AUSTIN, Texas – As the right to an abortion in the U.S. hangs in doubt, one thing seemed clear at the outset of 2022: the issue would tower over America's midterm elections.
But in Texas — of all places — that hasn't been the case going into the nation's first primary.
Airwaves are not swamped with campaign ads focused on abortion access. Candidates spend more time talking about COVID-19, immigration and the reliability of the power grid. Some rallies and events come and go without even a mention of Texas having the most restrictive abortion law in the country on the books for months now.
“It’s almost like we’ve become numb," said Democrat Ann Johnson, a state representative in Houston.
With early voting already underway for the March 1 primary, the absence of abortion at the forefront of Texas races amounts to an abrupt swing from last fall, when the law banning abortions after roughly six weeks of pregnancy took effect and made headlines across the country. Republican lawmakers in other states rushed to propose copycat measures, and in the White House, President Joe Biden slammed the law as unleashing “constitutional chaos."
The change has disappointed abortion rights supporters who suspect that months of court defeats has taken a toll on their side at a time when a full press is still needed. Others worry that some candidates, particularly Democrats, still don't know how to effectively campaign on abortion even after the tumult of last fall.
"It’s a community issue, it’s a public health issue and I think to not talk about it is like super blind,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, president of Whole Woman's Health, which operates four clinics in Texas.
It shows that both Democratic and Republican candidates alike in Texas have concluded other issues are currently higher priorities for voters in the primary — the economy, schools and health care chief among them.
Many believe the abortion issue will return to the spotlight in the general election campaign, when candidates are facing the opposing party rather than like-minded competitors from their own, and after the Supreme Court decides whether to weaken the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that guarantees the right to an abortion. The court's decision on a key abortion case is expected by June.
But as the 2022 campaign begins, the Texas race has revealed cracks between the practical impact of the Texas law on abortion rights and the politics of the issue. Recent data confirmed that in the first month after the restrictions took effect, abortions in Texas fell by 60%.
Outside San Antonio this month, a forum of candidates for a seat in the Texas House — where the law known as Senate Bill 8 overwhelmingly passed a year ago — drew a crowd of more than 100 people in mostly rural Kendall County.
None of the candidates on stage talked about it, and no one in the audience asked.
“There was 45 minutes there that it could have come up, and it didn’t,” said Laura Bray, who chairs the local Democratic Party.
In her county, where President Donald Trump won 3-to-1 in 2020, Bray said Democrats purposefully avoid discussing abortion so they don't turn off Republican voters they're trying to win over.
What campaigns in Texas have been most emphasizing aligns with national surveys: although Democratic voters increasingly support protecting reproductive rights, a range of issues from the economy to gun control still rank higher, according to a December poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Across the country, Democrats have promised to make abortion a cornerstone of the midterm elections, saying the issue can energize their base at a time when their narrow majorities in Congress are at risk. The conventional wisdom is that abortion is more of a motivating issue for Republicans. But even Gov. Greg Abbott’s early campaign for a third term has also not heavily promoted his signing of the law, which appeared to go even too far for other GOP states where copycat measures have stalled.
“Abortion has never been one of the top issues for most voters,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres said. “It’s always overwhelmed by, in this day and age, the pandemic and the economy.”
Polling shows relatively few Americans want to see Roe overturned. The Texas law in particular, Ayres says, is “very problematic” over leaving enforcement solely up to lawsuits filed by private citizens who can collect $10,000 or more — what critics have slammed as a bounty.
"I can’t imagine many Republicans lining up behind that,” he said.
To be sure, the issue has not been an afterthought in all Texas races. One of the biggest surrounds Democrat U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the most conservative members of his party, who has voted to oppose abortion access. He is again in a fight against progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros.
NARAL, one of the nation's largest abortion rights groups, has deployed staff into the district in hopes of delivering what would be a major victory for advocates to start the 2022 election cycle.
But Cisneros, an immigration attorney who puts health care and raising the minimum wage as two of her biggest issues, said she doesn't know whether her position on abortion rights can swing the race.
“We’re not a single-issue campaign,” she said during a break between knocking on doors in the South Texas district that stretches more than 150 miles from San Antonio to the border. “When we’re talking to voters it’s not just that one thing.”