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Can abortion rights help a Latina Democrat make history in a high-stakes Texas race?

The Texas attorney general’s race pits a Latina Democrat, Rochelle Garza, against the indicted Republican incumbent, Ken Paxton.
Democratic congressional candidate Rochelle Garza
Rochelle Garza discusses issues at a backyard house party in Brownsville, Texas, on Sept. 24, 2021.Eric Gay / AP file

DALLAS — Well before jumping into the Texas attorney general's race, Democrat Rochelle Garza beat back a Trump administration attempt to stop a detained immigrant teenager from getting an abortion.

The incumbent attorney general, Ken Paxton, backed the administration in that 2017 case, warning in a brief that "Texas must not become a sanctuary state for abortions." But Garza, an immigration lawyer, won in the appeals court and the teenager got the abortion, creating what is known as the Garza notice protecting immigrants’ access to abortion. 

Now, polls show Garza in a tight race with Paxton for a job that has taken on new significance since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. After that ruling ended the constitutional right to an abortion, Texas gave its attorney general the power to collect up to $100,000 in civil fines for any abortion performed in the state.

“I’m in this for my daughter, I have a six-month-old little girl. I knew I was pregnant when I decided to run. I was nine weeks pregnant when the six-week abortion ban went into effect," Garza told NBC News, referring to the state ban. "I saw the writing on the wall … and I felt like I needed to step up.” 

Matt Rinaldi, Republican Party of Texas chairman, said in a statement that Paxton has been a Texas and national leader. "Paxton has not only defended Texas against Biden’s attacks, he’s gone on offense, fighting COVID shutdowns and mask mandates, human trafficking, sanctuary cities, and big tech censorship. We look forward to keeping him in office.”

Paxton's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Paxton is currently under indictment on securities fraud charges and being investigated by the FBI for alleged abuse of office; he has denied any wrongdoing.

A native of South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, Garza is the only Latino major party candidate for executive office on the state ballot, even though the number of Latinos in Texas surpassed whites this year. Democrats are also fielding Latina candidates for the state Supreme Court and there are Latino Libertarian Party candidates on the ballot. 

Rochelle Garza at the annual Texas Tribune Festival in downtown Austin on Sept. 24. Bob Daemmrich / Zuma via Alamy file

Garza has already made history by being the first Latina nominee for Texas attorney general. She would break more barriers if she were to win in November, as the first Hispanic, the first woman and the first Democrat elected to a statewide executive office since 1994.

 “I grew up in Brownsville … I’m a fifth generation Tejana from the (Rio Grande Valley) region. I’m a civil rights attorney. I’m a mother and I’m here to beat criminally indicted Ken Paxton,” Garza told supporters gathered at a Chocolate Secrets in Dallas. The Fuerza Latina event organized by Battleground Texas featured an appearance by the actress America Ferrera.

Garza said she is running as an “unapologetic pro-choice” candidate, which she credited with helping her emerge as one of the top two vote getters from a crowded primary and then to victory in the runoff, where she captured 80 percent or more of the vote in Latino-dominant South Texas. 

Polls have shown Garza within 2 to 7 percentage points of Paxton with all Texas voters. But that narrow gap is wider than it appears because Texas is one of the reddest of states and is getting heavy GOP focus as the party wrestles for more Latino support in the state.

She announced Tuesday the release of her first television ad. It attacks Paxton's anti-abortion policies and will also run on digital platforms.

The loyalty of GOP voters is evident. Paxton had enough support to win re-election in 2018 and to stay competitive this year, despite being under felony indictment since a few months after taking office in 2015. The securities fraud indictment accuses Paxton of defrauding investors in a high-tech startup by not telling them the company was paying him to recruit them.  

Ken Paxton
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, shown in 2020.Tony Gutierrez / AP file

Paxton was recently in the headlines again for fleeing his home to avoid being served a subpoena to testify in a lawsuit challenging Texas’ abortion ban. 

More recently, he’s faced some backlash following an Associated Press report on his bungling of human trafficking and child sexual assault cases by losing track of one of the victims. The AP called the case “emblematic of broader dysfunction” in Paxton’s office.

Although Latino voters in Texas prefer the Democratic candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, a Texas Hispanic Public Policy Foundation poll of likely voters found that the Republican candidates still had the support of enough Hispanics to win their races. In the attorney general's race, 50 percent of Hispanics preferred Garza to 40 percent backing Paxton, according to an analysis by Mike P. Jones, who conducts polling and analysis for the foundation. (The margin of error for 468 respondents was 4.5 percentage points.)

Given the closeness of the race, Garza balked at being called an underdog, saying she heard similar underestimation of her when she went to court on behalf of the immigrant teen who wanted an abortion.

“We’re fighting tooth and nail because we know what’s at stake. All of the factors are there for us — the fall of Roe, the fact that the demographics of this state have changed so significantly. I’m the only Latina in the statewide race. People across the state see themselves in my campaign,” she said.

Texas Democrats have banked on an pro-abortion rights candidate in the past, like in 2014, when then-state Sen. Wendy Davis, who had filibustered and killed an abortion bill, drawing huge crowds to the state Capitol, ran for governor. Greg Abbott trounced her.  

Garza had about $1.5 million on hand after raising $1.6 million through the end of September to Paxton’s $4.9 million on hand after raising $2.1 million, according to the latest campaign spending reports filed Tuesday.

But Garza is running in a completely different atmosphere than Davis, said Democratic strategist Laura Barberena.

“Wendy had a great and compelling story, but I don’t think women felt threatened (then), because there was still Roe v. Wade,” she said.

Performing an abortion in Texas is now a felony, punishable by up to life in prison.

Garza's race and that of other pro-choice candidates this year will help debunk depictions of Latinos as opposed to abortion. While their support may not be as high as whites and Blacks, polls have been showing a majority of Latinos want to see abortion be legal in all or more cases.

In addition, surveys have shown that the issue of reproductive rights and abortion is spiking heading into the election.

The issue, however, has not matched or overridden the top concerns of inflation and the economy.

Barbarena said Garza's race will come down to white women.

"Are they going to break with the party or stay with the party because they see their rights taken away and those of their daughters and nieces? It's going to come down to white women deciding whether they are Republicans first or are they women first."

Democrats have seen increases in voter registration of women since the Roe v. Wade was overturned. In Texas new registration increases were about the same for men and women, but the new voters are younger and more Democratic, the Houston Chronicle reported, citing a TargetSmart analysis.

But the Democratic momentum from abortion appears to be slowing with GOP's escalating attacks over immigration, inflation and crime.

Eochelle Garza, center, looks on as actress and activist America Ferrera speaks at an event in Dallas.
Rochelle Garza, center, looks on as actor and activist America Ferrera speaks at an event in Dallas.Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

"What abortion fundamentally did is energize the Democratic base, but I don't see it moving swing voters. Its influence on those votes is waning," said Luke Macias, a conservative political consultant in San Antonio. 

Voters interviewed in Dallas generally knew little about the attorney general's race. A few recognized Paxton's name, largely for being accused of committing crimes.

Jackie Valdez, 47, of Mesquite, attended the Dallas Fuerza Latina gathering. She first learned about Garza in the primaries and said she found the presence of a Latina on the ballot inspiring. She attended the forum, she said, to educate herself because "reproductive rights and the general health and well-being of people all across the state, that's at stake."  

Paxton wins points with conservatives who cheer the role he’s played as foil to the Obama and Biden administrations and policies. He’s sued or joined in suits of the Biden administration about 30 times on immigration, abortion, Covid vaccines and more.  

But Garza says Paxton’s time could have been better spent holding companies and officials accountable for the power grid failure during the 2021 February freeze in which 246 Texans died, and he could be doing a better job managing his office. She said she’d open a civil rights division should she win and do a better job at consumer protection.

“This is a law and order campaign. Ken Paxton doesn’t believe the law applies to him,” she said. “You cannot be the tough law and order candidate when you yourself are under indictment.”

Garza said she could accomplish her agenda, even if Abbott, in a tight race with Democrat Beto O’Rourke, is re-elected. The AG doesn’t have to answer to the governor, but to the people of Texas, she said.

“I’d be more than happy to work with Gov. Abbott on Medicaid expansion and addressing the lack of rural hospitals, fighting maternal mortality rates,” she said.

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