Less than a day after pro-choice activists and Democratic state senators defeated a massive anti-choice bill designed to shut down all but five abortion clinics in the whole state of Texas, Republican Gov. Rick Perry announced he would force a second special session of the legislature to force the bill through. He then went on to rub salt in the wound, making mockery of and condescending to state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), who conducted an 11-hour filibuster to keep the bill from a vote, a move that ultimately succeeded despite efforts by the GOP to rig the vote. Just in case you were unsure of Rick Perry’s apparent belief that the main purpose of government is control and surveillance of female sexuality, Perry went on to turn the creepy up to ten, saying, “The louder they scream, the more we know that we are getting something done.”
It’s hard to understand his belligerent, misogynistic behavior in service of a bill that only serves to hurt women’s health while creating a black market for abortion. After all, despite Texas’s conservative reputation, 80 percent of the voters in the state oppose calling special sessions to restrict abortion rights. Perry is doing this song and dance for only one out of five voters, the hardcore religious right, pretty much the only people who approve of this move by Texas Republicans to exploit a legislative loophole set up to deal with emergencies to cram through anti-choice bills that won’t pass regular legislative sessions. How has it gotten to the point where only 20 percent of the voters basically control the politics of a huge state like Texas, putting their vile obsession with punishing other people for sex above more pressing issues like jobs, infrastructure, and the economy? To understand how it happened in Texas is to understand why it is that anti-choice forces in general have so much power in a country where the majority of people are pro-choice and have been for decades.
In sum, the religious right is smart about exploiting the primary system, and your average Republican voter doesn’t know or care enough about how radical their politicians are to stop voting for them. Anti-choicers and hardline conservatives generally are way more likely to vote in primaries than your average voters, which means they consistently pick the most conservative candidate, even if the more moderate one has more experience or a better grasp on reality. The two most prominent voices on the anti-choice side during this abortion battle—Gov. Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst—both have learned in the course of their careers that you either pay fealty to the religious right because of this, or you will not be able to move forward in your political career.
Both Perry and Dewhurst have firsthand experience of how important it is for the hard right to like you if you want to run for major office as a Republican these days. Dewhurst learned the hard way, during a 2012 primary runoff against newcomer Ted Cruz for the Republican nomination to the Senate. Even though he’s been a pretty stalwart conservative for his entire career, the largely incorrect perception that he was an old school Republican who is more interested in business than the messy culture wars hurt him in the polls. As the New York Times reported, “Mr. Cruz relentlessly portrayed his opponent as a creature of the establishment who is too quick to compromise,” and primary voters, eager to prove their own culture war bona fides, rewarded Cruz for this posturing by giving him 57 percent of the vote.
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Dewhurst learned the lesson: It’s not enough to, say, be anti-choice. You have to act like your very life depends on blocking as many women as possible from safe, legal abortion or the religious right will start to wonder if you’re just a pretender. In that light, Dewhurst’s behavior after the filibuster succeeded makes perfect sense. Most politicians would accept the defeat, read the polls showing most Texans support your opposition on this one, and go home. But Dewhurst likely doesn’t want another Tea Party insurgent running ads implying that he gave up easily, much less that he was beat by a woman. So it’s no surprise that he petulantly issued the threat for the second session as soon as he announced that the Texas senate missed the voting deadline and has run around posturing on this as much as possible for the media.
Perry learned that same lesson in his primary to keep his governor’s seat in 2010. His opponent, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, had a pretty solid anti-choice voting record during her many years in the Senate, but in the Texas primary to be the Republican nominee for governor, that wasn’t enough. After all, Hutchinson is pretty openly pro-contraception, which used to be a non-issue on the right, but recently the religious right has been upping the ante with demands that their politicians do everything in their power to cut off contraception. Perry, on the other hand, has declared a no-holds-barred war on access to contraception for low-income women, refusing federal money that pays for contraception with a bunch of irrelevant jaw-flapping about abortion, even though contraception prevents abortion. Perry got 51 percent of the primary vote, and would have gotten more, except that an even more conservative (apparently, this is possible) random Tea Party activists named Debra Medina chipped off some of his votes.
Hutchinson later defended Planned Parenthood against Perry’s various attempts to cut off funding to the organization, with the full knowledge of how many low-income Texas women use it for their birth control. “I do think that the governor needs to sit down with the federal government and work it out so that we can have our share, our fair share, not more, of money for Medicaid to help low-income women have their healthcare services,” she said. Half of self-identified Republicans agree with her, but those just aren’t the Republicans who bother to vote in primaries, meaning the more-misogynist-than-thou crowd has nearly complete control over the nominating process.
If you want to understand why Perry and Dewhurst want to ignore the wishes of four out of five voters, exploit the special session to pass non-emergency anti-choice legislation, and spend untold millions defending an obviously unconstitutional law in courts, this is why. The religious right controls the primary system. Perry and Dewhurst know who they answer to, and it’s not the 80 percent of voters who oppose this special session.