The Inescapable A-Word in the Texas Governor's Race

At separate events, Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, filed for governor in Austin, Texas on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013.
At separate events, Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, filed for governor in Austin, Texas on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013.

As state Sen. Wendy Davis and Attorney General Greg Abbott gear up for the 2014 gubernatorial election, both candidates’ campaigns have made a tactical choice to mostly avoid the A-word — even in the midst of heated legal challenges that reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a yearlong race where initial polling shows less than a 10-point spread, neither campaign has reason to touch a divisive issue such as abortion, not even with a 10-foot pole. Still, it’s unlikely either candidate will be able to escape the issue entirely, as both play a dominant role in the narrative surrounding Texas’ strict new abortion regulations.

Davis became a standout potential gubernatorial nominee for the Democrats after her 11-hour filibuster of the strict abortion regulations propelled her into a national spotlight. But the subsequent passage of those regulations, which took effect in November, has also been a boon to the Republican Party. Now, how the impact of the abortion regulations is framed could impact both candidates’ chances of becoming the state’s next leader.

“Because it’s very divisive, it’s hard for the candidates in a general election to talk about the issue without knowing they’re likely going to be losing some votes,” said Jim Henson, co-director of the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

While a majority of Texans support strict regulation of abortion procedures, according to the UT/TT Poll, only 12 percent believe it should never be allowed in any circumstance, and 36 percent believe it should always be allowed as a matter of personal choice.

“As long as the issue is framed in terms of regulations on the procedure, things like 24-hour waiting periods, even late-term restrictions, the public is tolerant of that,” Henson said. “But the moment you begin talking about fundamentally blocking access to abortion as a health service or you begin talking about availability, public opinion turns the other way.”

In other words, if the issue of clinic closures and access to health services drives the conversation, Davis’ campaign will be in the driver’s seat. Even after the Supreme Court decided 5-4 on Tuesday to allow the state’s strict abortion regulations to remain in effect, Davis released a statement that avoided the word "abortion" altogether: "Clinics will close and women's health will be hurt because of this law."

But if the Republican narrative of improving women’s safety through reasonable regulation prevails, the issue will play to Abbott’s advantage.

“I don’t think it’s in either of the campaign’s best interest for this issue to take center stage, but I don’t see this issue ever leaving the stage,” said Jason Stanford, a Democratic consultant.

Democrats hope that Davis’ filibuster roused enough attention to mobilize people to the polls who traditionally don’t vote, such as millenials and single women, and attract suburban women who are already turning away from the Republican Party. But the Davis campaign has shied away from speaking on the issue directly in an effort to broaden the public’s perception of her as a candidate. In her campaign narrative, abortion has been quietly wrapped into charges of systemic problems with Texans’ access to health care, education and economic opportunity created under Republican leadership.

“It strikes me that Wendy Davis is certainly trying to abandon or distance herself from the position that made her famous,” said Jordan Berry, a Republican consultant. “They clearly are making that as a strategic move and deliberately doing that, which leads me to believe she may realize that position is viewed as extreme.”

Although Berry pointed to the common mantra “if your opponent doesn’t want to talk about an issue, you probably do,” Abbott’s campaign doesn’t seem to be taking that tack. And for good reason.

While Davis’ well-known stance on abortion could galvanize nonvoters and moderate women, it’s also likely to isolate her from traditional Republican voters without much work on Abbott's part. Meanwhile, Abbott’s lesser-known role in the legal wrangling around the new laws could also play to his advantage in attracting moderate voters. Although Abbott will face Tom Pauken, former chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, in the Republican primary, the race is not competitive enough to force him to take a hard stand against abortion to mobilize the GOP base. And if Abbott strongly aligned himself with anti-abortion advocates who oppose legal exceptions for rape, incest and the life or health of the mother during the primary season, he could alienate moderate voters, said Henson. If Abbott’s campaign calls attention to Davis’ record on abortion, Henson said that would mean "they’re sensing the election is closer than they want.”

It’s more likely that a “wild card,” such as an unfortunate tweet from either of the candidates’ allies, could raise the issue, putting one of the candidates in an awkward position, Henson said. Already, Abbott has come under fire for seemingly endorsing a supporter’s “abortion Barbie” name-calling on Twitter. While Republicans seek to bury that incident, Democrats are repeatedly highlighting it as an example of persistent sexism within the GOP.

“What Susan Combs said is brilliant,” Stanford said of the state comptroller’s recent remarks that “it is not all south of the waistline” and that Republicans should broaden their messaging on women’s issues. “If the Republican Party can’t keep Susan Combs in line, they’ve got real problems with Republican women who don’t have to talk to the press,” added Stanford.

Both Republicans and Democrats believe both campaigns will be about much more than abortion, even if neither candidate will be able to escape the issue entirely.

“Wendy Davis is a treasure trove of problems, and they have so many other things they can talk about that the public will find interesting,” said Berry, “even more so than a radical stance of an abortion.”