wednesday in San Antonio for Cuellar.

“Which is more important — to have a pro-life Democrat or to have an anti-abortion Republican?” Clyburn asked reporters. “Because come November, that could very well be the choice in this district.”

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood, Politico and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters 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.

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