Can a Pro-Choice Republican Win in Texas?

Is it possible for a pro-choice candidate to win a high-profile statewide Republican primary in Texas?

Susan Combs might try. Combs, who served two terms in the Texas House, two as state agriculture commissioner and just won a second term as state comptroller, is considering a run for lieutenant governor in 2014.

We’re in a fresh round of “What’s My Next Job?” — the political game that erupts every time a seat comes open or, in this case, when a longtime officeholder announces she won’t decides not to run for re-election. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison won’t run in 2012, and a battalion of political gold diggers has lined up to stake claim to that spot, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who’s not exactly a candidate but, gosh, sure is thinking about it and is seriously interested.

That has set off a rush for his current job, and the pack of potentials (this is for an election in 2014) already includes three statewide officeholders: Combs, Todd Staples, the agriculture commissioner, and Jerry Patterson, the land commissioner. Others will surely alight, but Combs starts with a daunting financial edge: $5 million in her campaign account at the end of 2010. Patterson had $215,538, and Staples’ account held $1.1 million.

Combs is anti-abortion but pro-choice, and has said Roe v. Wade should stand. (Her former boss, Henry Wade, the late Dallas County district attorney, was on the losing side of that case.) That wasn’t a handicap in her House races. Combs represented Travis County, the seat of state government — in Austin — and a blue dot on the mostly red political map of Texas. She worked for Hutchison before jumping into the race for agriculture commissioner, where she replaced Rick Perry after breezing through the Republican primary and easily defeating a Democrat and two others in the general election.

That's a down-ballot contest, and because it’s an office that has little or nothing to do with state policy on family planning and abortion, her views on those matters didn’t really come into play. The comptroller is the state’s tax collector and financial officer, so it didn’t come up there, either. She hasn’t faced a Republican opponent since that first statewide election in 1998.

Hutchison was the last pro-choice Republican to win a high-profile primary, taking the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate in 1994, but that was an unusual situation. She had won a special election to the seat in 1993, and the six challengers were relative pipsqueaks: Hutchison got 84.3 percent of the vote and hasn’t faced a re-election primary since.

She had a primary, though — the 2010 gubernatorial primary contest between Perry, who won, Debra Medina, a political newcomer, and Hutchison, who managed to attract less than a third of the vote.

It wasn’t the key point in the race, but Hutchison’s answer on whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned during one of the debates sunk her with the anti-abortion faction. “What concerns me about that is that we would then have some states that would allow abortion as the baby is coming out of the birth canal,” Hutchison said. “I would never support that. I have voted against it, and I would not want that to be the situation in any state in our country.”

The same issue bedeviled her in the 1993 campaign. “I’m not for abortion,” she said at the time. “It makes me very uncomfortable. I would never have one. I value life very much. The question is, should I make that decision for you, and that’s where I come down on the other side.”

That’s the position Combs took in her first election for the House in 1992. Since then, anti-abortion groups have not endorsed her or her opponents. Texas Right to Life’s voter guides in 2006 and 2010 skipped the comptroller’s race. The 2010 version included endorsements in six of the seven statewide non-judicial races — all except for comptroller.

Joe Pojman at Texas Alliance for Life said he’s talked to Combs but that she's never filled out the group’s questionnaires and that he doesn’t remember ever giving her the group’s support. Patterson and Staples, among others, got that group’s backing as well as that of Texas Right to Life. “It’s getting hard for that to happen,” he said of a pro-choice Republican winning a big primary race. “It’s very rare.”

Combs said through an aide that she won’t be available for an interview on her position on abortion until after the legislative session, in June. Pro-choice groups haven’t marked her as one of their own — she didn’t carry their legislation or overtly back their positions when she was in the House. The anti-abortion groups haven’t claimed her, either.

She’s got some time to make her choice.

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