After the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, the decision about whether to legalize abortion was returned to the states. Many—including Texas—had already passed laws designed to start the clock on banning abortion as soon as Roe fell, while others put the question to voters. Kansas was the first state to test how citizens felt about legal abortion via a ballot referendum. The conventional wisdom, at the time, was that voters in one of the most conservative states in the country probably didn’t approve of the procedure. But on election day, Kansas voters decided, by an eighteen-point margin, to keep abortion legal until 22 weeks of gestation. In November, five other states—California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, and Vermont—will cast ballots that could either expand, restrict, or affirm the legal right to abortion.

Texas, however, won’t be one of them. In some states, getting a single-issue referendum on the ballot is a simple process. In California, for instance, any citizen can propose a law, file it with the state, pay a two-thousand-dollar filing fee, collect a few hundred thousand signatures, and bring it to a statewide vote. The process is similar in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and 21 other states and territories. (This is how Oklahomans passed laws legalizing medical marijuana and expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.)

In Texas, though, citizens aren’t allowed to directly bring a ballot measure to the polls. We only vote directly on specific issues when the state legislature directs us to do so in the form of a constitutional amendment. At an August campaign event in San Angelo, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke was asked whether Texas could have its own Kansas-style abortion referendum. He explained that Texas law didn’t allow it—but that there was perhaps a work-around. “If you want a referendum on abortion, this election is it,” he told the questioner.

His message was clear: abortion might not be directly on the ballot, but if you squint, you can see it in all of the statewide candidates with “D” next to their names.

Texas Democrats will need the kind of upset victory that voters in Kansas delivered in order to succeed in November. Success in the Sunflower State didn’t just come from undecided voters breaking in favor of keeping abortion legal—the actual results, 59–41 in opposition to an abortion ban, defied polling by a huge swing, which put opposition at 43–47 just two weeks earlier. With the current polling consensus on the governor’s race indicating an 8-point advantage for Republican incumbent Greg Abbott, it’ll take a similar miss on reading the electorate from pollsters for the statewide slate to win.

After the event in San Angelo, I talked with Democratic agriculture commissioner nominee Susan Hays, who’s spent much of her career arguing abortion cases and lobbying on behalf of Jane’s Due Process, a nonprofit that provides legal services for pregnant and parenting minors. She said that she was well aware of both the Texas Democrats’ 28-year losing streak in statewide elections and the usual political headwinds that the president’s party faces in midterm elections. But she was undeterred, believing that with the fall of Roe, the mood of the electorate might defy the conventional wisdom here in the same way it did in Kansas. “I talked to my husband when I was first contemplating a run, and I said, ‘This might be the best cycle ever for an abortion lawyer to run,’ ” she told me. With early voting already underway in Texas, it won’t be long before we know whether she’s right. And she’s not the only lawyer with a history of fighting for abortion access on the ballot.

To say that Rochelle Garza was raised Catholic would be an understatement. “My mom and dad used to take us on religious pilgrimages,” she told me, describing a when, as an infant, she accompanied her parents to the Vatican. “I was bodysurfed to Pope John Paul II as an eight-month-old baby.”

Thirty-seven years later, Garza—now the Democratic nominee for attorney general—says her religious upbringing played a big part in shaping the beliefs that made her want to get involved in the race. “They’re very, very, very religious people, but they were always very much pro-choice Catholics,” she said of her parents. “A lot of people make assumptions about Latinos and our religious views, but there was always an understanding that being able to make choices for your own body was the most basic element of being a human being.”

Garza won the Democratic nomination after one of the more competitive primaries the party has seen in Texas—four candidates each received at least 12 percent of the vote—and her experience in representing abortion cases was a big part of her pitch to voters. In 2017, Garza represented a Jane Doe in a lawsuit against the Trump administration. Her client, a pregnant teenage immigrant who was being held in a detention center, sought an abortion, which the Office of Refugee Resettlement forbade her from obtaining. Garza sued in Azar v. Garza, argued the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and won her client the right to an abortion. The agency’s guidelines on abortion access for undocumented minors are now known as the Garza requirements.

Garza’s stance on abortion is in stark contrast to that of Ken Paxton, the two-term Republican attorney general whom she seeks to unseat. Paxton positions himself as one of the most staunchly anti-abortion politicians in the country. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, he declared an annual office-wide holiday in celebration. In July, Paxton responded to guidance from the Biden administration that said that doctors in emergency situations could continue to provide abortion care by suing the federal government; in August, a Trump-appointed federal district judge decided that the Biden administration’s policy went beyond the scope of the law on which it was based, ruling in Paxton’s favor.

In the event that Garza wins her race, she’s positioned to do more to restore abortion rights in Texas than any other member of her party. (Even if O’Rourke wins, he would almost certainly face strong opposition from a GOP-controlled Legislature.) The Texas attorney general is an independent office that isn’t beholden to the Legislature or the governor, and it enjoys broad discretion regarding the issues it can address. Garza says that if she were to win, she could get a lot accomplished. “I could use the investigatory and litigation powers of the office to move forward on protecting Texans and working toward restoring their civil rights,” Garza said, describing the AG’s office as the “queen on the chessboard.” “I could partner with other attorneys general across the country on different strategies to restore abortion access.” She would also, she says, withdraw from the litigation Paxton initiated against the Biden administration’s guidance “on day one.”

When I asked Garza if she agrees with O’Rourke that November’s election is a de facto referendum on abortion, she didn’t hesitate. “Ken Paxton made sure that you might die if you’re having a miscarriage because a doctor is going to be concerned with protecting their license and staying out of jail,” she said. “They’re going to be checking with the legal department before providing care. . . . It is a referendum, and we have to be very frank with people about where we are and what it really means.”

Garza has done what she can to make abortion the defining issue of the attorney general’s race. Even though her opponent is under indictment for securities fraud and faces additional corruption allegations from attorneys who served in his own office, Garza’s first television ad of the season skipped over those issues to instead focus on Paxton’s fervent anti-abortion policies. “Sometimes criminals carry guns to rob you on the streets,” the ad’s narrator intones. “Sometimes they carry briefcases to rob you of your personal freedoms.”

Governor Abbott’s New Hampshire–based political strategist, Dave Carney, has ridiculed the idea that this election will be determined by the abortion issue, telling reporters in July that “guns and abortion are the ninth and tenth most important issues” to Texans, based on a recent University of Houston poll.

That may not tell the whole story, though. A University of Texas poll from August found that abortion came in number three for Texans when determining what will influence their votes (gun violence came in at number four). I asked Tresa Undem, cofounder of the national polling firm PerryUndem and an expert on public opinion on gender and health issues, whether her research indicated that abortion was a low priority for voters. “It’s not a top issue for all voters,” Undem said. “It’s a top issue for Democratic voters. It’s a top issue for Latino voters. It’s a top issue for eighteen-to-forty-four-year-old voters, especially women.”

That’s consistent with what Texas pollsters have found. Sixty-three percent of women asked in a University of Texas poll said that abortion was “very important” to them, compared to 46 percent of men. Fifty-nine percent of Hispanic voters said the same, versus 50 percent of non-Hispanic white voters. Sixty-five percent of 18-to-29-year-old voters identified the issue as very important, compared to 50 percent of voters 65 years old and older.

Another poll, from Change Research and Planned Parenthood Texas, found that in the critical South Texas region, 63 percent of Hispanic women said they would support a pro–abortion rights candidate, and an overwhelming 96 percent of them said the Dobbs ruling, which overturned Roe, had made them more motivated to vote. “It used to be anti-abortion voters were more likely to be single-issue voters, but we’re seeing that reversed,” Undem told me. “It’s become more of a personal issue [for pro–abortion rights voters], even if you’re not of reproductive age, because it feels like legislators are taking rights away, and what’s going to come next?”

In research published in September, PerryUndem found that 41 percent of pro–abortion rights voters nationally would only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion, while that number drops to 25 percent for voters who want abortion to be illegal in all or most cases. The issue appears to be significantly more animating for those who want abortion to be legal, as well: only 15 percent of those voters say abortion is not a major voting issue for them, compared to 33 percent of those who oppose the procedure’s legality. This is a significant reversal compared to just two years ago, Undem said, pointing to research from 2020 in which twice as many anti-abortion voters (29 percent) as those who favored legal abortion (15 percent) said it was a defining issue for them.

Carney may well be correct, in other words, that abortion isn’t the top issue for all voters in Texas. The question will be whether the Texans who turn up at the polls are the ones for whom it is a key animating issue—and that group has gone from being primarily Republican voters to Democrats and independents. Fifty percent of Texas voters in the UT poll said they believe abortion access should be “less strict” in Texas, compared to just 18 percent who favor a tightening of the laws. (Twenty-five percent said they’d rather not see a change.) For evangelicals, Republicans, and older men, abortion may have simply dropped off the priority list because, after the Dobbs ruling, they won. For those who favor legal abortion, meanwhile, the issue is now a litmus test in ways that it previously was not.

Nationally, the same question that hovers over the midterm elections in Texas looms large: does the so-called “Dobbs effect” that led to the unexpected result in Kansas and in special elections over the summer still animate voters? There’s some evidence on both sides. A highly publicized New York Times poll published October 17 suggested that voters had moved on to economic issues, while those who question whether that poll is an outlier note that the actual election results we’ve seen so far this year—generally a more useful metric for gauging voter sentiment than opinion polls—have consistently surprised experts.

In other words, in a post-Dobbs world, it’s impossible to know until after voting concludes on November 8 the extent to which the ruling will shape elections. The polls look grim for Garza, Hays, O’Rourke, and other Democrats running for statewide office—but if they’re able to pull off the sort of upset that Texas voters haven’t seen in decades, it will almost certainly be abortion that put them over the top.