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September 4th, 2020:

Why endorse Sarah Davis?

It’s a good question.

Rep. Sarah Davis

Planned Parenthood’s Texas political arm on Thursday endorsed state Rep. Sarah Davis, rebuffing abortion rights activists who had lobbied the group to deny political support for the Houston Republican.

The efforts to deny Davis the endorsement had revolved around a petition circulated by Sherry Merfish, a deeply connected Democratic donor and former Planned Parenthood board member. The petition concedes that Davis “may have met the minimum standards of what it means to be ‘pro-choice,’” but argues that “the rest of her record stands completely at odds with the cause of reproductive justice and the purported mission of Planned Parenthood.”

It had gathered some 450 signatures by Wednesday afternoon, including numerous Planned Parenthood donors and two board members of the group’s Houston affiliate. One of the board members, Peggie Kohnert, had circulated her own petition.

The lobbying effort has revealed a fracture between key members of Houston’s abortion rights community and the leaders of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, a political action committee that defines itself as nonpartisan but has struggled to find Republicans like Davis to endorse. As the debate plays out, Texas Democrats — desperate to capture a House majority before next year’s critical redistricting battle — are making an all-out push to unseat Davis, whom they view as one of the most vulnerable Republican legislators in the state.

Davis’ stances on abortion have angered members of her party but helped garner support from moderate voters. In the last two cycles, she won re-election while her party’s standard-bearers, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, each failed to crack 40 percent in her district.

Houston lawyer Ann Johnson, Davis’ Democratic opponent, argues the incumbent has worked against women’s reproductive issues by opposing the Affordable Care Act and declining to vote for the law’s optional expansion of Medicaid. Davis disagrees, saying she has voted against “every anti-choice bill” during her time in office.

Some of Johnson’s supporters say groups such as Planned Parenthood Texas Votes have allowed Davis to carefully curate her moderate reputation while she aligns with her party on immigration and gun policies. Merfish said the group also would paint a misleading picture of Johnson by backing Davis.

“By endorsing Sarah, in people’s minds who may not be as familiar with Ann, it would cast doubt on whether Ann is aligned with them on these issues,” Merfish said. “Because, then why wouldn’t they endorse both of them, or why wouldn’t they stay out of it?”

Planned Parenthood Texas Votes announced the Davis endorsement Thursday as part of a slate of 18 new endorsements. Davis is the only Republican among the 27 candidates the group is backing this cycle.

In a news release, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes said it is “working to elect officials not to just defend access to sexual and reproductive health care, but to repair and expand the public health infrastructure damaged by Governor Abbott and other extremist politicians.”

There was a preview story about this on Wednesday, which covered much of the same ground. As the story notes, Davis also received the endorsement from the Human Rights Campaign, despite Ann Johnson being an out lesbian. The story goes into a lot of detail about Davis’ career and various votes and issues that are at the heart of the dispute, so I encourage you to read the rest.

On the one hand, I get why PPTV and the HRC want to endorse Republicans like Davis, who are an increasingly rare breed. It’s in their best interests, at least as they see it, to be non-partisan, which means they need to find Republicans they can support. From a national perspective, Democrats may be the majority in Congress now, but partisan control is likely to swap back and forth over time, and you need to have some connections to the Republican majority when it exists, no matter how otherwise hostile it is, because you can’t afford to be completely shut out. Long term, I’m sure groups like these very much want for their issues to not be seen as strictly partisan, but to have broad consensus across party lines, and the only way to do that is to have Republican faces you can point to and say “see, they support us, too”. They have done this for a long time, and it’s just how they operate.

On the other hand, the simple fact of the matter is that having Sarah Davis in the State House makes it that much more likely that the Republicans will maintain their majority in that chamber, and a House with a Republican majority and a Republican Speaker is absolutely, positively, one hundred percent going to pass at least one major anti-abortion bill in 2021, just as it has every session since 2003, when the Republicans first took the majority and thus gained trifecta control of Texas state politics. A State House with a Republican majority and Speaker will absolutely not pass a bill to expand Medicaid. I agree, such a bill would almost certainly be DOA in the Senate, but at least it would get there, and the voters in 2022 would have a tangible example of what they’ve been missing out on. And of course, a State House with a Republican majority and Speaker will absolutely make further cuts to women’s health (which is already happening without any legislative input) and add further restrictions to Planned Parenthood, again as they have been doing for years now. All of this would happen regardless of the virtuous votes that Sarah Davis would cast. I mean, it may be true that she has helped stop some things and reverse some cuts and spoken against some other things, but all this has happened regardless. She’s only one member, and they have always had the votes to do all that without her.

This debate has played out for several years at the national level, with the national Planned Parenthood PAC being criticized in the past for supporting the likes of Arlen Specter and Susan Collins and a handful of Congressional Republicans for their reasonably pro-choice voting records while overlooking the “which party is the majority” aspect. Indeed, for the first time ever, Planned Parenthood has endorsed Collins’ challenger, with her vote for Brett Kavanaugh being the proverbial last straw. Activists, including blogs like Daily Kos, have made the same argument about control of the chamber versus individual members with acceptable voting records. However you feel about what PPTV and HRC did here, it’s not at all a surprise to see this debate arrive here on this level.

Ann Johnson

Though individual endorsements rarely have the power to swing elections, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes holds more sway in House District 134 than the average political group, said Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. The district, which covers Bellaire, West University Place, Southside Place, Rice University and the Texas Medical Center, is home to some of the most affluent, educated and politically engaged voters in the state and contains what Merfish described as a “trove of Planned Parenthood voters.”

The group’s endorsement is particularly significant for Davis, Cross said, because of President Trump’s struggles among suburban women.

“Just like the tea party helped bring her in back in 2010, the anti-Trump movement could help move her out, especially among women,” Cross said.

I agree that Davis is better positioned with these endorsements than without them. A bigger concern for Davis is just simply how Democratic HD134 was in 2018, when Beto took 60% of the vote, and Davis was fortunate to not have had a serious challenger. I see a parallel to Ellen Cohen, who won re-election in 2008 by a 14-point margin over a non-entity opponent, even as Republicans were carrying the district in nearly every other race. 2008 was a strong Democratic year overall in Harris County, but HD134 was actually a bit more Republican than it had been in 2006, when something like seven or eight downballot Dems also carried the district. Cohen still vastly outperformed other Dems in the Republican tidal wave of 2010, but that wave was too big for her to overcome. I get the same feeling about Davis this year. Maybe I’m wrong – no two elections are ever alike, and HD134 has been a Republican district far longer than it’s been a Democratic district – but there’s a reason why neutral observers view Davis as being endangered.

One last thing: When I say that groups like PPTV and HRC want to be supportive of Republicans like Sarah Davis, it’s because there’s literally no other Republicans like Sarah Davis, at least at the legislative level in Texas. The thing is, Republicans like her have been extremely endangered for some time now. Go ahead, name all of the Republican legislators you can think of from this century that you could classify as “pro-choice” with a straight face and without provoking a “no I’m not!” response from them. I got Joe Straus, Jeff Wentworth (primaried out by the wingnut Donna Campbell), and that’s about it. I’m old enough to remember when Gary Polland and Steven Hotze ousted Betsy Lake, the nice River Oaks Planned Parenthood-supporting lady who had been the Harris County GOP Chair in the 90s, thus completing a takeover of the party that has lurched ever further rightward since. If they can’t support Sarah Davis, I have no idea who else in the Republican Party they could support.

CD17 poll: Sessions 45, Kennedy 42

Another mind-blowing poll result, in a district that no one has seen as competitive.

Rick Kennedy

In a district where 56 percent of voters supported President Donald Trump in 2016, Democratic congressional candidate Rick Kennedy is in a strong position to challenge the Republican control of Texas’ 17th Congressional district. Our recent survey of likely 2020 voters finds that Kennedy is within striking distance of former Congressman Pete Sessions who moved to the district last year after losing a race in his former Dallas based congressional district.

While Kennedy is fairly well-known and well-liked for a challenger in this traditional Republican stronghold (41% know enough about him to have an opinion and 63% of this cohort have a favorable opinion of him), he is clearly being helped by two factors: 1) Sessions is bringing a lot of baggage with him from northern Texas and 2) Democratic nominee Joe Biden is only trailing by 1 point in his race against the sitting President.

Normally running against someone who spent close to 20 years in Washington DC would be a challenge but that is not the case in this race. Sessions is known by 69 percent of likely voters and among these voters, 57 percent have a negative opinion of the former Congressman. This includes 21 percent of Republican voters who are familiar with Sessions. When it comes to the top of the ticket, statewide numbers in Texas have shown a close race between Biden and Trump, and the 17th district is following this trend with Biden receiving the support of 47 percent of voters in the district while Trump just one point ahead with just five percent undecided.

Given the state of the Presidential race, and the negative views surrounding Session’s connection to the Ukraine scandal that the President was impeached over, it is not surprising to see such close numbers in the congressional race. Indeed, Kennedy is only trailing Sessions by 3 points (42% to 45%) with 13% of voters undecided.

Naturally, there’s a Patrick Svitek tweet as the source for this. You can see a slightly wordier version of this on Kennedy’s campaign webpage.

For sure, voters have good reason to dislike Pete Sessions, reasons that go well beyond mere carpetbagging. But let’s be clear, this district wasn’t on anyone’s radar because Beto lost it by ten points, with Kennedy and lower-profile Democrats trailing by fifteen. As Matt Mohn points out, there’s not a lot of Dem-friendly turf in this district. It wasn’t even on Rachel Bitecofer’s extensive watch list, as it lacks the higher concentration of college-educated white folks that have made suburban districts trend blue. And not to put too fine a point on it, but Kennedy has no money, so even if Joe Biden is running right on Donald Trump’s heels here, Kennedy would be in a weaker position to capitalize on it than a better-funded candidate would be.

If I sound a little skeptical, it’s because I am. CD17 was more Republican than the state as a whole, in 2016 and in 2018. If it truly is basically a tossup at the Presidential level, we should be seeing even better Democratic results statewide and in other Congressional districts. I’d expect to see polls showing Biden up by three to five points to be consistent with this. Is this impossible? No, not at all. But it is exceptional, and I would want some correlation before I felt comfortable touting it as evidence of anything.

And speaking of other poll results, here are two more of interest:

In CD21, a poll sponsored by End Citizens United has Wendy Davis tied with freshman Rep. Chip Roy 46-46, with Biden up by one point, 48-47, on Trump. An earlier poll had Davis down one and Biden up three, so basically just some float within the margin of error. These results feel closer to what I’d expect if Biden is more or less even or a point or two behind in Texas. If anything, I might expect Davis, as well known as any Texas Dem and with a pile of money, to be doing a little better. This poll included a bit of negative messaging on Roy, which moved the numbers to 49-45 for Davis.

In HD138, one of the top Democratic targets in the State House, Akilah Bacy leads Lacey Hull 48-42, with Biden up ten, 53-43. After “balanced positive and negative messages for both candidates”, Bacy remains up by six, 50-44. This one also feels about right to me. If that Commissioners Court poll is in the ballpark, Bacy should be in a very strong position.

That’s your polling news for today. I’m sure I’ll be back soon with more, the way this has been going.

From the “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” department

Who’s ready to re-reopen Texas?

Gov. Greg Abbott signaled he may be preparing to roll back some emergency restrictions put in place this summer at the height of the state’s coronavirus surge.

Responding to concerns from the battered restaurant industry, the governor tweeted Monday night that new infections and hospitalizations from COVID-19 are receding, and added, “I hope to provide updates next week about next steps.”

“Since my last orders in July, COVID numbers have declined—most importantly hospitalizations,” said Abbott, a Republican.

The governor gave no indication about what steps he might take, and a spokesman did not respond to questions. Abbott has previously said he would consider allowing bars to reopen and restaurants to open further if positive trends continue.

Statewide, new daily infections and hospitalizations are declining, though they remain well above where where they were when Abbott began reopening the state in May — hospitalizations are now double, and average new daily infections are four times as high. It’s also unclear whether the rate of people testing positive, a key metric, is anywhere near where public health experts recommend before opening more businesses and allowing children back into schools.

What could possibly go wrong? See here for a statement from Mayor Turner, who unsurprisingly urges caution. You should also read this Politico profile of County Judge Lina Hidalgo, which I will blog about separately, and remember that at every step of the way in this crisis, Lina Hidalgo has been right and Greg Abbott has been wrong.

When HEB is on your side

Who could be against you?

Charles Butt, the billionaire owner of the San Antonio-based grocery chain H-E-B, sent a letter to the Texas Supreme Court this week, siding with Harris County on its plan to send mail ballot applications to all registered voters ahead of the November election.

In the letter, Butt argued that Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan was permissible under the Texas Election Code.

“Clerk Hollins’s efforts to make absentee ballots widely available trusts voters, protecting those who are vulnerable from unnecessary exposure in this new Covid world in which we’re living,” Butt wrote. “It’s always been my impression that the more people who vote, the stronger our democracy will be.”

[…]

“Based on our experience at H-E-B, many people, including those of all ages, are nervous about contracting the virus,” Butt wrote. “By extension, in my opinion, many would be anxious about voting in person. Clerk Hollins has reasonably given these voters a chance to guard against perilous exposure in a manner consistent with this Court’s opinion and the Election Code.”

Butt previously has weighed in on political debates, and he is a top contributor during election cycles. His campaign contributions cross party lines.

That letter was being quote-tweeted all over the place on Wednesday. One could look at this and furrow one’s brow at the intervention by a wealthy individual, one who does play a fair amount in Texas politics, in a court case like this. One could also shrug one’s shoulders and say that this looks an awful lot like an amicus brief, except it was released on Twitter instead. I lean towards the latter, and given the overheated and frankly harmful rhetoric being unleashed by Trump and Paxton and the like, I’m glad that Charles Butt decided to speak up and inject a little sanity into the discourse. Your mileage may vary. Reform Austin has more.