Editor's Note: This story was updated to include a statement from state Rep. Sarah Davis.
In statewide races, Republicans who touted their stance against abortion — even when the offices they sought had little to do with the issue — saw strong primary night returns on Tuesday. But in legislative races, conservative groups that targeted candidates for not being sufficiently “pro-life” saw mixed results.
The Republican candidates who came out ahead in the races for comptroller, agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner had all strongly brandished their anti-abortion credentials on the campaign trail, and earned endorsements from Texas Right to Life, one of the largest anti-abortion organizations in the state.
“It tells you what’s in a man’s heart, what his character is, and says a lot about his family values, the value of human life,” said former state Rep. Sid Miller, who got the most votes in the Republican primary for agricultural commissioner. Miller authored the state's 2011 abortion sonogram law, and said he expected his endorsement from Texas Right to Life to give him an edge in his May 27 runoff against former state Rep. Tommy Merritt.
Miller added that he thinks it's no surprise that the Republican candidate for agriculture commissioner who said abortion shouldn't be a factor in that race "came in five of five." J Allen Carnes, a farmer, had the endorsement of 14 agricultural trade associations — including the Texas Farm Bureau, the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Texas Citrus Mutual, the Corn Producers Association of Texas and the Texas Cotton Association — but won just 13 percent of the vote. (By comparison, the first four endorsements listed on Miller’s campaign website are Young Conservatives of Texas, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, Ted Nugent and Texas Right to Life.) Carnes did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
Carnes “didn’t want to talk about guns, and he didn’t want to talk about the pro-life issue,” said Miller, “and apparently that was a mistake, because other than that he ran a good campaign.”
Amy Hagstrom-Miller, executive director and founder of Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider in Texas, said that while Republican candidates try to outdo each other in the primaries to see who can be most conservative, voters in the general election are more concerned with issues that affect their families, like education, immigration and health care.
“I don’t think their 'out-righting each other' strategy will work in the general election for much longer in Texas,” she said.
But it appears to have worked in the primary. State Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, who authored strict abortion regulations in the 2013 special session, received nearly 50 percent of the vote in the GOP race for state comptroller — just 75 votes shy of what he needed to avoid a runoff with former state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran. At a candidate forum in January hosted by the Texas Medical Association, Hegar said he touts his endorsements from anti-abortion groups “because they’re part of who I am and what is my character, and my beliefs and the way I do business.”
Similarly, in the Railroad Commission race, former state Rep. Wayne Christian, whose first campaign ad focused on his anti-abortion stance rather than oil and gas issues, nabbed 43 percent of the vote, and will head to a runoff with Ryan Sitton, an oil and gas engineer. Christian received more votes than his opponents.
“Texans recognize without respect for the first right, the right to life, no other rights matter,” Melissa Conway, a spokeswoman for Texas Right to Life, said in an email. “… Even in agencies where the pro-life issue is not in the forefront of policy, it’s always in their forefront of these Texans' minds.”
Texas Right to Life received heavy criticism this election cycle from other pro-life groups — including the Texas Catholic Conference, which lobbies on behalf of the 15 Roman Catholic bishops of Texas and their dioceses — for the way the group rated lawmakers’ stance on end-of-life issues. In legislative ratings, Texas Right to Life penalized lawmakers who voted for Senate Bill 303, which would have amended the state’s Advanced Directives Act. The bill had the support of the Texas Catholic Conference and the Texas Medical Association.
State Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, the author of SB 303, received the lowest rating among Senate Republicans from Texas Right to Life. He received 48 percent of the primary vote on Tuesday and will face Bob Hall, a Tea Party activist endorsed by Texas Right to Life, in the May runoff.
“I’m sure it had some effect, but I also had all the other right to life groups,” Deuell said of Texas Right to Life’s endorsement of his opponent. “I’ve got a good record and I did well in the areas where people know me.”
Conway said that Deuell’s views were not in line with his district, and that Texas Right to Life used its platform to inform voters.
“When a candidate, or incumbent candidate, wavers from taking action to advocate for good pro-life legislation, we as an organization are committed to identifying all of those deficiencies and sharing that with pro-life voters and supporters,” she said.
Still, some Republican candidates targeted by Texas Right to Life and other conservative groups fared well in local races. State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, lost Texas Right to Life’s endorsement this election cycle because of her support for SB 303 but still managed to defeat two primary opponents and avoid a runoff.
As the only Republican to oppose the strict abortion regulations passed in 2013, state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, was strongly targeted by anti-abortion groups. She still earned more than 70 percent of the vote in her Houston district.
“I ran my campaign on the same theme as the previous two cycles: standing for personal freedom, individual responsibility and limited government," Davis said in an email to the Tribune. "Those are the principles I was elected on, and they are what the voters of District 134 value from their leaders.”
Hagstrom-Miller said she expects to see more Texas candidates like Davis — people who are "more in tune with voters’ real needs and are more of what we will see into the future in Texas.”