Anita Perry and the changing politics of abortion in Texas

The Week
Well, this is awkward.
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Well, this is awkward.

While the federal government remains embroiled in a government shutdown, the big political debate in Texas continues to center on a classic polarizing issue: Abortion. Indeed, the issue has so come to dominate the Lone Star State's political culture that even the House of Perry has taken sides.

Contrary to her husband, who opposes abortion even in cases of rape, incest, and the endangerment of maternal health, Anita Perry said during a recent television interview that she sees abortion "as a woman's right," adding, "If they want to do that, that is their decision. It is not something I would say for them."

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Gov. Rick Perry shortly afterward managed to pull off a feat of verbal gymnastics that clearly eluded him during his infamous November 2011 primary debate, covering for his wife before her admission could leave a chink in his ironclad anti-abortion armor.

During an appearance in New Jersey to support Republican Senate candidate Steve Lonegan, Perry said, "From time to time, we'll stick the wrong word in the wrong place, and you pounce upon it."

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As awkward and patronizing as it was for to Perry to "mansplain" his wife's abortion-rights opinions, the couple's abortion kerfuffle speaks to how the issue has come to the fore of Texas politics in the past year, which could drive the red state in an increasingly purple direction.

Conservative Texas politicians have significantly ramped up abortion restrictions in the past year, with Perry even going after formerly politically benign (at least under George W. Bush) Planned Parenthood "like it's one of his hunting targets," writes Keli Goff at the Washington Post. Since he took office, not only has Texas become the largest of the 13 states to ban abortion after 20 weeks, but it has passed legislation that sets medical standards for abortion clinics so high that most of the state's 42 centers may shutter.

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But it's possible that Perry and his gang may be pushing even Texan Republicans in a direction they don't want to go. A June 2013 survey showed that across party lines, 52 percent of Texans support some form of abortion rights, while 51 percent oppose Perry's new abortion restrictions. Moreover, 74 percent of Texans say abortion is a personal decision that should not be dictated by politicians.

Indeed, the hyper-polarized environment surrounding abortion has given rise to state Sen. Wendy Davis, who is widely seen as the first plausible Democratic candidate for governor in a generation, even if her odds of winning are still slim.

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Davis is expected to announce her candidacy for governor in the coming days, which never would have been politically feasible if she hadn't gained national attention for filibustering one of the state's most restrictive pieces of abortion legislation.

While she would face an uphill battle against the GOP favorite, Attorney General Gregg Abbott, Abbott's own views on abortion would put the issue front and center in the race. Not only has he been "leading the legal charge against Planned Parenthood," says Richard Whittaker at the Austin Chronicle, but he has also been pushing for mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds.

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And because Davis did win national acclaim from Democrats, big party donors may take the state seriously in a way they haven't for years.

Cal Jillison, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, tells the Christian Science Monitor that the Democratic Party has been waiting for demographic shifts in Texas to play out (read: A growing Latino population) before it makes a major bid for the state. However, "it could be persuaded to invest in Texas elections sooner if Davis run a truly competitive campaign," Jillison says.

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If that's the case, Davis will have Gov. Perry's positions on abortion to thank, at which point an "Oops, sorry" may not suffice for the GOP.

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