Wendy Davis gambles on telling her abortion story

With the publication this week of her memoir, “Forgetting to be Afraid,” Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis is effectively relaunching her uphill bid for governor, reviving the energy and celebrity of the Senate abortion filibuster that thrust her into the race, rousing her fan and donor base, and reframing the issue that made her famous in the most compelling and empathetic terms.

There is no ready precedent in Texas or elsewhere for a candidate in the thick of a major political campaign to release a book with so many wrenching personal details — most especially the discussion of ending two pregnancies for medical reasons in the 1990s that grabbed the headlines as advance copies of the book were released late Friday. It will almost certainly bring the issue of abortion back to the forefront of her campaign against Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott.

“I can’t think of another book like this,” said Jeff Rotkoff, a Democratic consultant who advises Davis’ top donors, trial lawyers Steve and Amber Mostyn.

“Here’s Wendy Davis telling 28 million people, `This is who I am, this is something that I went through in my life, and I’m going to tell the truth about who I am,’” Rotkoff said. “It really blew me away.”

“It’s very hard to calculate, to say what the impact would be,” Rotkoff said. “I would say voters in my experience value, above almost everything else, knowing who a candidate for public office is, feeling like they know what that person is really about. What really matters is authenticity.”

The book is replete with details of a sometimes harrowing childhood, of a loving but philandering father and a cold but dutiful mother who, after the first of two breakups with her husband, placed the infant Wendy and two siblings in the trunk of their car in the family garage with the intention of turning on the engine and killing herself and her children. Only a fortuitous visit from a neighbor who talked and prayed with Davis’ mother broke the spell of despondency and spared their lives.

The book is a bold gamble, with Davis at a crucial juncture in the campaign reintroducing the issue on which she made her name — the nearly 13-hour filibuster last summer that temporarily blocked the passage of new abortion restrictions — but one which she had mostly sidestepped the last year on the presumed calculation that it wasn’t a political winner for her.

“Why does Wendy Davis want to make the race about this?” Republican political consultant Luke Macias, who represents many anti-abortion candidates, asked Saturday.

His best answer: “This is a move to personalize the issue and make her stance more palatable.”

Joshua Blank, director of polling and research for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said including the terminated pregnancies in Davis’ memoir might prove to be a brilliant move in the trap it sets for Abbott.

The June UT/Texas Tribune poll indicates that most Texans would support Davis’ right to make the decision she did to abort a fetus with what she described as a “severe brain abnormality” without state interference. Even the law Davis filibustered and that Abbott is now defending in court permits abortions past 20 weeks in cases of fetal abnormalities or if the life of the mother is at stake.

Before the book, Blank said, abortion might not have surfaced at the two upcoming gubernatorial debates. Now it is more likely to come up and in ways that put Abbott on the spot because he has been “consistently murky” in detailing under which, if any, exceptional conditions he believes abortion ought to always be legal, Blank said.

Even if he acquits himself well, Blank said, Abbott still will have to worry that some other Texas Republican will say something untoward or insensitive that he will have to answer for.

“The fact is Republicans don’t want to be talking about abortion, they don’t want to be talking about rape, they don’t want to be talking about women’s issues directly, not because their positions are necessarily anathema to the electorate, but because it is treacherous territory where you can easily say something that can hurt you,” Blank said.

The Abbott campaign Saturday issued a brief statement of sympathy for Davis: “The unspeakable pain of losing a child is beyond tragic for any parent. As a father, I grieve for the Davis family and the loss of life.”

Other anti-abortion voices were likewise circumspect.

Of Davis terminating an ectopic pregnancy — one in which the embryo implants outside the uterus — Jason Vaughn, who heads Pro-Life Texas, said, “Most people don’t even consider those to be abortions.”

And Vaughn said that while terminating the second pregnancy was a judgment call on which people could and would differ, “attacking her is not the way to win hearts and minds.”

In an interview that will appear Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Davis said that in deciding to abort the baby they had named Tate Elise Davis, she and her then-husband decided that “the most loving thing we could do was say, `Goodbye.’”

“Every family has an emotional connection to that story, that set of circumstances, so it is very powerful, and for her campaign it does cut positively,” said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson.

But, he said, the Davis campaign must show caution as well.

“For this story to work, it has to be about the trauma for a family,” Jillson said. “I think you do it a disservice if you try to create a hero out of that trauma who now happens to be running for governor.”

Davis will be signing her book at 12:30 p.m. Thursday at BookPeople in Austin.

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