Wendy Davis can't win Texas on abortion

Her epic filibuster of an abortion law thrust her into the spotlight. Now she has to change gears.

(Image credit: (REUTERS/Darrell Byers))

Back in June, Wendy Davis was a relatively unknown Texas state senator who burst onto the national scene with an epic 11-hour filibuster of a restrictive statewide abortion law.

Today, she is a Democratic candidate in the 2014 Texas governor's race, and a new poll shows she has a fighting chance of winning. Currently, she is only six points behind her presumptive Republican opponent, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R).

We have already covered why Davis has a shot at winning the governor's race, including her name recognition and Texas' changing demographics. And while it might seem difficult to imagine a Democrat in the Texas governor's mansion, six points is only a gaffe or two away from a dead heat.

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That is why she might be holding back on the issue that made her famous. Last month, a federal judge blocked two key parts of the abortion law that Davis was fighting against: A requirement that doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic, and a law banning women from taking abortion drugs at home.

At the time, it certainly seemed like a victory for Davis. (A federal appeals court later reversed that decision, allowing the law to go into effect). Her official reaction, however, avoided words like "abortion" and "pro-choice."

"Texas families are stronger and healthier when women across the state have access to quality healthcare," Davis said in a statement. "I’m not surprised by the judge’s ruling. As a mother, I would rather see our tax dollars spent on improving our kids’ schools than defending this law."

Likewise, her first campaign ad doesn't even touch the abortion issue, instead putting an emphasis on education, crime, and jobs.

It isn't a coincidence that Davis isn't highlighting her abortion fight, wrote The Washington Post's Sean Sullivan, noting her need to "peel away" at least some "center-right voters" from Abbott:

The moment Davis launched her campaign, she made clear that her main focus is on education, not abortion. It wasn’t her abortion filibuster Davis mentioned in her kickoff address, but rather her 2011 filibuster of education cuts.

Davis will have to find a sweet spot between (1) keeping the energy level up among the donors, activists and voters who support her and know her because of her abortion filibuster and expect her to continue the fight, and (2) not alienating more moderate and conservative voters who will be turned off by her position in favor of abortion rights. [Washington Post]

Not that conservatives will want to focus on anything but her views on abortion. An ad has already hit Texas radio calling Davis an "abortion zealot." New PACs are being formed by anti-abortion groups in Texas, which, as Yahoo's Liz Goodwin pointed out, haven't had to deal with a pro-abortion-rights governor since Ann Richards in 1991.

Search Twitter for the hashtag #AbortionBarbie — a reference to the pink shoes that the state senator wore during her filibuster — and you'll see a parade of conservative rage focused on defeating Davis. And this year, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that nearly 40 percent of Texans don't think the state's abortion laws went far enough.

It's a stark reminder that despite hopes by Democrats that Texas might eventually turn blue, it is still a very, very red state. Her filibuster "may well help her raise money from supporters of legal abortion outside Texas," wrote Michael J. New in the conservative National Review, but there is "little evidence" that her support for access to abortion "has endeared her to Texas voters."

Certainly not rural or white male voters. But two demographics Davis needs to win — suburban women and Latino voters — are pretty much split on the abortion issue. Davis doesn't need to change her views, necessarily; she just needs to change the subject enough to attract moderate voters while shoring up her base.

Even then, she might not be able to beat Abbott. But if the polls in 2014 look anything like they do now, Texas could be in for a close race.

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