According to the old slogan of the state tourism board, “Texas: It’s like a whole ‘nother nation,” however despite this yee-haw image, Texas is a lot like the rest of the country in most respects, including Texans’ views on abortion: 54 percent of Texans said they reject a complete ban on the practice in recent polls, which is the exact same percentage as in national polls.
Texas, however, has a law that comes very near to outlawing abortion completely; this is something that some Republicans are beginning to hear footsteps for before the election.
Most likely, they are overreacting. Texans continue to tell pollsters that their top issues are border security, immigration, political corruption, and inflation, in that order, even as “Roe the Vote” signs are put up in the well-kept yards of wealthy left-leaning neighborhoods across the state. Abortion is ranked second on the list of voters’ top issues, but only 8 percent of voters place it above border security and immigration, which together account for 30 percent of voters.
As a matter of political fact, immigration and border security are essentially one issue in Texas. When Texans mention immigration as their top concern, they typically don’t mean wealthy Nigerians moving to Harris County.) It’s unlikely that abortion will be a deciding factor. The Dobbs ruling and the ensuing activation of Texas’ abortion “trigger” law, which forbids abortion except in cases of “life-threatening physical conditions aggravated by, caused by, or arising from a pregnancy that places [a woman] at risk of death or poses a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major life function,” didn’t change the fact that the people with the “Roe the Vote” signs and bumper stickers probably weren’t going to be overly enthusiastic
Texas Republicans have no justification for being arrogant, despite this. The Republican presidential vote share in Texas has decreased from 61 percent in 2004 to barely 52 percent in 2020. Of course, Texan George W. Bush might have been expected to put up a big number in 2004, but Mitt Romney in 2012 finished with a convincing 57.2 percent of the vote, and John McCain in 2008 won 55.5 percent of the vote. Perhaps Donald Trump’s relatively low support in Texas in 2016 and 2022—52.2 in 2016, slightly dropping to 52.0 in 2020—was due to him. But it’s possible they were focused on the Texas electorate.
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Although the Dixie Chicks may sing about “Wide Open Spaces,” Texas is really a little more metropolitan than the rest of the country and is home to six of the top 25 cities in the country. The fact that Texas is the second-youngest state, with a median age of just 35.2 years, is what makes it stand out demographically. Youth and progressivism are not always synonymous (Utah has by far the youngest population), but Texas is a state that is younger and more urban than the rest of the country, ranks eighth in the country for the percentage of foreign-born residents, and is home to companies like Oracle, Sysco, Dell, AT&T, Hewlett Packard, and a brand-new $1 billion Apple campus. If you didn’t know Texas was Texas, you wouldn’t immediately assume it was Republican territory.
Politically, major cities in Texas often resemble major cities in other parts of the nation. While running away with 65 percent of the vote in Dallas County and 58 percent of the vote in Bexar County, Joe Biden won the majority of votes in every Texas city larger than Lubbock (pop. 237,013) in 2020. He even edged out Trump in the formerly reliably Republican sprawl of Tarrant County (Fort Worth and Arlington) (San Antonio).
Republicans may be mistaken for being concerned about this election cycle and for focusing too intently on abortion, but they are not mistaken for being concerned.
Texas Right to Life immediately denounced state senator Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) when he declared during a panel discussion hosted by the Texas Tribune that he would vote in favor of a rape exception to Texas’ abortion law if given the chance. The statehouse’s speaker, Dade Phelan, claims to have been hearing from other Republicans who share his concerns. Requests for comment from the speaker’s office went unanswered. Joe Strauss, a former statehouse speaker, described Texas’ trigger law as a “horrendous error” and a “big disaster,” as well as a “self-inflicted wound to members of my party who should’ve paid more attention and didn’t think the ramifications will be severe for them,” at the same Tribune event.
Strauss, who became a symbol of hate for the conservatives who ultimately drove him from the speaker’s office, is not at all like other Texas Republican leaders. A more typical example is East Texas Republican Bryan Slaton, who flatly rejects reconsidering the issue of exceptions. Slaton may be more representative of Republican elected officials, but he is not more representative of all Texans, who generally support exceptions in cases of rape or incest. Republicans can’t just pretend that the political divide between the activist right and the average voter doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t matter because the popular position isn’t necessarily the correct one just because it’s popular.
It won’t be good for GOP chances or, in the long term, for the pro-life movement if Republicans who are already well to the right of the average voter attempt to defend themselves politically and rhetorically against Republicans who are already much further to the right of the typical voter in Texas. Instead of trying to rid themselves of the 96th percentile pro-lifers, the 99th percentile pro-lifers, what pro-life Republicans truly need is outreach to those who are not already on board. Unfortunately, Republicans in Texas and elsewhere appear to have mostly lost how to engage in that style of traditional coalition-building politics.
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Abortion is likely to be a contentious topic in Texas Republican factional politics in the near future rather than in general elections. Many pro-life activists will declare, “No abortions, no exceptions,” and if you disagree with them, they’ll run you in the Republican primary, according to Republican strategist Karl Rove. He designates Nichols as his target.
According to Rove, the present Texas statute is “unsustainable” politically and will certainly cause problems for Republicans if the legislature doesn’t reevaluate the issue. In favor of the pro-life cause, he argues, “the legislature has a chance to put this subject to rest.” In addition, to supporting parental notice and other pro-life movement-preferred policies, there is broad agreement that abortion should be restricted to a reasonable point in the first trimester, such as France’s 14 weeks. The kind of no-exceptions paradigm requested by pro-lifers wanting a seamless anti-abortion resolution, he underlines, has very little public support, whether in Texas or anyplace else.
Democrats could dare to dream, but Texas has experienced years similar to this before: In fact, there is a big Democratic dream that gets dashed every election year—remember Wendy Davis and her idiotic sneakers? If Beto O’Rourke closes the gap on Greg Abbott by 5 points—a better result than the polls currently predict—he will undoubtedly declare a “moral victory.” It’s unlikely that Republicans will lose Texas in this election cycle, the one after it, or the one after that because of abortion.
Conservatives should support the pro-life position on the abortion debate because it is the right one to take, but they should also be aware that they still have a lot of political work to do, including the arduous and tiresome task of persuading. And in Texas, as elsewhere in the nation, they will need to devise some workable ways to change from a rural-exurban party of older white people to one that has a more secure and familiar place among the younger, more urban voters like those in Houston, Austin, and San Antonio — who at some point will represent the dispositive power in Texas politics.
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