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Is Paxton’s Abortion Hardline A Liability For Republicans In 2024?

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton spent a rare couple of weeks in the news recently over something that was not his impeachment over abuse of office or involved his myriad of legal woes. Instead, he pushed the hardest of lines in Texas’s abortion ban.

 Kate Cox, 31, was seeking an abortion because her unborn child was diagnosed with Trisomy 18, also known as Edward Syndrome. Most babies born with the condition die within the first two weeks of heart defects or brain malfunction. Only 10 percent make it to their first birthday, though in extremely rare cases people have lived into middle age.  

 It was a heartbreaking diagnosis that Cox felt should be allowed under Texas’s law, which makes medical exemptions for life-threatening conditions involving the mother. During her pregnancy, she was admitted to the emergency room four times, and risked uterine rupture by continuing. The near-certainty of a non-viable pregnancy combined with the obvious danger to Cox’s health and future fertility made her an obvious candidate. Travis County District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble agreed and ruled that Cox should be allowed to get the abortion.

In stepped Paxton. The attorney general took the fight directly to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing that Cox had not proved she was in enough danger to justify terminating the pregnancy. Just to make the point further, Paxton sent a letter to the hospitals where Cox’s doctor would have admitting privileges to perform the procedure threatening to prosecute any medical personnel that aided her. The letter promised felony charges and fines over $100,000. Menacingly, he added “The [judge’s temporary restraining order] will expire long before the statute of limitations for violating Texas’ abortion laws expires.”

 Is bullying a sick woman whose child she desperately wanted has a near-certain chance not surviving good for the Republican brand? All moral questions of Paxton’s conduct aside for the moment, is this what their base wants heading into the all-important election year of 2024?

 Brandon Rottinghaus is a professor of political science at the University of Houston. He sees Paxton’s activities as fulfilling his designated role in the Texas Republican Party.

“Ken Paxton is the Republicans’ designated hatchet man on the abortion issue,” he says. “It is a role he embraces, even if it makes him among the more unpopular state leaders. Paxton will be the face of the abortion issue in 2024, but Democrats will need to broaden their message beyond a single person to make a compelling political case.”

 
It’s safe to say that Paxton’s approach to abortion in the state is a minority opinion, but not by all that much. While only 8 percent of Texans believe that abortion should be illegal in cases like Cox’s, the other 92 percent covers a wide range of opinions. Only 53 percent of Texans support an abortion at the stage Cox was at when the case came before the state Supreme Court, an extremely thin majority.

 Elsewhere in the country, abortion has been a driving force in the backlash against hard-right state governments, most recently in Ohio where the right to bodily autonomy was enshrined in the state constitution. In Texas, the issue has not moved the needle much.

“Democrats have struggled for decades to gain traction in Texas partly because of voter apathy,” says Rottinghaus. “Although the abortion issue is a motivator for Democrats in other states, lackluster turnout among Democrats means there isn’t enough kindling to make a big fire.”

This looks like good news for Paxton. If he can keep the far-right base fired up over abortion, it can deliver slim but solid victories in upcoming elections. Stories like Cox’s are harrowing, but there is little data showing that they are endangering Republicans in Texas anymore than they already were.

In 2022, Beto O’Rourke pinned many of his hopes for the governor race on suburban women. This is a demographic that has a significant chunk of legal abortions, and O’Rourke made several pitches to them about protecting their right to choose. Unfortunately for O’Rourke, abortion simply wasn’t a big enough issue to win women over to his side, even with Texas’s draconian new law.

That could change as stories like Cox’s come out. Currently, a small army of Texas women are suing the state over their medical horror stories brought on by the new law. It’s possible that this will galvanize opposition.

 “Of all the permutations of access to abortions, medical complications are the most popular,” says Rottinghaus. “Abortion is a tough issue for Republicans and drawing a hard line on medical exemptions is the hardest to sell to voters, especially moderates, women, and those with college degrees.”

 So far, the problem is that hardline doesn’t rank as high on voter lists as inflation, immigration, and the power grid. Until it becomes a priority for voters, Paxton can attack reproductive freedom in the state as viciously as he likes with little loss of political capital.

Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner is an award-winning freelance journalist, the author of The Rook Circle, and a member of The Black Math Experiment. He lives in Houston where he spends most of his time investigating corruption and strange happenings. Jef has written for Houston Press, Free Press Houston, and Houston Chronicle.

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