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On Abortion, Texas Isn’t a Whole ’Nother Country
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On Abortion, Texas Isn’t a Whole ’Nother Country

It’s the one everybody else lives in, too.

“Texas: It’s like a whole ’nother country,” or so the state tourism bureau slogan used to insist, but in spite of its yee-haw reputation, Texas is in most ways a whole lot like the rest of the country, including in Texans’ attitudes toward abortion: In recent polls, 54 percent of Texans said they oppose a total ban on the procedure, precisely the same figure found in national polls

But something very close to a total ban on abortion in the state is what Texas has—a fact that has some Republicans hearing footsteps ahead of Election Day. 

They probably are overreacting. Even as “Roe the Vote” signs go up in the manicured yards of affluent lefty neighborhoods around the state, Texans continue to tell pollsters that their top issues are border security, immigration, political corruption, and inflation, in that order, with abortion coming in next as the top issue for only 8 percent of voters compared to a combined 30 percent for border security and immigration. (Border security and immigration are, in effect, one issue in Texas as a matter of political reality. Texans who say their top issue is immigration aren’t usually talking about well-heeled Nigerians settling in Harris County.) Abortion is unlikely to a dispositive issue. In any case, the people with the “Roe the Vote” signs and bumper-stickers probably weren’t going to be super enthusiastic about Greg Abbott irrespective of the Dobbs decision or the consequent activation of Texas’ abortion “trigger” law, which prohibits abortion except in the case of a “life-threatening physical condition 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 bodily function.”

That being said, Texas Republicans have no reason to be cocky. The Republican share of the presidential vote in Texas has declined 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 in 2012, and John McCain won 55.5 percent in 2008. Maybe Donald Trump’s relatively low numbers in Texas in 2016 and 2022—52.2 in 2016, declining slightly to 52.0 in 2020—were about Trump. But they might have been about the Texas electorate. 

The Dixie Chicks may sing about “Wide Open Spaces,” but Texas is in fact slightly more urban than is the nation at large, and is home to six of the nation’s 25 largest cities. But where Texas really stands out demographically is that it is the second-youngest state, with a median age of only 35.2 years. Youth and progressivism do not necessarily go hand-in-hand (the state with the youngest population is, by far, Utah), but a state that is younger and more urban than the nation at large, that is No. 8 in the nation when it comes to its foreign-born population share, that is home to Oracle, Sysco, Dell, AT&T, Hewlett Packard, and a shiny new $1 billion Apple campus—that state wouldn’t look like obvious Republican territory if you didn’t know it was Texas. 

Big cities in Texas tend to look politically a lot like big cities elsewhere in the country. Joe Biden won the majority of the votes in every Texas city larger than Lubbock (pop. 237,013) in 2020, even edging out Trump in the once reliably Republican sprawl of Tarrant County (Fort Worth and Arlington) while running away with 65 percent of the vote in Dallas County and 58 percent of the vote in Bexar County (San Antonio). 

So while Republicans may be wrong to be worried about this election cycle and to focus too narrowly on abortion, they are not wrong to be concerned. 

At a recent panel discussion hosted by the Texas Tribune, state Sen. Robert Nichols (R–Jacksonville) said he would vote for a rape exception to Texas’ abortion law if given a chance, earning the immediate condemnation of Texas Right to Life. Dade Phelan, speaker of the statehouse, says he has been hearing from fellow Republicans who also are concerned about the issue. (The speaker’s office did not respond to requests for comment.) At the same Tribune event, former speaker of the statehouse Joe Strauss called Texas’ trigger law a ”horrendous mistake” and a “huge mess, a self-inflicted wound to members of my party who should’ve paid better attention and didn’t think the consequences will be difficult for them.” 

Strauss, who became a hate-totem for the conservatives who ultimately chased him out of the speaker’s chair, is far from typical of Texas Republican leaders. More typical is Bryan Slaton, an East Texas Republican who rejects revisiting the question of exceptions out of hand. Slaton may be more typical of Republican elected officials, but he is not more typical of Texans at large, who are in the largest part sympathetic to exceptions in cases of rape or incest. The popular view isn’t the right view merely by dint of its being popular, but Republicans cannot simply pretend the political gap between the activist right and the median voter isn’t there or that it doesn’t matter. 

If the political conversation about abortion in Texas ends up being dominated by the efforts of Republicans who are well to the right of the average voter to defend themselves rhetorically and politically from Republicans who are even farther to the right of the average voter, then that isn’t going to be good for GOP prospects or, in the long run, for the pro-life cause. What pro-life Republicans really need is outreach to voters who are not already on board rather than an attempted purge of the 96th-percentile pro-lifers by the 99th-percentile pro-lifers. Republicans in Texas and elsewhere unfortunately seem to have mostly forgotten how to engage in that kind of old-fashioned coalition-building politics. 

But, in the near term, abortion is more like to feature as a lively issue in intra-Republican factional politics in Texas than in the general elections. “A lot of people in the pro-life movement are going to say, ‘No abortions, no exceptions,’ and if you’re not with them, they’re going to primary you,” says Republican strategist Karl Rove. He points to Nichols as a target. Rove argues that the current Texas law is “unsustainable” as a political matter and that it is likely to prove troublesome for Republicans if the legislature doesn’t revisit the question. “The legislature has a chance to put this issue to bed to the advantage of the pro-life movement,” he says. “There’s a broad consensus that abortion should be limited to some reasonable point in the first trimester, France’s 14 weeks for example, and support for parental notification and other measures advocated by the pro-life movement.” But, he emphasizes, there is very little public support, in Texas or anywhere else, for the kind of no-exceptions model demanded by pro-lifers seeking a seamless anti-abortion settlement. 

Democrats may dare to dream, but Texas has had years like this before: Every election year, in fact, there is the great Democratic hope—remember Wendy Davis and her dopey sneakers?—that goes down in flames. No doubt Beto O’Rourke will declare a “moral victory” if he gets within 5 points of Greg Abbott—which would be a better showing than current polls suggest. Republicans probably aren’t going to lose Texas in this cycle or the next, or the one after that, over abortion. 

Conservatives should be on the pro-life side of the abortion issue because it is the right side, but they should at the same time understand that they have a lot of political work to do on the issue—the hard and grinding work of persuasion. And in Texas, as in the rest of the country, they are going to have to come up with some plausible means of evolving from a rural-exurban party of older white people into one that has a more secure and familiar place among the younger, more urban voters such as the ones in Houston, Austin, and San Antonio—who at some point will represent the dispositive power in Texas politics.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.