In Texas, there is nothing like a fight over abortion laws to mobilize hardcore Republican and Democratic voters.
Following Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis’ 12-hour filibuster and the subsequent protest that killed an effort to restrict where, when and how women may obtain abortions, both sides of the debate are using the legislative drama watched around the world over the Internet to raise money, register voters and rile up their supporters.
Within a few hours after Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst pronounced Senate Bill 5 dead, social media was awash with fundraising appeals from both political parties, dozens of candidates and countless activists. Like few other issues, abortion triggers a passionate and deeply emotional response that turns out voters.
In the last two Republican primaries, less than 1.5 million people cast ballots in the only competitive election to choose statewide officials. That means to get elected, they only needed 750,000 votes in a state of 26 million people to run in the general election ballot where they were almost certain to win because of their party affiliation and straight-ticket voting.
The social conservative wing of the Republican Party has historically decided who wins those primary races, and no statewide candidate can win without an anti-abortion plank in their platform. They cite the Bible and a belief that civil rights protections should begin at conception.
Anti-abortion groups keep scorecards on how elected officials vote, and conservative Republicans line up at their meetings to denounce Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision guaranteeing women the right to an abortion.
Gov. Rick Perry and all other statewide officials have called for reversing Roe v. Wade and making abortion illegal. In the Texas House, there is only one Republican who voted against the proposed new abortion restrictions, and that’s likely because Rep. Sarah Davis represents a less conservative west Houston district where she is vulnerable in the general election.
Every Republican candidate running for statewide office in 2014 has already proclaimed their opposition to abortion and many are using the filibuster in their fundraising.
Democrats, meanwhile, have not won statewide office since 1994, the longest losing streak in the country. They’ve seen the Republican brand dominate Texas statewide politics and the Texas Democratic Party marginalized, with less than 700,000 voters participating in each of the last two primaries.
For most Democrats, a woman’s choice is a basic human right, with some opposing abortions on religious grounds. While none say they think abortions are good, they point to statistics that show abortion rates are lower in areas where contraception is affordable and abortions are readily available.
Women’s groups and Democrats began mobilizing to stop the new abortion regulations when Senate Bill 5 came up in a House committee on June 20. More than 700 people signed up to testify, most of them opposed to the law.
When Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, ended testimony with 267 people still waiting to provide their views, a protest movement was born that showed up for an all-night House debate and then the filibuster. Democratic Party activists signed up as many new voters as they could from the more than 1,000 protesters on Tuesday, knowing that women and young voters have fueled the party’s resurgence in other states.
Texas ranks 47th in the nation in voter participation. Democrats aim to change the electoral math by getting more people fired up about issues such as abortion, and the group Battleground Texas has millions in seed money from the party to get started.
FreedomWorks, a tea party organization, plans to spend at least $8 million to mobilize conservative voters.
Both groups and many others will likely see cash injections from supporters following the drama in the Texas Senate last week, even if the abortion measures will almost certainly become law next month. And while a federal court challenge would keep the law from being enforced anytime soon, the debate around it will have an immediate impact on the 2014 elections.
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