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.
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.