In announcing her candidacy for governor Thursday, Sen. Wendy Davis never uttered the word “abortion.”
She didn’t have to.
Almost as soon as Davis opened her mouth, Cecile Richards, who, as president of Planned Parenthood Federation, was in the thick of it at the Capitol in June when Davis famously filibustered legislation that would restrict access to abortion in Texas, sounded her delight.
“This is great news for women and for all Texans,” Richards, who also happens to be the daughter of Ann Richards, the last Democrat to serve as governor of Texas, said in a statement. “Like Wendy, most Texans want to protect women’s health and keep politicians out of women’s personal medical decisions. ”
Simultaneously, Texas Right to Life, registered its disgust:
“Famous for championing child-killing, State Senator Wendy Davis has made her official announcement to seek statewide office as our governor. She has been a leader in the war on women, making sure that pregnant women fall prey to the substandard care at Texas abortion mills. After her filibuster to kill Pro-Life legislation, Davis became the new harridan for third trimester abortion.”
Abortion is among the most polarizing issues on the political landscape. Yet polls indicate it is also an issue on which, while there are sizable contingents on either end of the spectrum, the political balance of power rests with a middle ground that eschews absolutes and, precisely because it is less doctrinaire, may find itself the most contested terrain in the 2014 gubernatorial election.
For both Davis and her likely Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, the challenge of the coming campaign is how to confront, avoid or frame the issue of abortion in a manner that persuades those in the middle that their opponent is the one with extreme views without alienating the true believers at the core of their support. The abortion issue may not have been front and center at either Davis’ announcement Thursday, or Abbott’s announcement in July, but there are signs each is seeking to highlight the shades of gray in their thinking about what is often cast as a black-and-white issue.
The legislation that Davis filibustered to end the first special session in June was enacted in a second special session and signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry. It bans abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy and also imposes a series of new regulations on abortion providers that proponents said were about protecting women’s health, and opponents, like Davis, insisted were really about denying access.
“That filibuster wasn’t about the 20-week ban. Had that 20-week ban stood alone, the debate wouldn’t have lasted an hour,” said Matt Angle, a top adviser to Davis. “In fact, the Republicans tabled an amendment that would have allowed just a straight up and down vote on the 20-week ban and that was not a fight Wendy picked.”
“She was thrust into a fight over whether or not Texas women would have access to health care or not, and the leadership in the Senate insisted upon adding to that severe restrictions to basic health care. That was what that filibuster was about,” said Angle.“She’s against late-term abortion except in cases of rape, incest, the life and health of the mother or when there are profound and serious non-reversible problems with the fetus, which is kind of where most Texans are.”
That is not what one would surmise from listening to a new 60-second ad that Texas Right to Life is running this weekend, on both English and Spanish, secular and Christian radio stations in South Texas. In it, the narrator informs listeners that, “Extremist groups protested this new law and rallied around abortion zealot State Senator Wendy Davis. Wendy Davis opposes any limits on abortion and even called late term abortions sacred ground.”
That language comes from a speech Davis delivered at the National Press Club in Washington in August, in which, she said, “I will seek common ground, because we all must. But sometimes, you have to take a stand on sacred ground. Liberty. The freedom to choose what your future will hold.”
While the comment is made in the context of talking about her filibuster, there is no mention of late-term abortions.
When asked, subsequently, at her press club appearance, “could you discuss what legal limits on abortion you do support?” Davis replied, “You know, the Supreme Court has made that decision. And it’s one of the protected liberties under our Constitution. And I respect the constitutional protections that are in place today, whether it be for this purpose or whether it be for other protective purposes in the Constitution. I don’t think we can pick and choose.”
Earlier in her remarks, Davis noted that, “in Texas, 0.57 percent of those procedures occur after 20 weeks and the dramatic numbers of those in situations where a very well-loved, very-much-wanted baby has been found to have very severe problems. Instead, what the bill was really about, and it’s been disappointing that this hasn’t been enough of the conversation, it was really about closing women’s access to a very important health care service in the state of Texas, because these clinics in many instances are dual purpose.”
According to the June 2013 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, overall, 38 percent of Texans wanted stricter abortion laws, 26 percent less strict laws, and 21 percent wanted the laws left the way they were.
Writing after Davis’ filibuster of the provisions of the Senate bill that ultimately became law, UT’s Jim Henson and Joshua Blank, who conducted the survey, wrote that while the 20-week limit had broad public support, the other provisions, “which advocates argued would bolster women’s health and opponents argued would shut down the majority of the state’s abortion providers, crossed into the rhetorical terrain of potentially dramatic reductions in access to abortion services, an area in which public opinion provides much less support.”
Abbott, who, like Gov. Perry, has successfully cultivated the support of “pro-life” groups, offered his most nuanced explanation of his abortion views in an interview with Peggy Fikac for the San Antonio Express-News on the eve of announcing his candidacy for governor in San Antonio in mid-July.
“If you’re really pro-life, you want to save every life, but that also includes the mother’s life,” he said. “The life of the mother is just as precious as the life of the child.”
Did that qualify as an exception?
“In a way, but you’re in a way kind of mischaracterizing the word. It’s not like an exception,” Abbott replied. “What both the medical community needs to do, and the pro-life community supports, is doing everything we can to protect the life of the mother.”
And what of an exception in the cases of rape and incest?
“We shouldn’t discriminate against a child,” said Abbott.
Abbott is drawing the line the same way the Legislature did in crafting the language of the new law banning abortion after 20 weeks, down from 24 weeks. They included an exception for cases in which the woman’s life is endangered or there is a severe fetal abnormality. But they did not include a rape or incest exception sought by Democrats.
But in the interview, Abbott did sound like he was trying to turn down the volume on the debate.
“People try to make this a binary choice and try to set up polar opposites, and it’s not really the way that it is,” he said. “Real life is more nuanced than that. You know, two sides try to fight each other, but in reality, our goal, our real goal, is to express a greater sense of love and inclusion and support for all life.”
“Gobbledygook,” Jason Stanford, a Democratic strategist in Austin, wrote in Politico last week.
“Abbott’s abortion obfuscation shows how far out of mainstream opinion a candidate has to go to find safe harbor in a Republican primary, even one as mildly contested as his is expected to be,” wrote Stanford.”But by tacking so far to the right, Abbott could alienate the mainstream suburban women who propelled Kay Bailey Hutchison, a pro-Roe Republican, to the U.S. Senate in 1994 — and whom Wendy Davis needs to win over if she’s going to get to the governor’s mansion.”
Chris Bell, who was the Democratic candidate for governor in 2006, has suggested that Davis look to the example of Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who narrowly won election in 2010, a very tough year for Democrats, relying heavily on ads like the one that played a clip of his opponent, Ken Buck, saying, “I am pro-life and I’ll answer the next question. I don’t believe in the exceptions for rape and incest.” The kicker: “That’s right. Even in cases of rape and incest. Ken Buck. He’s too extreme for Colorado.”
“There are a lot of people who, once they find out that a candidate does hold an extreme position on choice, particularly that they are opposed to exceptions in case of rape or incest, that they will look at them a little differently when it comes to other issues,” said Craig Hughes, who managed Bennet’s campaign.
In a strategy memo on reproductive health issues, Colorado-based Project New America, which helped shape the Bennet strategy and whose clients include Planned Parenthood, explained the dynamic at work in campaigns it’s worked on from Virginia to Mississippi.
“Conservative overreach has met significant blow back for a variety of reasons, including the fact that many Americans who consider themselves `pro-life’ and are personally opposed to abortion do not believe that their personal opinions should be applied to others.”
It’s an assertion that found an echo of sorts in First Lady Anita Perry’s remarks on abortion at last weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival. Talking about Davis’ filibuster, Perry said she supported the new law but, of a woman’s right to an abortion, she said, “That’s real difficult for me. I see it as a women’s right. If they want to do it, that’s their decision. They have to live with their decision.”
“I mean, I don’t agree with it, and that’s not my view,” she said. “But I’m not going to criticize Wendy Davis.”