Will the debate over abortion rights have a real impact on the November election?
Protests have taken place across Texas since last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn abortion rights. But is the anger over Roe v. Wade potent enough to last until November? And will the issue benefit Texas Republicans or Democrats more at the polls?
Democrats who support access to reproductive health care in Texas want to harness the energy seen at recent protests and turn it into votes against anti-abortion politicians in November’s midterm elections.
But will it work?
“I hope so,” said Andrea Ferrigno, the corporate vice president of Whole Woman’s Health, which was one of Texas’ largest abortion providers.
But a cautiously optimistic Ferrigno also added: “I am so disillusioned right now with the politics in this country that I'm having a hard time thinking about what our political future is.”
Clinics in the state, including the four operated by Whole Woman’s Health, have stopped performing abortions. Now, supporters of abortion rights like Ferrigno have said the only way forward is to change leadership in the state.
The November election offers an opportunity for that. At the top of the ballot, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who has been strongly against abortion, is running for his third term. His Democratic opponent is former congressman Beto O’Rourke, an El Pasoan and one of the most well-known Democrats in the state.
“The big question is: Is Beto O'Rourke exciting enough?” said Stephanie Martin, who's followed Texas politics for years at Southern Methodist University and is now the Frank Church Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University. “And is the anger over Roe potent enough to last until November?”
Right now, Texas Republicans don’t seem to think so.
The GOP strategy
Kay Tyner, who is involved in Republican politics in Houston, told The Texas Newsroom she doesn’t think the SCOTUS abortion decision will have a significant impact on the election.
“It may energize some to make the effort to vote, but I think the majority of those who are passionate on either side are already engaged in the process,” Tyner said in an email.
She thinks inflation, immigration and other hot-button issues will motivate people to vote far more than abortion.
But O’Rourke has made the issue a big part of his campaign over the last few months — even hosting rallies across the state focusing on the topic.
According to a survey conducted last month by The Texas Politics Project, Abbott’s lead over O’Rourke has narrowed down to just six points.
The governor, on the other hand, has mostly ignored O’Rourke’s gains, and has instead made President Joe Biden a big part of his platform.
The Republican has blamed Biden for the inflation facing the country and the issues at the southern border.
Abbott has also focused on the issue of gun rights. Martin said that works for him.
“Texans really hold that right to be pretty absolute, even in the face of shootings like what happened in Uvalde,” Martin said, referencing May’s mass shooting that left 21 dead at an elementary school. “I don't think that Beto will find the ability to close that five to eight percent (polling gap) if Abbott can keep the attention there.”
Another challenge O’Rourke and pro-abortion rights advocates face is the historically low voter turnout seen during midterm elections. Significantly fewer Texans show up when there’s not a presidential election on the ballot.
“I think we're going to see a higher turnout ... because the race between Beto and Abbott is very competitive, and a competitive election is key to getting people out to vote.”Tabitha Morton, professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University
Tabitha Morton, a professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University, said that puts Republicans at an advantage. People who tend to vote during the midterm elections are white, older and with a higher education level.
“So, the groups that tend to vote the most across the board are also the groups that tend to support this abortion ban,” Morton said.
She said something to watch is whether the issue of abortion will be enough to mobilize minority groups.
“I think we're going to see a higher turnout not just because of the ban that's been placed on abortion, but also because the race between Beto and Abbott is very competitive,” Morton said. “And a competitive election is key to getting people out to vote.”
Morton said that if Democrats can mobilize voters based on the competitive race, they could make headway in other races.
Could it backfire?
At least one anti-abortion advocacy group has already said they will use the SCOTUS ruling to woo potential voters, especially in areas where they see the potential for some gains.
Kimberlyn Schwartz, the director of media and communications at Texas Right to Life, said her organization is putting a lot of effort in South Texas.
Schwartz points to the special election victory of Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, last month. Flores flipped a South Texas congressional district that had been a Democratic stronghold.
Schwartz said the goal is to have more Hispanic-majority areas go from a Democratic strongholds to Republican ones.
“We've heard time and again of going down to South Texas and speaking with voters and communities there that they're very motivated by their own values of pro-God, pro-family and pro-life,” Schwartz said. “And so, the more that we push that message and point out how the Democratic Party has veered so far from that, the more gains we're going to make.”
But Martin, the former SMU political scientist, said Republicans should be careful with pushing too much anti-abortion rhetoric during this year’s campaigns.
Martin has done extensive research on evangelical voters — a block that was pivotal in the 2016 election of former President Donald Trump. Throughout the last few decades, evangelicals shaped the abortion debate in the country.
Martin’s research found that, contrary to popular belief, evangelicals are not “obsessed with social values issues like abortion.”
“Those voters don't want this conversation to overwhelm their picnics, and their Sunday dinners, and their scrapbooking events any more than secular voters do,” Martin said. “I think Republican leadership has to be very careful right now because the more they promote this, and the more they speak in caustic ways … the more white evangelicals who may be in fact pro-life will feel turned off from politics.”
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