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Ahead of November, Parties Hone Women's Health Messages

With last session's divisive abortion debate as a backdrop, Democrats are getting help from the newly created Planned Parenthood Texas Votes Action Fund. Republicans say they don't expect much of a challenge, but they've established their own group to tackle women's issues.

As opponents of strict abortion regulations protested at the Texas Capitol last summer, many vowed that voters would remember come November which side of the issue lawmakers fell on.

They're getting some help from Planned Parenthood’s new Texas-based advocacy arm, the Planned Parenthood Texas Votes Action Fund (PPTV), which is trying to drive voters to the polls by painting the abortion debate as a Republican war on women that extends into reproductive health and access to care.  

“They know what happened,” PPTV Executive Director Yvonne Gutierrez said. “These are the same women that lost access to health care. These are the women that were inside the Capitol [and] who were watching from home.”

Republicans say they're not concerned, and don't think that message will resonate with voters. But they've beefed up their own messaging with a female-centric advocacy organization — the newly minted RedState Women — aimed, in part, at countering PPTV’s efforts. Cari Christman, the executive director of RedState Women, said last summer’s abortion debate prompted her to launch the political organization to address issues important to female voters, including women’s health.

“I felt it was important to address the issue head-on and show why women don’t share the same values" as the Democrats who fought unsuccessfully last year to block the new abortion restrictions, Christman said. 

The partisan lines on these abortion regulations are firmly drawn in the 2014 races for governor and lieutenant governor. Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Wendy Davis shot to national fame last summer following her 11-hour filibuster of the new regulations. The support she received and political momentum she built led to her bid for the state’s top office.

Her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, is a fierce opponent of abortion. As attorney general, he has defended the state against lawsuits filed by abortion providers challenging the state's regulations.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat who is running for lieutenant governor, also played a key role during the summer’s debate. She drew attention during Davis’ filibuster when she questioned why a female senator needed to raise her voice to be “recognized over her male colleagues.”

Van de Putte will face the winner of the Republican primary runoff between incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and state Sen. Dan Patrick, both of whom staunchly oppose abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Dewhurst was at the helm of the Senate during last summer’s debate; Patrick has blamed him for letting Davis' filibuster derail the proceedings. 

While PPTV has not officially endorsed any candidates, Gutierrez said it will back individuals who “fully support” access to preventive health care and legal abortions for women. She called Davis and Van de Putte “champions for women’s health.”

The group hopes to educate voters on the Republican-led Legislature's 2011 decision to slash funding for family planning and reproductive health programs for poor women by two-thirds — an effort to prevent Planned Parenthood and other clinics affiliated with abortion providers from receiving any taxpayer funding to provide those non-abortion services. 

Christman said RedState Women is backing Abbott because he will continue to support economic policies that have made the state strong — for both men and women. 

And her organization has defended the Legislature’s funding decisions, pointing to a bipartisan decision in 2013 to increase women's health funding to $214 million, up from $109 million in the previous biennium. Much of that restored money seeks to provide women's health care by way of primary care, not family planning or reproductive health clinics. 

Abortion isn't a straightforward issue for Texans, regardless of party. An October University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that 41 percent of Republicans believe abortion should be available to women in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is at risk. Fifty-seven percent of Democrats said abortion should always be available as a legal procedure.

In the March primary, Republicans who campaigned on their stance against abortion generally saw strong election night returns. Candidates in legislative races who were criticized by conservative groups for not having a strong enough “pro life” stance saw mixed results. State Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, was the only Republican to vote against the abortion regulations last summer and was targeted by anti-abortion groups, but she still received more than 70 percent of the primary vote in her district. 

Beth Cubriel, executive director of the Republican Party of Texas, said both political parties would use the abortion debate to motivate their respective bases. She brushed off PPTV's efforts and the possibility that Republican candidates could be hurt by the women's health debate.

“Planned Parenthood will always be a single-issue advocate while groups like RedState Women understand that women are not single-issue voters,” Cubriel said in an email.

Gutierrez said PPTV is determined to expand the conversation around women's health to push for state leadership that has the best interests of women in mind.

"Part of what we're doing is making sure it's not a small group of politicians that are essentially going to make decisions for Texans," Gutierrez said.

The current slate of Democratic candidates is proof that the summer’s debate has already influenced the political conversation in Texas, said state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint.

“Having Sen. Davis and Sen. Van de Putte at the top of the ticket is a constant reminder of those debates, of the passion and of the necessity to be involved,” González said, adding that the two senators have spurred organizing efforts around their candidacies. “I think this campaign cycle would have been a lot different if we hadn’t had last summer’s debate.

This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.  

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here. 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/04/15/womens-health-debate-could-play-2014-elections/.

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