A vote by Texas lawmakers to create some of the nation’s strongest abortion restrictions will play into 2014 election campaigns and might also spur Republican presidential candidates in 2016 to push for stricter limits.
Approval of the Texas measure was the latest Republican-led initiative in statehouses and Congress in recent years to more aggressively regulate abortion. Rallies at the Texas capitol in Austin leading up to the July 12 vote show the issue remains politically potent more than four decades after the U.S. Supreme Court made the procedure legal.
Democrats already are using Texas to try to boost their 2014 congressional fundraising, calling it part of a “War on Women” being waged by Republicans. They said it will expand their electoral advantage with women.
“This is going to propel a lot of women into the political process,” said U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, in an interview today. “It sends another message to women that the Republican Party doesn’t understand them or their needs.”
State Senator Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat whose 11-hour filibuster helped block the abortion bill last month and forced Texas Governor Rick Perry to call a second special session to deal with it, is already seeing financial gain. She reported yesterday raising $933,000 during the last two weeks of June, with more than 15,000 campaign contributions.
Perry, 63, who supports the abortion measure that he has yet to sign, said last week that he won’t run for re-election in 2014. He hasn’t ruled out a second presidential bid after his failed campaign for the 2012 Republican nomination.
Davis, 50, has said she is considering running for governor. The state’s Republican attorney general, Greg Abbott, who announced his intention to run for governor over the weekend, is an overwhelming favorite to succeed Perry, said Harold Cook, a Democratic political consultant in Austin.
Perry may have gained his own political advantage. That’s because abortion opponents dominate Republican nomination voting in two states that make the first decisions, Iowa and South Carolina.
Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, an Iowa-based coalition that opposes abortion rights and gay marriage, said Perry’s leadership on the issue will help with “people that he will need to win over in an Iowa caucuses.”
The Texas legislation bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and requires the state’s 42 abortion facilities to meet standards similar to those for outpatient surgical centers. Even if clinics spend millions of dollars to upgrade -- only six of the facilities already meet the new standard -- they’ll face another hurdle under the law: doctors are required to gain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
Perry’s high-profile efforts on the issue could push other potential 2016 Republican candidates to call for more restrictions. Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a 2012 Republican president candidate who may be positioning himself for another bid, showed up in Austin last week to criticize “national Republicans” for urging lawmakers to back off on pressing abortion restrictions for fear of alienating women and younger voters.
Blaming a growing national gender gap on Republican efforts to restrict abortion over-simplifies how women vote, said Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, which opposes same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
“I don’t think this hurts at all,” Perkins said. “This is reflective of where the country is as a whole,” he said, citing more than 200 laws passed by states in the past three years that restrict abortions.
“It’s absolutely insulting to women to say the only thing they vote about is reproduction,” Perkins said. “A lot of women are supportive of these measures that are actually women-centric in terms of providing basic safety measures in these clinics.”
Should Perry run for president again, Perkins said his efforts in Texas will be remembered and rewarded by abortion opponents.
“This is where you see a distinction between those who talk about being pro-life and those who actually take initiatives to show that they’re pro-life,” he said.
Republicans dominate Texas politics with large majorities in the House and Senate and wins in about 100 consecutive statewide elections since 1994. Democrats said the abortion fight could ultimately boost their standing in a state where changing demographics could someday favor them electorally.
“The abortion debate is a very helpful step in the process for those who want Democrats to be viable in Texas,” Cook said.
State Senator Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat, said Democratic women in Texas haven’t been so agitated since 1972.
“I’ve never seen women so motivated since the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Texas,” she said.
The Texas political landscape could change dramatically over the next decade as the number of Hispanics surpasses Anglos in the second-most populous state. Nationally, Hispanics gave President Barack Obama a 44-percentage-point advantage over Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
Texas Republicans say the abortion debate will give them a boost among Hispanics, who are more supportive of abortion restrictions than the public overall, by showing a stark difference with Democrats.
“This issue has solidified Republican voters,” said state Representative Larry Gonzales, a Hispanic Republican in a district near Austin. “People know what we stand for.”
State Senator Eddie Lucio Jr., a Democrat whose district borders Mexico and is more than 80 percent Hispanic and Catholic, said Republicans have been “very smart” to stick with a message of strong opposition to abortion.
“It will continue to get them elected in Texas,” he said.
Lucio was the only one of the state’s 12 Democratic senators to vote for the abortion bill, along with 18 Republicans. In the House, five of 55 Democratic representatives voted for the bill.
Democrats can build their advantage with women voters if they expand the debate beyond abortion to include equal-pay, family planning programs and education funding, said Sylvia Manzano, senior research analyst at Latino Decisions, a Seattle-based polling firm. Perry last month vetoed a bill that mirrored the federal Lilly Ledbetter Act in 2009 requiring woman be paid equally as similarly qualified men.
“Our data and lots of national studies show women are turned off not only by abortion policies but the rhetoric around the debate,” Manzano said.
Abortion isn’t a mobilizing issue for Hispanics, who comprised 40 percent of Texas’ population in 2012, compared with immigration reform and education funding, said Manzano, who works in Houston. About 35 percent of Hispanics in Texas voted for Romney in the 2012 presidential election.
Surveys last year by the Washington-based Pew Research Center showed that 54 percent of American adults want abortion to be legal in all or most cases, while 39 percent favor making abortion illegal in all or most cases. Those percentages have remained “fairly stable since the mid-1990s,” according to the January report.