Before a large crowd at an Austin convention center, gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and fellow Democrats gave impassioned speeches on Wednesday night, the anniversary of the filibuster that launched Davis into the national spotlight — and to the top of the Democrats’ statewide ticket.
While invoking the history of one year ago, Davis’ message moved beyond the issues of women’s health and abortion rights to a broader criticism of the state’s Republican leadership, whom she labeled as “insiders."
The campaign of Greg Abbott, her Republican opponent, took the anniversary’s occasion to link Davis to the issue of abortion and paint her as out of touch with “Texas values.”
Months ahead of the November election, Davis is tapping into the movement that turned out in full force for what Democrats have called the “people’s filibuster,” when Davis stood for 11 hours to stop, temporarily, a bill that restricted access to abortion.
Davis has faced criticism from some on the left for being largely quiet on the issue of abortion since announcing her gubernatorial bid, and Republicans have called her out for making comments describing herself as “pro-life.” Davis addressed the issue head-on Wednesday night, criticizing Abbott for opposing abortion even in cases of rape and incest. It was her only time to use the word, repeatedly referencing women's "personal decisions." But abortion rights were hardly the crux of Davis’ Wednesday night attacks on Abbott, whom she called distant from “hardworking Texans.”
“I still can’t explain what it was that captured the hearts and the minds of so many Texans, of so many people around this country,” during the filibuster, Davis said. “People do want and need somebody to stand up to speak truth to power."
Wednesday night's anniversary was an opportunity for Democrats to energize their base ahead of the state party’s convention this weekend. Wednesday’s speakers, including state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, made fiery attacks against the state's Republican leadership, accusing them of failing to listen to everyday voters.
“Fight back,” Thompson commanded, nearly shouting into the microphone. “We will fight back.”
She was joined by state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio and the party's candidate for lieutenant governor, and Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and daughter of former Gov. Ann Richards.
Van de Putte spoke at length about women’s rights but did not use the word “abortion.” She took aim at the state’s Republican leadership, saying: “They still don’t understand. Bless their hearts.”
In a telephone interview before the fundraiser, Van de Putte said Davis was not trying to downplay the issue of abortion in her campaign.
“When folks complain and say she hasn’t brought up the issue, I think people in Texas pretty much know where she stands on this,” Van de Putte said. “What they’re asking her about on the campaign trail is things like education, water, roads.”
Davis and Van de Putte face an uphill battle. A recent Texas Tribune/University of Texas Poll showed double-digit leads for their respective Republican opponents, Abbott and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston.
Republicans took aim at Davis for celebrating her filibuster because the legislation, House Bill 2, ultimately passed, after Gov. Rick Perry called a special session specifically to pass it.
“With respect to the lives lost and the lives forever changed, this day is not a day for political parties and fundraisers. Rather it is a moment of reflection and prayer for the women of Texas who are making life-changing decisions,” said Cari Christman, executive director of Red State Women.
The Abbott campaign released an online ad earlier in the afternoon, touting Abbott’s record of “fighting for life.”
“As Sen. Davis and her late-term abortion lobby allies prepare to ‘celebrate’ her filibuster in support of late-term abortion, Greg Abbott continues to fight for life for all Texans,” Abbott campaign spokeswoman Amelia Chassé said. “Greg Abbott believes that for a child to have a chance in life, a child must have a chance at life, and knows that Texans share these values.”