Can Lt. Gov. Candidates Go Too Far on Abortion?

Though it’s hard to envision given the tone of the Texas Republican Party’s primary contests so far, the GOP candidates for lieutenant governor lurched even farther right in Monday night’s debate in their collective rejection of access to abortion in instances of rape.

While defenders of abortion rights might be tempted to dismiss the candidates’ support for childbirth after rape as another sign of alleged misogyny in the Texas GOP, a plurality of Republicans surveyed in the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll have consistently supported permitting abortion in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the woman’s life — 41 percent in the October 2013 poll, and this after a summer of highly partisan public conflict over abortion legislation.  

In that same survey, only 16 percent of Republicans (compared with 12 percent of Texans overall) said that abortion should never be permitted. This was on the low end of the typical GOP embrace of the prohibitionist position, which has fluctuated between 14 and 27 percent over the life of the poll, with the usual reading in the low 20s.

Allowing abortion only in the case of rape, incest or threat to the woman’s life has consistently been the most common GOP position, typically supported by just over 40 percent of Republicans. Support for the most permissive position on abortion was 19 percent among Republican voters in the October 2013 poll, also in a range consistent with previous results.

Overall, 78 percent of Texas Republicans believed that there were some situations in which abortion should be accessible. Each and every candidate dismissed even the most restrictive version of this position in Monday night’s debate. (Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst seemed to suggest he would have concerns about the life of the mother if she were his wife in such a situation, though he was unclear how these feelings translate into his policy position.)

The belief that pregnant rape victims should be required to bring their pregnancies to term, evident on the debate stage, seems to be more about positioning in the Republican primary than a careful reading of public opinion. And while the Tea Party remains the easy scapegoat for the GOP’s rightward push, in this case at least, our polling shows that only 13 percent of Tea Party Republicans support a complete prohibition on the procedure.

Monday night’s strenuous efforts to appear the most conservative on any and every issue seems symptomatic of the mixture of ambition and groupthink that has come to characterize much of the GOP lieutenant governor’s race. In the heat of a primary, it’s easy to imagine how the candidates might perceive opposition to abortion in the most dire of circumstances. But in this case, it’s also hard not to look at the debate as a shift hard to the right by four men already hanging close to the edge.

Democrats’ disgust at the rape discussion probably turned to optimism about the potential political ramifications. With two female candidates topping the Democratic ticket, both intimately tied to abortion access, having four men in the highest-profile primary on the right gift them another instance of the “war on women” might have been a pleasant surprise. In terms of politics and public opinion, some ways of discussing abortion play to Republicans’ advantage, and others to the Democrats’.

It’s also worth noting that, once again, the rhetorical extremes of the lieutenant governor’s race threaten to haunt Attorney General Greg Abbott’s efforts to begin his general election campaign for governor. Just as he was in no hurry to talk about in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants after it popped up in the other race, the Abbott campaign can’t be eager to have people asking, “What’s Greg Abbott’s position on exceptions again?” Like whoever makes it out of the GOP lieutenant governor primary, Abbott still enjoys significant advantages vis-a-vis the Democratic candidates come November. But the rhetoric in Monday night’s debate seems to have edged farther right than even the Texas GOP’s comfort zone.

 

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