AUSTIN (KXAN) — In an effort to energize voters for the upcoming midterm elections, President Joe Biden promised Tuesday to make codifying Roe v. Wade his first legislative priority next year if — and that’s a big if — Democrats can retain control of Congress. Voters here in Texas could help to make that either easier or more difficult to deliver this November.
Three of the most competitive Congressional races in the country, for example, are all happening in South Texas. Republicans are counting on a trio of Latina candidates there, known by their supporters as the “Texas Triple Threat,” to help push their party back into the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. If the balance of power changes in Congress, it would undoubtedly stymie any effort by the president to pursue this kind of legislation. Biden admitted as much in his speech Tuesday in front of a banner that read “Restore Roe.”
“The Court got Roe right nearly 50 years ago, and I believe Congress should codify Roe once and for all,” Biden told a crowd in Washington. “Right now, we’re short a handful of votes. If you care about the right to choose, then you’ve got to vote. That’s why in these midterm elections they’re so critical to elect more Democratic senators to the United States Senate and more Democrats to keep control of the House of Representatives.”
Recent polls show abortion access among the most important issues for Texas voters during the upcoming election, but that’s regularly eclipsed by either the economy or inflation. The Marist Poll released last week found that 16% of Texans listed abortion as top of mind for them, but that’s behind either inflation (28%) or preserving democracy (21%). A September poll from Emerson College and the Nexstar Media Group, KXAN’s parent company, showed the economy as the top issue for 40% of Texas voters — followed by abortion access (16%), immigration (12%) and health care (8%).
Texas political experts said the snapshots these samplings provide suggest the Democrats’ messaging should not focus solely on abortion protections three weeks ahead of the election.
“Young people and already people solidly in the Democratic column are the people that Biden was appealing to with the speech today,” Walter Wilson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said Tuesday. “Those demographics are a little less present in the South Texas districts than they are in places like San Antonio or Houston, so I don’t see abortion superseding some of the other concerns on the minds of voters in those area, nearly as much as we might, let’s say, here in San Antonio.”
Amy O’Donnell, the communications director at the Texas Alliance for Life, said she anticipates Biden’s announcement may actually fire up anti-abortion voters across the state and potentially make them turn out in much higher numbers.
“There are some major issues going on in our country right now that [voters are] considering key issues that are going to determine how they vote, and Republicans are the ones who are voicing opinions on those key issues that matter right now to people in a way that’s causing them to lean Republican and including swing voters,” O’Donnell said. “It’s just showing even further how out of step Biden is, and so many of the Democrats are, when they just keep trying to make abortion the main thing that they’re running on.”
Dr. Natasha Altema-McNeely, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said she could foresee a situation where Texas Republicans talk more about what Biden is proposing than Democrats do in some of these closely-watched Congressional contests. She said that’s because it may give them “more fuel” to stoke their base that largely opposes abortion.
“It would just be expected that with his recent announcement, and with that speech today more specifically, they in response will continue to show and to emphasize to their potential voters as well as their hardcore level of supporter, like, look at what the president is saying about abortion. This goes against your fundamental belief in the importance of life, right?” Altema-McNeely said. “It would be a very useful, and it will be a very useful tool, for them to keep their base of support and attract any potential new voters or undecided voters who would already lean towards the Republicans anyway. This is going to be a useful strategy for them to remind these potential voters and committed voters that look, again, the president is taking the wrong position on this issue that’s important to you.”
Most competitive Congressional races
Texas Republicans would like to keep Rep. Mayra Flores in her seat after she won a special election this summer to represent Texas District 34. Hoping to unseat her is Vicente Gonzalez, a Democratic Congressman now running in the district after the Texas legislature redrew his boundaries. The Cook Political Report, the nonpartisan election prediction newsletter, currently lists this race as a “toss up,” the most competitive designation it has.
Wilson, the San Antonio professor, said the way the 34th District is drawn now may give Gonzalez the upper hand with traditional Democratic voters in this area, but he said Flores received a lot of attention for her special election win that could shape the outcome in November.
“The real question is, A, will those core [Gonzalez] supporters be enthusiastic enough to show up, and then, B, will the other side be sufficiently mobilized by some of these more wedge issues like immigration and will that be a major mobilizer?” Wilson said. “So turnout is going to be very important to this race. You know, my hunch is that overall a higher turnout probably benefits Gonzalez.”
In Texas’ 15th Congressional District, a seat left open after Gonzalez decided to run in another district, Republican Monica De La Cruz is facing Democrat Michelle Vallejo. The race right now is listed as “likely Republican” by The Cook Political Report, suggesting that its analysts consider it not to be very competitive anymore.
Altema-McNeely said Vallejo, a progressive Democrat, may stand to benefit from making abortion access a bigger talking point to drum up more liberal voters in a race that seems to now favor the Republican.
“Her base of support would include many progressives and possibly moderate Democrats who recognize the value of abortion access and, broadly speaking, reproductive health, but it would be risky for that to be her main point,” Altema-McNeely said. “She would have to some degree address economic issues and immigration, broadly speaking — even if it’s not necessarily border security, but just broadly speaking, immigration, right? — because those issues matter to the people here in the Valley regardless of their political backgrounds and regardless of their own positions on each of those issues, they still matter.”
Texas House District 28 is also receiving a spotlight because incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, is fending off Republican challenger Cassy Garcia. The Cook Political Report considers this race as “lean Democrat,” which seems to give a slight advantage to that party. However, according to KXAN’s news partner The Texas Tribune, Garcia — along with Flores and De La Cruz — have raised more money than their Democratic opponents.