The advocacy arm of Planned Parenthood launched a new political action fund Thursday to influence this year's election in Texas, hoping to build on its success shaping the Virginia governor's race.
Cecile Richards, president of the national advocacy group Planned Parenthood Votes, said the Texas branch of the organization hopes to fight what it sees as an unprecedented attack on a woman's right to make her own health care decisions, including whether to have an abortion. Richards is the daughter of the last Democratic governor of Texas, Ann Richards, who left office in January 1995 after losing re-election.
Abortion rights will play a major role in the 2014 election for Texas governor. Republican candidate Greg Abbott opposes abortions in all instances except when the life of the mother is in danger. He has the support of anti-abortion groups who wield enormous influence in the Republican Party and reliably turn out a large percentage of Texas voters.
"This is a real opportunity to ensure that women and men are aware of the position of candidates running for election and the positions of officeholders who have taken away health care access to thousands of women in the state," Richards said. "I think that Greg Abbott, and certainly Gov. Rick Perry, are out of touch with where Texas voters are."
Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee, filibustered a measure last summer that imposed some of the strictest abortion regulations in the country, rallying thousands of demonstrators to the Capitol for some of the largest protests in recent memory.
"We saw an outpouring of young activists and voters that have not been engaged in politics and women's health issues in a long, long time," Richards said. "What is exciting to me is to see the engagement of a new generation."
Both campaigns have worked hard to win the support of female voters, who political analysts say are likely to decide the election. Republican leaders insist that stricter abortion regulations are intended to improve women's health care, but abortion rights supporters say they are a roundabout way of banning abortions in Texas.
Yvonne Gutierrez, who will serve as executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes Texas, said the organization is a 501(c)4 nonprofit group that aims to educate voters on an issue. She said the organization will use phone banks, direct mail and other organizing techniques to turn Planned Parenthood supporters out to vote this year.
"It's important to educate women about what's been happening in our state and how their votes can actually make a difference," she said. "If we don't get women into the voting booth now, it could get worse rather than get better."
After her filibuster, Davis joined Richards on a statewide bus tour to draw attention to efforts by the Republican majority in the Legislature to curtail a woman's right to an abortion and to cut state funding for family planning clinics operated by Planned Parenthood. A third of the state's abortion clinics have shut down because they cannot meet the requirement to have a doctor on duty who has admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles.
Planned Parenthood has sued to overturn the law, and an appeal is pending in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Richards said Planned Parenthood political and advocacy organizations played an important role in helping Democrat Terry McAuliffe win the governor's race in Virginia, which has become a swing state. Richards said Planned Parenthood Votes spent $2.4 million to make women's health a dominant issue in the Virginia election.
"We discovered early on that women and male voters would not vote for Ken Cuccinelli because of his extreme views on women's health, and frankly, those are the same views as Greg Abbott and Rick Perry," she said.
Texas will be a harder case, since no Democratic candidate for president or governor has won more than 42 percent of the vote in the last 12 years. The Hispanic population is growing quickly, but Texas voter turnout is the lowest in the nation and conservatives make up the majority of voters.
All of the top Republican candidates for statewide office oppose abortion, except when the life of the mother is at stake.