Texas Tussle: Rick Perry Jabs Wendy Davis After Abortion Filibuster

War of words could foreshadow race for governor

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Tony Gutierrez / AP

Governor Rick Perry addresses a large audience in attendance at the National Right To Life Convention, Thursday, June 27, 2013, in Grapevine, Texas.

It has been a generation since the earth moved for Democrats in Texas. On Tuesday night an abortion bill, one of the most restrictive in the nation, went down amid parliamentary maneuvering in the state senate, sparking euphoria in Democratic circles and making a minor celebrity of its chief opponent. But in the clear light of day, with the politicians, protesters and pundits now two days removed, there was little evidence that a tectonic shift in red-blue state politics had taken place.

True, a Democratic star had been born—State Senator Wendy Davis led a 10-hour filibuster in pink sneakers—and her party got a much-needed morale boost. But Republican Governor Rick Perry remained at the top of the political heap, undamaged by his party’s late-night meltdown. On Wednesday he called for a second special legislative session to begin Monday, where the bill will almost certainly become law, and a day later took a shot at Davis’ background as a teenaged mother while addressing a right to life convention.

Abortion is among the most divisive issues in American politics. It has the power to rally the grassroots, inspire explosive rhetoric, boost candidacies and raise money for both parties. As Austin Republican consultant and lobbyist Bill Miller noted after the fight, abortion is “political business, not a political issue.” Thus, this week in Texas, Davis, hit pay dirt, while Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presided over the debate, went bust. The state’s number two Republican, Dewhurst may become the only major political casualty of Tuesday’s frenzy.

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The filibustering Davis, a 50-year-old Ft. Worth lawyer, did a “remarkable job,” Miller said, energizing her party ahead of the 2014 midterms and guaranteeing that she will be a fundraising draw. Cast in the national spotlight, she was not coy about her own ambitions. “I would be lying if I told you that I hadn’t had aspirations to run for a statewide office,” Davis told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes when asked if she would run for governor. Dewhurst, on the other hand, faced internal party criticism for failing to control events as president of the senate, energizing his opponents on the right flank of his party.

Dewhurst had pressed Perry to add the abortion bill to the agenda for the 30-day special session that ended Tuesday at midnight, a move interpreted by some as a way to reinforce his conservative credentials that had come into question in his failed 2012 U.S. Senate bid. A week ago, Dewhurst had warned the Texas House — both houses are dominated by Republicans — that it was moving too slowly on the abortion bill.  The senate already had passed the bill, but the more conservative house added further restrictions, requiring a concurring vote from the senate. Sensing the shortening timeframe, Davis seized the opportunity.

Meanwhile, 20 years of ossified incumbency in the higher ranks of the Republican party brought the threat of fratricide. GOP Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who has designs on the lieutenant governor’s slot in 2014, said Wednesday it was time for Dewhurst, a champion horse rider, to go: “I strongly believe he has lost his grip on the reins of the Senate and his horse has run wild. He needs to either dismount or be thrown from the saddle.”

Both the left and right have been energized by this week’s dramatic events. State Senator Dan Patrick, a conservative Republican and a second Dewhurst challenger, is promising to look into ways to admonish House members who appeared to walk onto the Senate floor and urge the crowd to keep up the noise. Davis, meanwhile, is appearing on national news segments in her pink filibuster shoes – which have attracted a following of their own.

Perry stayed above the fray Wednesday, eschewing microphones for a written statement calling for a second 30-day session with three items on the agenda: the abortion legislation, a transportation measure and a provision that would allow Texas juries to give 17-year-olds found guilty of murder a life sentence. But he waded back in with a flourish on Thursday.

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Speaking to a receptive crowd at the National Right to Life convention in Dallas, Perry used Davis’ personal history as a teenaged single mother who went on to graduate from college and then Harvard Law School to criticize her pro-choice stance.

“It’s just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters,” Perry told the crowd. Davis responded in an email to the Associated Press: “Rick Perry’s statement is without dignity and tarnishes the high office he holds.”

That exchange could be a preview of next year’s governor’s race. Speculation about Perry’s future is rampant in Austin, with many insiders believing he will make another run for the White House instead of seeking re-election. He had promised to make an announcement around July 1, but said Thursday the special session would push back that date. If Perry does run, he will have no problem raising millions of dollars toward it. Should he opt not to, Attorney General Greg Abbott is waiting in the GOP wings and already has $18 million on hand.

If Davis does run for governor, she’ll face challenges beyond fundraising. Although 2008 presidential exit polls showed that women comprised 53% of the vote in Texas, they broke for John McCain 52%-47%. Texas is also a solid-red state on the issue of abortion. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released on June 20 found 62% said they would support “prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks based on the argument that a fetus can feel pain at that point,” a provision contained in the bill Davis fought to defeat. However her name recognition has likely risen since a UT/Texas Tribune poll found earlier this year that she was unknown to 58% of respondents.

But Davis’ future is uncertain. This spring she was one of 15 senators who drew a short straw in the redistricting process, forcing her to face reelection in 2014, only two years into her current term. Perry actually boosted Davis’ re-election chances Wednesday when he signed into law a new legislative map drawn during the special session. Perry was encouraged by some in his party, in light of this week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act, to revive old maps drawn in 2011 that were considered much more Republican-friendly. He chose the new maps, which make Davis’ re-election more likely.