Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis became a national political star by standing up for abortion rights last summer — and conservative Texans in the anti-abortion movement say they won’t let her forget it.
The 50-year-old Fort Worth lawyer blocked a bill that banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy in a dramatic, 11-hour filibuster at the state Capitol that attracted national attention and the adulation of abortion rights advocates in June. Despite Davis’ pink-sneakered filibuster, the bill eventually passed and was signed into law by outgoing Gov. Rick Perry. (The law shaves off four weeks from the amount of time a woman can legally access an abortion and might result in the closure of a third of Texas' abortion clinics because it requires providers to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.)
But when Davis announced her intention to run for governor in her hometown of Haltom City last week, the topic of reproductive rights did not pass her lips. Instead, Davis focused on investing in public education and emphasized her up-by-the-bootstraps personal story that even her fiercest opponents admit is appealing. Someone tuning in for the first time wouldn’t know Davis had become a powerful symbol for abortion rights around the country.
And that’s exactly what the anti-abortion movement is afraid of. Activists against abortion say their main mission over the next year is to remind voters what Davis’ filibuster was about in the first place. Social conservatives who previously never had to worry about a pro-abortion rights statewide elected official are now busily forming political action committees and readying themselves for a fight.
“Wendy will become a lightning rod that has two sides,” said Richard Land, a former leader of the Southern Baptist Convention and an evangelical public policy leader. “She will be as big a motivator for the pro-life movement as she will for the pro-choice movement, no question about it.”
Davis, a Democrat, has raised only $1 million compared to her likely Republican opponent Greg Abbott’s $25 million so far, and Texas is still a solidly red state, despite its slow move leftward due to changing demographics. But abortion foes say it would be a mistake to underestimate her.
“The whole effort this summer was a wake-up call,” said Kyleen Wright, the president of Texans for Life Coalition. “We’re getting ready to jump in and play at a different level.”
Wright’s group, which was founded 40 years ago, is forming a PAC for the first time so it can buy ads against Davis.
“Wendy is so much more energizing because she is more extreme,” Wright said. “I think Wendy goes beyond anything we’ve ever seen before.”
The pro-life movement in Texas hasn’t had to contend with a pro-abortion rights governor since Ann Richards won the statehouse in 1991 and held it for a brief four years. (Richards’ daughter, Cecile Richards, is now the president of Planned Parenthood, which is backing Davis.)
“We will spend as much as we can raise,” said Elizabeth Graham, director of Texas Right to Life, another anti-abortion group in the state. They are running radio ads in English and Spanish calling Davis an “abortion zealot” who “believes terminating babies even halfway through pregnancy is OK.”
Davis also has to worry about the ire of national anti-abortion groups, who hope to use the race as part of a larger battle for the “fetal pain” 20-week legislation they’re pushing in state legislatures.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, says the group plans to use Davis’ race as a “springboard” to talk about the 20-week abortion ban, which it wants to pass nationwide. “It will be a high priority,” she said of the Texas race.
The anti-abortion movement’s work to pass 20-week abortion bans is part of a strategy to get the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade’s holding that abortions must be legal until the point that a fetus would be viable outside the womb, usually considered to be at least 24 weeks. (It’s unlikely that this tactic would work at the moment, because Supreme Court swing-vote Justice Anthony Kennedy upheld the viability principle in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992.)
But Dannenfelser also says it would be a mistake to underestimate Davis’ ability to win statewide, even though she is currently the underdog. “The scenario where she wins is that enough money gets drilled into this campaign that people start to forget what the filibuster was about,” she said. “It’ll start to get a little fuzzy. ... Our job is to provide perfect clarity about how she became a candidate.”
That means showing voters footage of Davis’ filibuster “over and over and over again,” she added. (A recent fundraising email sent by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro on Davis' behalf mentioned her filibuster on behalf of public education, not reproductive rights.)
Meanwhile, Abbott, the state attorney general who declared his candidacy in July, enjoys a “vital partnership” with anti-abortion activists in the state and nationwide, Dannenfelser said.
Abbott, who believes abortions should be legal only if the mother is at risk of grave injury or death, addressed the National Right to Life Convention in Dallas in July. “It is great to be in a room full of Americans who are fighting for the full arc of human life from conception until natural death,” he told the convention. “You are heeding the words of Jeremiah, who reminds us that the Lord knew us even before we were formed in the womb.”
Some Republican candidates like Abbott who believe abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape or incest have been painted as extreme (who could forget former Rep. Todd Akin and “legitimate rape”?), and it remains to be seen if the abortion issue could trip him up.
Pro-abortion rights leaders, meanwhile, say they have Davis’ back and do not believe her support for abortion rights will hurt her candidacy.
“Texans are really very much a live-and-let-live kind of people,” said Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood. “People in Texas have much bigger issues on their mind — jobs, education.”
Richards said she thinks Davis will pull it off, despite the odds. “This is definitely a David and Goliath race,” she said.