In 2014, state senator Wendy Davis ran for governor on the back of her efforts to derail a bill that would have forced abortion clinics to close across the state. The bill had been the most restrictive legislation the Texas GOP had tried to pass in its long-standing crusade to eliminate legal abortion in the state. During her campaign, Davis’s position on the procedure was not absolute—she even briefly suggested that she could, in theory, support a ban after twenty weeks’ gestation with sufficient medical exemptions—but she stood for the principle that abortion should be legal and available to all Texans. Part of the theory of her campaign was that the median Texas voter was closer to her position on the issue than that of her “pro-life” opponent, Republican attorney general Greg Abbott, and that she could speak to centrist and center-right women who were to the left of the GOP on the issue.
But in the election, it turned out that Davis’s stance on abortion hurt her. Some conservatives took to describing her as “abortion Barbie.” She lost by 20.4 points, the second-worst performance by a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since Reconstruction.
There are many reasons for Davis’s defeat, and attributing it solely to her prominence as an advocate for abortion access is wrong. But that certainly didn’t propel her to office. A year after her gubernatorial run, while interviewing her for the Texas Observer, I asked Davis why she felt she had been unable to garner any traction with voters on the issue at all. Polls may say that abortion access is popular, Davis told me, but “what it doesn’t necessarily tell you is how enthusiastic [voters] are on that issue.” Most folks, she continued, “are going to vote either through defaulting to partisanship, or they’re going to vote based on a core belief that’s been tested and that they feel strongly about.”
For many Republican voters, abortion is the number one issue, and it has driven their votes for decades. Many voters who support legal abortion, by contrast, count it as one among many topics they care about.
Davis also asserted that the GOP’s fight against abortion rights hadn’t “created enough of an emotional response with a lot of people,” because many Texans felt like the laws didn’t affect them directly. “It’s the women who don’t have the means to travel, the means to pay for an overnight stay—those are the women that are going to be impacted,” she said. “We’re still at this point where there are some women who are going to react strongly to that, but others aren’t, because it hasn’t touched them yet.”
I thought about that interview when the Supreme Court’s draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case establishing a constitutional right to abortion, leaked last week. In the months ahead, we’ll be looking closely at all the ramifications of the death of Roe on Texas women. But it’s not too early to wonder what impact it will have on politics in Texas, the most populous state in the country in which the procedure will be banned. For four decades, the push to ban abortion has been a driving force in political life here. What’s next?
As reactions to Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion spread, some hoped it would help Democrats’ electoral chances. From the White House on down, Democrats predicted—or hoped—that their voters would become energized and that the demise of Roe would be a step too far. Indeed, overturning Roe would be unpopular. A Politico poll conducted immediately after the leak reported that 50 percent of Americans oppose overruling the decision, while just 28 percent support it. Banning abortion, as Texas law will do soon after Roe dies, is even more unpopular—even here. A poll conducted in April by the Texas Politics Project found that 35 percent of Texans support or strongly support banning all abortion, while 65 percent oppose it.
Some elected Texas Republicans—even those responsible for passing or signing the “trigger law” that will ban abortion in the state thirty days after the Supreme Court officially overturns Roe—seem uncomfortable with the consequences of their actions, or at least wary of talking about them in an election year. While Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton welcomed the news effusively, Governor Greg Abbott, who signed the trigger bill into law, has made no mention of the leak. Neither has Speaker of the House Dade Phelan. This has not gone without notice among the base. “It is almost,” wrote right-wing activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, as if Abbott and Phelan “are embarrassed by a pro-life law that was passed when no one thought Roe . . . would be overturned.”
Abbott has kept his reelection campaign focused on a few specific topics on which he feels safe, both bread-and-butter issues and red meat: the border and illegal immigration, criticism of the Biden administration, worries about inflation, and the panic over what children are being taught in public schools. “Banning abortion was not on their list,” said Jim Henson, a political scientist at the University of Texas and the director of the Texas Politics Project. Abbott’s approach was working: the fundamentals for any Democrat are bad this midterm, and the latest polls before the leak found the governor leading Democratic nominee Beto O’Rourke by eleven points. Henson said that “to improve O’Rourke’s odds, something needed to upset the fundamentals.” Would abortion becoming illegal shake up Texas politics?
There are some good reasons to doubt that whatever backlash materializes will do much for Democrats, at least this November. For one thing, many items on the Republican party’s platform are unpopular with the general electorate, but the party does just fine at the ballot box. (Gerrymandered state legislative districts are one factor but not the only reason.) The most notable example is the party’s absolutist position on gun rights. Many voters, including independent voters, desire some restrictions on firearm ownership. In May 2021, 59 percent of voters opposed letting Texans carry handguns without licenses. But the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a bill that month letting Texans do just that. The same poll revealed that three out of four voters think background checks should be mandatory for all firearm purchases. The Legislature has been moving in the opposite direction for years, and the GOP maintains strong majorities in both the state House and Senate.
There’s a fundamental asymmetry between Republicans and Democrats in Texas. Conservatives have a movement, and liberals have a coalition. Conservatives can count on voters who are extremely passionate about single issues such as ending abortion and fighting gun restrictions to show up in the low-turnout Republican primary, where a few votes might decide a race. Meanwhile, Democratic constituencies have more diverse views and are driven to the party by many different factors. Some of those constituencies, such as the predominantly Hispanic and Catholic voters in the Rio Grande Valley, have complex and conflicting opinions on abortion—and many Democratic elected officials hedge their public statements on abortion accordingly. Soon after the Alito opinion leaked, national Democratic leaders rallied around U.S. representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo who is one of his party’s last pro-life members of congress.
An outright abortion ban would be a much bigger shock than the bill Davis fought in her filibuster. But different groups of Texans will be affected by a ban in different ways. As usual, those with means will be less impacted by the state’s policies than those without, as Davis noted to me in 2015. That tempers the potential political impact of the ban. More-affluent Texans, who vote much more often than Texans with less means, will have access to abortion via a plane ticket to Denver or Santa Fe and might not be touched directly enough to vote blue.
Even if the political effect of overturning Roe is muted this year, there is a grimly fascinating question that hangs over Texas politics, and it has to do with what our right-leaning high court will now accept. What comes next?
For Republican strategists who have been nervous about the politics of a full-on abortion ban, Roe was a kind of guardrail. It ensured that Texas lawmakers could look busy making laws testing Roe’s boundaries without ever having to worry about the potential political consequences of getting what they ultimately wanted. When the Legislature considered Senate Bill 8 this year—a measure that created a legal bounty on abortion providers and those who help women get abortions—some anti-abortion advocates fretted that the bill was so self-evidently unconstitutional that its inevitable repeal would set the movement back. That repeal never came.
In the aftermath of the leaked opinion, there has been a lot of speculation about whether this court could similarly overturn decisions ruling same-sex marriage a constitutional right and striking down prohibitions on “sodomy.” But those are not the only issues in question.
For many years, Texas conservatives have chafed at the knowledge that children who are in the state without legal papers are educated at public schools. (It’s understandable that Texans whose children are in under-resourced schools might ask why noncitizens get free education, but the self-interested answer is obvious: to exclude them from education would create a permanent underclass in Texas and put a drain on the economy.) And for many years, Republican elected officials fielding questions about the issue could say: “Hey, I hear you, but it’s out of our hands.” The Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that a 1975 Texas law attempting to exclude undocumented kids from public schools was unconstitutional.
Last week, Abbott was asked the question about education again, and his response was different. “I think we will resurrect that case and challenge this issue again,” he said. “The times are different than when Plyler v. Doe was issued many decades ago.” There are many such matters for which Texas lawmakers might want to throw a pass and see if the high court is receptive.
If killing Roe indicates the direction of the post-Ginsburg court—marked, in particular, by much less respect for the court’s own precedents—then a universe of new possibilities has just opened up for the Texas Legislature. There will be little reason for Republicans not to hit the gas and see how far they can go. An abortion ban would just be the start. Lawmakers are already talking about finding ways to prevent women from leaving the state for abortions, and prosecutors, perhaps from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, will surely find new ways to bring charges against women who have had abortions.
For years, Texas Democrats have wondered if the GOP has finally gone too far. Every odd-numbered year, some wonderful new policy innovation dropped by the Texas Legislature causes liberals to ask: will there be a backlash? The answer has consistently been no. But Texas Republicans could now find a way to bring that backlash upon them much more quickly.