The ever-increasing probability that Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis will be their parties' respective candidates for governor in 2014 means that women's health and abortion will be recurring issues in the campaign. Davis is now and will continue to be inextricably linked to abortion rights, an unavoidable but potentially limiting part of her political appeal that she is already working to supplement. For Abbott, the return of abortion to center stage certainly does no harm in the run-up to the primary election, but presents more of a mixed bag going into the general election.
For both candidates, the return of abortion to the top of the agenda in Texas during the special legislative sessions presents opportunities to consolidate support and financial backers heading into the primary. But the choices they make will result in a potentially complicated general election dynamic.
Let’s start with where Abbott will be forced to position himself on the issue in the primary. According to our June 2013 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 64 percent of Republicans wanted abortion banned outright or limited only to cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life was in jeopardy. Similarly, 59 percent wanted Texas' abortion restrictions made stricter than they currently are and roughly 85 percent supported the 20-week ban that eventually passed.
These attitudes don't give Abbott much wiggle room. On one hand, he doesn’t need much room; Abbott isn’t going to find checking the appropriate anti-abortion boxes to qualify as a statewide GOP primary candidate very difficult. On the other hand, abortion is not an issue he has chosen to emphasize in the run-up to the race; he has preferred to build his brand with well-publicized legal challenges to the federal government and other issues on the radar of Tea Party conservatives.
For her part, Davis has given subtle but unmistakable indications that she knows that she can't run on a single issue, and probably wouldn’t choose abortion as that single issue even if she could. But it is abortion — not education, economic development or even women’s health writ large — that has brought her to the brink of a gubernatorial campaign. This reality makes winning statewide office complicated. Texas is still a conservative state, and a campaign based on abortion politics could provide Republicans with the opportunity for a broad victory — winning not only in the governor's race but down ballot, too.
Both candidates thus face a familiar dilemma: how to remain in good stead with primary voters and political backers without being too identified with positions that will alienate the general electorate. Looking ahead to a general election, two constituencies could be critical in assessing how abortion politics would affect an Abbott-Davis race.
One is, you guessed it, the burgeoning Hispanic electorate, whose views on abortion are a matter of some debate. Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri frequently reminds the press that Hispanics align with the GOP on social issues. But that same June 2013 UT/TT Poll found 46 percent of Hispanics supporting restrictive abortion policies and 48 percent endorsing more permissive positions — remarkably similar to the overall population. On the other abortion questions we examined, Hispanics also looked like much of the rest of the electorate: 60 percent supported the 20-week ban, but a plurality, 49 percent, thought that abortion laws should be left as they are now or made less strict. If Davis is to run a competitive race, let alone win, she can’t lose the newly energized Hispanic allegiance to Democrats, nor can she do anything that drives turnout any lower.
The other key group in 2014 will be suburban women, who vote in high numbers and have tended to support Republican candidates in Texas. On abortion, suburban women are some of the strongest abortion rights backers in the Texas electorate, with 44 percent believing that abortion should always be accessible. This is the most plausible group to rally around a Davis candidacy, not only given her association with abortion politics, but also considering other issues, particularly public education, that Davis has been associated with in the past.
On balance, Abbott should take some solace in the fact that if the campaign were fought solely over abortion and all of his other prevailing advantages remain in place, he would most likely win. But running against a strong female candidate associated with abortion (or women's health) presents a bevy of opportunities for public relations gaffes, as Abbott has already discovered. The question for both sides is: How much attention to abortion is too much for the 2014 campaign? Should Abbott misplay his hand, Davis and the Democrats will no doubt be the beneficiaries. Yet if Davis is unable to define herself beyond abortion and Abbott stays the course, she might lose in a fashion that hurts Texas Democrats more than it helps. Davis seems to know this — but her opponents do, too.