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Wendy Davis And The GOP’s Abortion Opportunity

What Wendy Davis really tells us about the national debate on abortion is that Republicans have an opening. Will they take it?

Objectively speaking, Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis may champion the least popular political position in the country. Not that you’d know it when reading most accounts of her rise to prominence. Ever since the summer, when Davis filibustered the legislative session to delay the passage of a bill banning most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, much of the coverage has avoided accurately describing why we know who Wendy Davis is in the first place.

In a recent New Republic piece, Nate Cohn argued that Davis has no shot of winning statewide office Texas — all the time rigorously avoiding any mention of  late-term abortion. Time magazine asks: Is she Cinderella or Joan of Arc? In a Politico column, ambitiously titled “Abortion is a winning issue for Wendy Davis,” Jason Stanford, a Democratic consultant from Texas, tells us abortion is a political winner without ever telling us Davis’ position.

Stanford fails to offer much in the way of evidence, though he seems especially frustrated that Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, who will oppose Davis in the gubernatorial race, hasn’t yet had the “guts” to sound like Todd Akin, instead offering distressingly rational statements, like: “If you’re really pro-life, you want to save every life, but that also includes the mother’s life. The life of the mother is just as precious as the life of the child.”

According to Stanford, though, the one ray of hope for Texas Democrats is this:

In a June University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 38.65 percent of moderates, 38.36 percent of suburbanites, and 29.31 percent of soft Republicans agreed with the position that abortion should be a legal and personal choice. Those are minority opinions, to be sure, but Democrats haven’t scored that high in the suburbs since Ann Richards was governor. Add to their numbers the suburban Texas women who support exceptions for rape and incest — and who might think twice about electing a governor who didn’t — and Davis could have an opening.

That’s interesting but irrelevant. The question is: are these suburban Texans any more inclined to believe that it’s a “legal and personal” choice to destroy a fetus in the 6th or 7th month. And are they more likely to “think twice” about voting for a “governor” who opposes a bill that allows the practice without any real limits?

The reason so many pro-choice advocates avoid the question is simple. That Texas Tribune poll Stanford mentions also finds that 62 percent of Texans support more restrictions on late-term abortions, and national numbers are similar. A Gallup poll found that those who think abortion should be legal in all circumstances was only 26 percent, while 52 percent  favored limiting the procedure. A National Journal poll –  even though it’s question was biased, as John McCormack of the Weekly Standard points out – found that a bill passed House of Representatives earlier this year restricting abortion after 20 weeks was supported 48 percent to 44 percent, with independents supporting it by a 14-point margin.

The National Journal also finds that majority of women supported the bill, backing it 50 to 44.  A recent Quinnipiac poll found that women oppose late-term abortions by a 35-point margin (independents by 59/26  and Hispanics by a 59/20.)

Granted, Texas would be a tough spot for a progressive like Davis even if she wasn’t an extremist on abortion, but there are plenty Wendy Davises running around the country — folks like Barack Obama —  who are rarely called on to defend their position.

Keep in mind Obama’s account tweeted out the above around the time he was attacking conservative obstructionists for refusing to go along with new gun-control measures. Is #StandWithWendy “special” because it exemplifies the importance of minority filibustering in a Republic? Or does the president believe that allowing abortions up to the 9th month of pregnancy is special? Why hasn’t anyone with access asked him? Or why haven’t they asked the six senators who showed up at Davis’ DC fundraiser — or dozens of politicians who offered their moral support — the same?

When Nancy Pelosi was asked to comment on the Kermit Gosnell situation she reverted to her “sacred ground” gibberish. (Perhaps one day someone will also ask Wendy Davis or Barack Obama to explain the moral distinction between what Kermit Gosnell did and what they protect, but that’s another story.) When Joe Scarborough asked Davis whether 20 weeks was enough time for a woman to make up her mind about having an abortion, she provided Christine O’Donnell levels of coherence.

So why can’t Republicans press this advantage more effectively? Yes, abortion is often conflated with women’s “health,” contraception, rape, public funding of Planned Parenthood, and anything that could conceivably frighten the average suburban mom. Detangling it is difficult.  But, politically speaking, answering questions about theoretical pro-life legislation (most of which would be unconstitutional right now anyway) is a bad idea when you can focus on legislation that already exists… legislation that is popular.

Do what Democrats do. Many liberals would, no doubt, like to ban guns outright, but they understand the hopelessness of the cause and focus on “moderate” and “common sense” background checks. Many liberals support a single-payer system in the United States, yet most are content to defend the less-but-still-unpopular Affordable Care Act for the time being.

I also suspect many pro-choice proponents operate under the assumption that voters will come around (or perhaps “evolve” to an enlightened liberal position) as they have on gay marriage and immigration. The dynamics of abortion, though, are very different. The argument for gay marriage (whether you buy this or not) is an affirmative case for equality. The argument that gay marriage harms others is abstract, at best. The harm abortion does, however, is tangible. All you have to do is witness how a pregnant woman is treated to understand why.

So, while the abortion discussion is ideological, an issue of “choice,” it is still hitched to faith, reason and science — which continues to push viability and offer increasingly intimate views of life in the womb. This is an issue that may evolve in an unexpected direction.

Now, there’s no denying the GOP has taken it on the chin numerous times during the War on Women. You can chalk their fate up to a couple factors: First: too many Republicans have the propensity to beclown themselves grappling with these questions. Second: too many other Republicans are reluctant to engage, even tangentially, on topics related to “women issues,” much less abortion, because conventional wisdom and history says it’s a loser.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that isn’t always the case.

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