Beto O’Rourke intensifies campaign on abortion rights as trigger law goes into effect

Democratic candidate for governor Beto ORourke speaks at a rally in support of abortion rights in East Austin on June 26, 2022. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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Beto O’Rourke is amping up his already dogged criticism of Gov. Greg Abbott over abortion rights as Texas’ “trigger law” takes effect Thursday, banning nearly all abortion in the state after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

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The Democratic nominee for governor is featuring the issue in his first general-election TV ads, which are airing during two preseason football games Thursday and Friday nights, according to his campaign. O’Rourke also marked the law’s implementation with a news conference Thursday morning in Houston, where he was joined by women and doctors who have been affected by the state’s abortion restrictions.

In recent emails to supporters, O’Rourke has suggested the abortion ban is “the most important thing” that voters need to know about Abbott, signaling a hard-fought homestretch over the issue.

O’Rourke’s TV buy during the football games represents a small fraction of the kind of advertising that Abbott’s campaign has been doing on the air since last week, but the challenger’s campaign says it wants to reach the large audiences of the preseason games with a timely message.

One of the TV ads flashes the faces of women as they say that starting Thursday, “women all across Texas are no longer free to make decisions about our own body.” A second TV spot portrays a wife — a “lifelong Democrat” — and a husband — a “lifelong Republican” — agreeing that the abortion law goes too far.

“I mean, this is a free country,” says the husband, Trey Ramsey. “We need a governor who gets that — and that’s Beto.”

Abbott’s campaign responded by arguing O’Rourke is the one who is “extreme” on abortion, noting his longtime refusal to say whether he supports any restrictions on the practice. O’Rourke reiterated that position at the news conference Thursday, saying he trusts women and their doctors to make the best decisions for themselves.

O’Rourke’s views “are not only out-of-touch with Texas, they’re out-of-touch with basic humanity,” Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement.

Abbott signed the trigger law last year, ensuring that Texas would automatically outlaw abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturned Roe v. Wade. That happened in June, mobilizing Democrats nationwide and giving O’Rourke’s campaign a burst of momentum.

[Gov. Greg Abbott unloads nearly $20 million in ad buys in race against Beto O’Rourke]

Other Democratic statewide candidates also capitalized on the trigger law going into effect Thursday. Mike Collier, who is running for lieutenant governor, and Rochelle Garza, who is running for attorney general, released a social media video urging voters to join them in fighting to restore abortion rights in Texas.

O’Rourke has campaigned relentlessly on the law’s lack of exceptions for people pregnant as a result of rape or incest, as well as polling that shows the law is very unpopular in Texas. The TV ads spotlight some of that polling.

An August survey found 82% of voters support exceptions for rape or incest. At the news conference, O’Rourke called abortion rights “one of the few truly unifying issues in the state of Texas right now.”

O’Rourke’s campaign said it is airing the commercials in seven markets during the Houston Texans preseason game Thursday night and the Dallas Cowboys preseason game Friday night. The campaign did not detail any plans to air TV ads beyond Friday.

Abbott’s campaign has been on TV since Tuesday of last week, airing a positive biographical spot featuring his wife, in a buy that is consistent with a well-funded statewide campaign.

Neither campaign was lacking for cash as of the last fundraising reporting deadline — June 30 — when Abbott had $45.7 million cash on hand and O’Rourke had $24.9 million cash on hand. It costs well over $1 million a week to run a serious statewide TV ad campaign.

But the football-game ads are part of an even more intense focus on the issue for O’Rourke as the trigger law goes into effect. At the news conference, O’Rourke spotlighted doctors who say they are getting more politically involved due to the curbing of abortion rights under Abbott.

“Greg Abbott is not a doctor,” said Dr. Lee Bar-Eli, a family medicine physician in Houston and national board member of Doctors in Politics. “He does not understand the complexities of health care choices, and so for the first time, you’re seeing doctors wake up and realize if we’re not in politics, if we don’t work to elect somebody like Beto O’Rourke, then we don’t get to practice medicine they way we want to — need to.”

In recent emails to supporters, O’Rourke has made clear he views Abbott’s abortion record a top issue, if not the No. 1 issue. One email Monday asked, “What are the most important things Texans need to know about Abbott?” The response began with, “Greg Abbott signed the nation’s most extreme abortion bill into law with no exception for rape or incest, even though 82% of Texans reject his radical ban.”

Abbott has been relatively muted on abortion since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, more eager to talk about President Joe Biden and issues related to the economy and border. He eschewed some of the more celebratory rhetoric from fellow Republicans after the Supreme Court decision, saying in a statement that the court “correctly” reversed Roe v. Wade.

Abbott’s campaign did not address the trigger law in its response to O’Rourke on Thursday, instead focusing on O’Rourke’s record on the issue. Abbott’s campaign pointed out that the former El Paso congressman in 2015 voted against the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which sought to create requirements for the care of an infant after a failed abortion.

Nationally, the issue has complicated an election cycle that Republicans have long expected to go their way. Last month, voters in another red state, Kansas, soundly defeated a special referendum to override the state constitution and allow the Legislature to pursue new abortion restrictions. And on Tuesday night, Democrats won a bellwether special congressional election in New York in which their candidate campaigned heavily on abortion rights.

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