State Rep. Sarah Davis, Republican of Houston, and her Democratic opponent, Ann Johnson, have a lot in common. They are both lawyers and young cancer survivors campaigning on a platform of defending women’s health and supporting the region’s medical centers.
There is one obvious difference: their party persuasion.
Davis, 36, is running for re-election in the affluent, Republican-leaning district that includes River Oaks, Bellaire and other sections of West Houston. She narrowly won the seat in 2010, defeating Rep. Ellen Cohen, a Democrat.
Johnson, 38, hopes to eke out a win in the swing district, which chose former Houston Mayor Bill White over Gov. Rick Perry in the 2010 governor’s race.
Republican-led redistricting should make House District 134 less of a toss-up than in previous elections. But its voters tend to be moderate — district observers say they are fiscal conservatives who have little patience for partisan battles over social issues like abortion.
That could explain the competing campaigns’ emphasis on women’s health. Davis, a breast cancer survivor and opponent of federal health care reform who defends businesses sued in personal injury cases in her law practice, has alienated some of the social conservative groups that many in her party court. She voted against a since-passed bill to force women seeking abortions to receive a sonogram at least 24 hours ahead of the procedure, and was the only Republican to speak out against proposed rules that would prohibit doctors in the state’s Women’s Health Program from discussing abortion with patients.
Davis said both infringed on the doctor-patient relationship. An unimpressed Texas Right to Life ranked Davis 106th out of 150 House members on its 2011 anti-abortion scale, worse than six Democrats.
“I’ve always believed in a political philosophy of personal freedom, individual responsibility and limited government,” Davis said. “That’s what I consider to be Republican.”
Though Davis runs left of her party on women’s health, that has not stopped Johnson, a thyroid cancer survivor, from targeting her opponent on it. Johnson, a trial lawyer who represents children in juvenile court, argues that Davis hurt women by voting to slash money for state-subsidized contraception and cancer screenings and to exclude Planned Parenthood from state family planning programs.
Poor women “have lost access to critical breast cancer and cervical screenings,” said Johnson, who, if elected, would be the first out lesbian in the Legislature. “Their children will feel it, their husbands will feel it and Texas will feel it.”
Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist, does not expect that line of attack to work in the district. “Sarah Davis, by voting in contrast to the majority in her party on many women’s health issues, did not leave herself vulnerable,” Jones said.
The biggest challenge for the two candidates may be distancing themselves from each other — especially with their comparable ages, personal histories and campaign priorities.
As of the last reporting deadline, they even had similar amounts of money in the bank; Johnson had $263,000 to Davis’ $232,000.
Davis said the similarities are uncanny and that she has no doubt Johnson “is a recruited candidate.”
“I’m the complete organic candidate,” she added.
Johnson calls that theory preposterous. “We’ve been block walking since June, knocking on doors,” she said. “When I talk with people, they’re tired of the partisanship that’s taking place.”
Both candidates have scored some key endorsements: Davis has the backing of the National Rifle Association, the Texas Medical Association, the Texas Hospital Association and the Log Cabin Republicans of Houston. Johnson has been endorsed by NARAL Texas, the Texas State Teachers Association, the Texas Parent PAC and the Houston GLBT Political Caucus.