Why you won’t hear as much about abortion from Wendy Davis as you might expect

October 29, 2013

Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis (D) is best known for her marathon filibuster of antiabortion legislation that catapulted her into the state and national consciousness.

If that's still Davis's calling card at the end of her run for governor, the Democrat's long-shot bid will almost certainly be headed for defeat. Nobody realizes this more than Davis and her campaign.

Just look at her reaction to a decision by a federal judge Monday to block two key provisions of the law that she fought against in the legislature. As the Houston Chronicle's Kiah Collier observed, missing from Davis's response was the word "abortion." Collier writes:

"Texas families are stronger and healthier when women across the state have access to quality health care," the statement read. "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."

Asked whether the reference to health care in the first sentence includes abortion procedures, Davis spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña said, "No."

Enough said.

The simple explanation for Davis's tack is Texas politics. The state leans conservative on social issues, meaning Davis's abortion law fight is not going to endear her to the center-right voters she will need to peel away from Attorney General Greg Abbott (R), who is a heavy, heavy favorite to win next year.

It's a reminder that what gets pols to the point at which they can try to move up to higher office isn't necessarily what they need to underscore in their next campaign.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), for example, is set to cruise to a second term in no small part because of the way he has leaned into a bipartisan message in his deep blue state, including his highly-publicized embrace of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Winning a second term would put Christie in a great position to launch a 2016 bid for president. If he runs, don't expect him to portray a warm and fuzzy relationship with Obama in his bid to win over the partisan activists and voters who decide the Republican nomination.

Something similar is going on with Davis. Her filibuster helped her build valuable name recognition that would otherwise require millions of dollars worth of introductory advertising. And it certainly didn't hurt her fundraising, bringing her cash from outside the state that probably wouldn't have otherwise flowed in her direction.

But 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. (Note that in her Monday statement, she also mentioned education.)

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. And she will have to do that as conservative groups will no doubt tie her to national Democrats and seek to cast her as an extremist on abortion.

All in all, it means Davis faces nothing short of  a monumental challenge. That's why she remains a major underdog against Abbott.

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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