The One Republican Lawmaker in Texas Who Supports Abortion Rights

She soon stood out. One of Davis’ first votes as a representative was on a bill requiring doctors to perform a sonogram before an abortion. After a seven-hour debate, it passed in the House. Davis was the only Republican in the body to vote against it. She framed the vote as being about limiting government and protecting the doctor-patient relationship. Still, the move established her as an abortion rights supporter and drew the suspicions of fellow Republicans. It also became a sign of how she would navigate future conflicts in the legislature. Davis, a former college debater who doesn’t make an effort to maintain a poker face, is blunter than most politicians and readily engages people with whom she disagrees.

“I, of course, knew that being pro-choice was not going to make everybody in the party happy. But that is my personal position, and it’s the position of the overwhelming number of my constituents,” Davis says. “So, I think that’s one of the reasons why I make a pretty good representative.”

At the time, the Texas GOP was consolidating power and pushing out moderates, especially those who supported abortion. As recently as 2003, when Republicans took hold of both houses of the Legislature, nearly a dozen GOP lawmakers had either openly supported abortion rights or opposed more restrictions on the procedure, says Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. By 2012, Tea Party activists ousted Republican state Senator Jeff Wentworth, who had served in the Legislature for more than two decades and also voted against the sonogram bill. That was when Davis became the state’s only Republican lawmaker supporting abortion rights.

But even as redistricting made Davis’ district redder that year, no Republican emerged to oppose her in the primary, and she won again in the general election—against Ann Johnson, her current Democratic opponent and also a cancer survivor. Voters came to know Davis as someone who spoke her mind and was responsive to their concerns, often while huddled under a blanket in the chilly House chamber during long, late-night debates.

Over the years, Davis has vocally opposed most of the state’s high-profile abortion restrictions, including a sweeping 2013 bill that was later partially overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Davis argued in an op-ed at the time that the 20-week abortion ban in the bill was “reasonable,” as long it included exceptions, which she chided her fellow Republicans for rejecting. The vote earned her a primary opponent in 2014—and comparisons to Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis, another blonde Texas lawmaker (no relation), whose much-watched 13-hour filibuster against the legislation (and campaign for governor) was ultimately unsuccessful. As the House’s lead budget writer for health and human services, Sarah Davis also often fights against boosting funding for an “Alternatives to Abortion” program that’s popular among abortion opponents.

Davis’ abortion rights efforts—as well her support of gay rights and vaccinations—have aroused the antipathy of groups like Texas Right to Life and Texans for Vaccine Choice, which have helped to oust other moderates. She has also become the target of some far-right Republican lawmakers who question her conservative credentials, campaign against her in most election years in the primary and invoke her name to raise money for their own campaigns. But Davis’ abortion views haven’t changed.

“In these partisan times, that’s courage of conviction,” George Santos, a psychiatrist and former head of the Harris County Medical Society, says about Davis’ votes against abortion restrictions. Santos considers himself a Democrat but votes for Davis.

It’s not a given that Davis’ strong bipartisan support will last. Her margin of victory in the general election has narrowed over the years, from 23 points in 2014 to 7 points in 2018, as the district has gotten bluer. Davis and her opponent, Johnson, each hopes to raise $1 million for television ads and direct mailers for the race, though the pandemic is scrambling their efforts to hold fundraisers and ask for money. In addition to pressing the redistricting argument, Johnson plans to highlight Davis’ abysmal Sierra Club rating and legislation that she co-authored banning sanctuary cities in the state; she also says she intends to tie Davis to the state’s sky-high uninsured rate, which has increased in recent years.

On abortion, the two women are not far apart; Johnson also supports abortion restrictions in line with those outlined in Roe v. Wade. But while Planned Parenthood has backed Davis in previous races, it’s not clear that will happen this time around. In 2012, the group chose not to endorse either candidate, giving Davis and Johnson equal, perfect ratings on abortion rights. Dyana Limon-Mercado, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, an advocacy arm of Planned Parenthood’s clinic operation, says the Texas group wants to encourage more Republicans to support abortion rights but is now looking at candidates’ records on other issues, including immigration and workers’ rights, when evaluating them for endorsements. The group, which hasn’t announced an endorsement yet in the race, is also considering how it could tip the redistricting process.

“We don’t have any reason to question Sarah’s support on the issue,” Limon-Mercado says. “Our board in general has revisited the endorsement process.”

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