In a pivotal first election after the complete upending of abortion access in the United States, things looked about the same as always in Texas.
Republicans swept easily to victory statewide, shoring up the Legislature’s dominant anti-abortion bloc, and at least three more cities passed local ordinances further banning the procedure.
Nationally, abortion helped Democrats hold off the threatened “red wave,” and in states where reproductive rights were on the ballot, voters turned out and even crossed party lines to support increased access.
But not in Texas.
It’s not that Texans support the state’s near-total abortion ban — they overwhelmingly oppose it. Nor have they forgotten about the issue — abortion is second only to inflation, with the majority of voters saying they felt dissatisfied or angry about the overturn of Roe v. Wade, according to an NBC exit poll.
In an already bad year for Democrats, with a faltering economy and newly redrawn electoral maps, outrage over abortion access didn’t translate into enough votes to stop Republicans’ relentless rightward march in Texas.
“This proves that being bold on life is not going to hurt you in the election,” Texas Right to Life director John Seago said. “It actually helps. And this is something that I think was really important for the Republican Party to learn.”
Midterm expectations versus reality
Midterm elections are almost uniformly terrible for the president’s party, so nationally and in Texas, Democrats were braced for a rout this year.
But then, in late June, a meteor hit the electoral landscape: The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, freeing states to ban abortion for the first time in 50 years. Across the South and Midwest, abortion access evaporated overnight.
A few weeks later, defying all polls, deep-red Kansas voted to protect abortion access. A surge of new voters, previously unmotivated voters and party defectors helped strike down the Republican-proposed constitutional amendment, in an apparent repudiation of the Supreme Court.
After decades playing defense on abortion, Democrats saw this as their chance to go on the offensive, attacking Republicans for ending abortion access for millions of Americans.
While Texas was unlikely to have a similar referendum anytime soon, Democratic candidates made abortion a key part of their messaging. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke framed abortion as “the most important thing” about the election, pinning the state’s near-total ban on his opponent, Gov. Greg Abbott in TV ads, fundraising emails and stump speeches.
Rochelle Garza, the Democratic nominee for attorney general, held her record as a reproductive rights attorney up against incumbent Ken Paxton’s staunch anti-abortion views. Down-ballot, more legislative candidates spoke more frankly and more often about abortion than ever before.
But statewide Democratic candidates lost, badly, on Tuesday, and the Legislature remains Republican-dominated.
In the four months between the Supreme Court decision and the election, other issues began to push abortion out of the headlines — the faltering economy, swelling inflation, rising crime numbers.
The hard part for Democrats isn’t “convincing people that abortion access is a good thing,” said Drucilla Tigner, deputy director with Planned Parenthood Texas Votes.
“We know that they already agree with that,” she said. “It’s getting them to believe that they can make a difference in the state on this issue.”
Democrats have long struggled to overcome political ennui in Texas, where turnout is often low and Republicans have dominated for decades. A record-breaking 9.6 million registered voters did not go to the polls Tuesday, along with 1.4 million Texans who are eligible but haven’t registered, according to Texas Election Source. Heightening the sense of hopelessness among Democrats, Texas has new electoral maps, drawn to insulate Republicans from opposition.
“We’re not having elections that are in neutrally drawn districts that would reflect necessarily neutral politics,” said Joanne Connor Green, a political science professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. “These are freshly drawn partisan districts that are designed to temper some of these trends.”
Tigner said there were some positive signs for abortion advocates Tuesday night: All of the incumbent candidates endorsed by Planned Parenthood Texas Votes won, including those in the hotly contested Harris County Commissioners Court races. But she acknowledged that the results were a setback in an already long fight to restore abortion access in Texas.
With this election likely representing the high-water mark for attention on abortion, it’ll be up to abortion advocates to keep voters — and the Democratic party — engaged and enraged around this issue.
That’s a lesson the other side has learned over decades. Even after their long-awaited victory at the highest level of the American justice system in June, anti-abortion organizers are still mobilizing voters at the grassroots level.
On Tuesday, that looked like at least three rural Texas cities passing “Sanctuary City for the Unborn” ordinances, which allow private citizens to bring lawsuits against anyone who “aids and abets” in an illegal abortion from the moment of conception, going even further than existing state law.
Abilene, Athens and San Angelo have joined more than 50 other cities in passing these largely symbolic ordinances. None of these three cities had abortion clincis, and the procedure is virtually outlawed in Texas.
A similar ordinance passed in Hobbs, New Mexico, on Monday, intending to discourage any abortion clinics from relocating to the town just over the Texas border. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who won reelection on Tuesday, said the state “won’t stand for” ordinances like these.
Abortion on the ballot
While towns in Texas voted to oppose abortion access, it was an entirely different night for states considering a similar question.
Ever-reddening Kentucky reelected Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in a landslide and — at the same time — knocked down an anti-abortion constitutional amendment. Preliminary analysis indicates at least some Republicans voted to ensure the state constitution would not include a prohibition on abortion.
Michigan voted to protect abortion access in the Constitution and reelected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who made her opponent’s anti-abortion stance a central part of her campaign. Voters in California and Vermont also added constitutional protections for abortion.
When asked to weigh in on a clear-cut yes or no abortion question, voters seem inclined to protect access, even in conservative states.
“If abortion is on the ballot, abortion wins,” Tigner said. “People across this country believe that abortion should be legal.”
But Texans are unlikely to see a similar referendum on their ballots anytime soon. Even after Tuesday’s election, Republicans do not have the two-thirds majority in either house required to pass a constitutional amendment.
Even if they did manage to build a bipartisan coalition, the proposal would then go to the voters; as Kansas and Kentucky have proven, constitutional amendments make even consistently conservative states a little skittish.
But more important, after Tuesday’s election, there’s no sign Texas lawmakers need to be overly worried about enshrining abortion restrictions in the state constitution. The state’s power balance remains firmly in the hands of the Republican party, giving legislators virtual free rein to pass as many, and as restrictive, abortion laws as they believe voters will let them.
Already, the scope of conversation around abortion in the upcoming legislative session is beginning to take shape. Some Republican lawmakers have floated the idea of adding rape and incest exceptions to the near-total ban, but beyond that, lawmakers’ focus will likely be on increasing enforcement and furthering the reach of the state’s existing abortion laws.
“That’s gonna require Republicans to be courageous on this issue, again, like they did last session,” Seago said. “I’m happy that with these election results, we can make the case that it is actually to your political benefit to be strong on these issues.”
Green, from TCU, cautioned against reading too much into the Republican victory on Tuesday.
“It doesn’t seem that the voters were issuing a mandate of change,” she said. “It seems as though we entered the elections very divided, and then we emerged very divided without a clear consensus of what we want, either as a state or a nation.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.