AUSTIN, Texas—State Representative Sarah Davis has been rankling her fellow Republicans for years. When the state GOP banned the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group, from its annual convention, Davis publicly admonished the party. She has steadfastly advocated for vaccination, when some in the GOP opposed it. And she is the only Republican lawmaker in the entire state of Texas who supports abortion rights, having consistently voted against the party’s perennial efforts to limit them.
For these views, she has earned endorsements from the likes of the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood. She has also earned rebukes from the leaders of her own party. In the lead-up to the 2018 elections, Republican Governor Greg Abbott endorsed her primary challenger, who opposed abortion rights and mandatory vaccination requirements. Davis overwhelmingly won the primary anyway—and the election—handing the popular Texas governor, whose campaign fund spent a quarter-million dollars trying to oust her, a rare defeat.
“I believe that my job is to represent everyone in the district, not just the Republicans in the district. And I’ve always tried to act that way,” Davis says. “My election and electability is in no way related to whether or not Greg Abbott supports me.”
Although Texas is growing increasingly purple, its state policies on abortion have only hardened in recent years, as they have in Republican-dominated capitals across the country. And Texas is now back at the center of the national story: As the state began to battle the coronavirus last month, Abbott became one of the first of a handful of red-state governors to declare most abortions nonessential medical procedures, which Texas is putting on hold. On Saturday, abortion providers asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn parts of the ban, which Davis opposes.
Davis, who represents Houston’s Westside, is part of a small, shrinking group of pro-abortion rights Republicans across the country, many of whom have lost similar intraparty primary fights or flailed in general elections. Congress is down to just half a dozen lawmakers who cross party lines on abortion, one of whom recently lost a primary. Yet even though her district has increasingly drifted toward Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Beto O’Rourke, Davis’ constituents have supported her for five election cycles, since she first won in 2010.
As partisan divides harden, the politicians who straddle those divides become more interesting to study. Davis, 43, who is up for reelection this fall, owes part of her survival to her district, which includes the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world, and where voters tend to cross party lines and consistently show up to the polls. Her constituents lean fiscally conservative and socially liberal, so they welcome her willingness to oppose her party on abortion, gay rights and vaccines.
She acknowledges that she would struggle to get elected in another, less moderate part of Texas or to statewide office. Directing the state health care budget also has uniquely positioned her to win over the thousands of doctors and health care workers in her district, with whom she has formed a strong connection. “The medical community has been able to see how seriously I take my job,” Davis says. As Covid-19 consumes the country, she is hunkered down at home, fielding calls from medical staffers on the front lines of the response, as well as residents whose businesses are being destroyed and state agencies who are sending out new rules daily.
“The reason she keeps winning is she is who she is,” says Ed Emmett, the former Republican head of Harris County. “She’s much more like a bull in a china closet, frankly. She just does what she thinks she oughta do, and people appreciate that. … She doesn’t try to get cute with issues.”
Davis is just one state lawmaker in a quirky statehouse district, but her success could offer some lessons—and a glimmer of hope—for other moderates in an ever-polarizing political climate: Catering to constituents can matter more than toeing the party line. “She represents her district well, and it is a lesson that the party needs to understand,” says Ann Stone, who founded the Republicans for Choice political action committee.
This fall’s election will test Davis’ loyal following. State Democrats want control over the state House so they can have a say in Texas’ redistricting process, which takes place during the next legislative session, starting in January 2021. Davis’ rapidly bluing district is the party’s top target for gaining the nine seats Democrats need to retake the House majority. And her Democratic opponent, Ann Johnson, is making the case that if Republicans stay in control, they will draw election maps to their advantage and keep the state conservative for the foreseeable future.
“It’s real easy,” says Johnson. “Do you like Sarah Davis enough to give Governor Greg Abbott the House? … Because I know what will happen if you give Governor Abbott the pen over redistricting.”
That argument is a tougher sell given Davis’ history of being willing to confront the governor. To help fight the coronavirus pandemic, she is asking Abbott to make about a dozen changes to state health care programs that would expand coverage, and make more people eligible for programs like Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program—changes Abbott has resisted numerous times.
Asked about Abbott’s new abortion prohibition, Davis said in a text message that she understands the need to preserve personal protective equipment to fight the coronavirus, but that she doesn’t think this is the “sincere purpose” of the ban; she noted that abortions using medications don’t require any equipment, for example. Abbott and the state attorney general, she wrote, “are just using this public health crisis to advance their political agenda of attacking a constitutionally protected right to access abortion. It’s incredibly disappointing, but not at all surprising.”
On this, her Democratic rival, Johnson, agrees: “Using the global pandemic as just another weapon to interfere in women’s reproductive rights is shameful.”
In 2009, Sarah Davis was in her early 30s and had just finished treatment for breast cancer. She was looking for what cancer survivors call their “new normal,” a way to reorient themselves after a near-death experience. She didn’t find the kind of camaraderie or purpose she wanted among cancer support groups, so she decided to run for elected office. She first thought about state judge, a countywide seat, but her husband, who is also lawyer, suggested her socially liberal views might put her in a better position to try for state representative instead.
While Davis grew up in a Republican household—she remembers making campaign signs for Ronald Reagan when she was in elementary school—her mother supported abortion rights. She had given birth to Davis when she was 19 or 20, and pushed to make sure her daughter had the formal education opportunities she hadn’t had. Davis adopted these views, supporting abortion rights while accepting limits on them set out by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade.
Davis had voted for Democrats before, but when it came time to pick a party to run for office, she felt more in tune with Republican messages on limiting the size of government, which resonated in the district at a time when it leaned slightly more conservative. She spent most of 2010 knocking on doors while her blond hair was still growing back after her cancer treatment, running a campaign focused on traditional conservative talking points like slashing state spending and opposing Obamacare. She narrowly beat the Democrat incumbent, partly buoyed by a Tea Party wave that swept more Republicans into the Legislature.
She soon stood out. One of Davis’ first votes as a representative was on a bill requiring doctors to perform a sonogram before an abortion. After a seven-hour debate, it passed in the House. Davis was the only Republican in the body to vote against it. She framed the vote as being about limiting government and protecting the doctor-patient relationship. Still, the move established her as an abortion rights supporter and drew the suspicions of fellow Republicans. It also became a sign of how she would navigate future conflicts in the legislature. Davis, a former college debater who doesn’t make an effort to maintain a poker face, is blunter than most politicians and readily engages people with whom she disagrees.
“I, of course, knew that being pro-choice was not going to make everybody in the party happy. But that is my personal position, and it’s the position of the overwhelming number of my constituents,” Davis says. “So, I think that’s one of the reasons why I make a pretty good representative.”
At the time, the Texas GOP was consolidating power and pushing out moderates, especially those who supported abortion. As recently as 2003, when Republicans took hold of both houses of the Legislature, nearly a dozen GOP lawmakers had either openly supported abortion rights or opposed more restrictions on the procedure, says Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. By 2012, Tea Party activists ousted Republican state Senator Jeff Wentworth, who had served in the Legislature for more than two decades and also voted against the sonogram bill. That was when Davis became the state’s only Republican lawmaker supporting abortion rights.
But even as redistricting made Davis’ district redder that year, no Republican emerged to oppose her in the primary, and she won again in the general election—against Ann Johnson, her current Democratic opponent and also a cancer survivor. Voters came to know Davis as someone who spoke her mind and was responsive to their concerns, often while huddled under a blanket in the chilly House chamber during long, late-night debates.
Over the years, Davis has vocally opposed most of the state’s high-profile abortion restrictions, including a sweeping 2013 bill that was later partially overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Davis argued in an op-ed at the time that the 20-week abortion ban in the bill was “reasonable,” as long it included exceptions, which she chided her fellow Republicans for rejecting. The vote earned her a primary opponent in 2014—and comparisons to Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis, another blonde Texas lawmaker (no relation), whose much-watched 13-hour filibuster against the legislation (and campaign for governor) was ultimately unsuccessful. As the House’s lead budget writer for health and human services, Sarah Davis also often fights against boosting funding for an “Alternatives to Abortion” program that’s popular among abortion opponents.
Davis’ abortion rights efforts—as well her support of gay rights and vaccinations—have aroused the antipathy of groups like Texas Right to Life and Texans for Vaccine Choice, which have helped to oust other moderates. She has also become the target of some far-right Republican lawmakers who question her conservative credentials, campaign against her in most election years in the primary and invoke her name to raise money for their own campaigns. But Davis’ abortion views haven’t changed.
“In these partisan times, that’s courage of conviction,” George Santos, a psychiatrist and former head of the Harris County Medical Society, says about Davis’ votes against abortion restrictions. Santos considers himself a Democrat but votes for Davis.
It’s not a given that Davis’ strong bipartisan support will last. Her margin of victory in the general election has narrowed over the years, from 23 points in 2014 to 7 points in 2018, as the district has gotten bluer. Davis and her opponent, Johnson, each hopes to raise $ 1 million for television ads and direct mailers for the race, though the pandemic is scrambling their efforts to hold fundraisers and ask for money. In addition to pressing the redistricting argument, Johnson plans to highlight Davis’ abysmal Sierra Club rating and legislation that she co-authored banning sanctuary cities in the state; she also says she intends to tie Davis to the state’s sky-high uninsured rate, which has increased in recent years.
On abortion, the two women are not far apart; Johnson also supports abortion restrictions in line with those outlined in Roe v. Wade. But while Planned Parenthood has backed Davis in previous races, it’s not clear that will happen this time around. In 2012, the group chose not to endorse either candidate, giving Davis and Johnson equal, perfect ratings on abortion rights. Dyana Limon-Mercado, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, an advocacy arm of Planned Parenthood’s clinic operation, says the Texas group wants to encourage more Republicans to support abortion rights but is now looking at candidates’ records on other issues, including immigration and workers’ rights, when evaluating them for endorsements. The group, which hasn’t announced an endorsement yet in the race, is also considering how it could tip the redistricting process.
“We don’t have any reason to question Sarah’s support on the issue,” Limon-Mercado says. “Our board in general has revisited the endorsement process.”
In a state where the GOP has a firm grip on power, many of Davis’ more liberal supporters argue that having an assertive, moderate Republican in office can be advantageous. “Her voice has been crucial within the legislative caucus,” says Lucas Acosta, national press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group. “Specifically, when legislators are behind closed doors, having her in that room and in those conversations is incredibly helpful to our cause.” In the current race, HRC has endorsed Davis over Johnson, who is openly gay. Acosta says HRC has yet to endorse a single other Republican across the country in this cycle.
Whether Davis wins or loses, political observers in Texas say now is the moment for party rebels like her. By the November elections, Texas will do away with straight-ticket voting, which currently allows voters to push one button to vote for all candidates in a party. Davis, meanwhile, is looking for new ways to tout her moderate credentials. The state Legislature doesn’t meet in even years, but she is preparing legislation for the next session to fund gun violence studies.
Although she has had the support of the NRA in the past and voted for bills to make it easier for people to carry guns, her new bill would be a boon to the medical research facilities in her district, while helping her stake out common ground with Democrats.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, is also scrambling the race, like others around the country. The election could very well be a referendum on how well President Donald Trump and local and state leaders handle the ongoing crisis. When they next meet in 2021, Texas state lawmakers will have to contend with major budget holes from businesses shutting down and oil and gas revenue declining, as well as a huge need for spending on social services—issues that are already on Davis’ mind. She is planning to take on anti-vaccine advocates in the next session, too.
“If there is a silver lining with Covid-19, I hope it is that it has a chilling effect on the anti-vaxx movement, and that my colleagues realize the issue isn’t about ‘parental rights,’ but about saving lives,” Davis wrote in a text message.
As she draws up these plans and campaigns from home, Davis has the support of her party this time around. Reliably red districts in Texas have become battlegrounds, as new residents have moved in and young voters have come of age. Texas Republicans who staked out positions on the right and aligned themselves with Trump are starting to see a ceiling for their support, struggling to appeal to suburban women and new voters. In 2018, Democrats flipped a dozen seats in the Texas House and two in the state Senate. State GOP leaders, trying to figure out how to keep swing districts in Republican control, are looking to candidates they once maligned as “fake Republicans”—like Davis. Abbott even endorsed her in December.
Joe Straus, the former Republican Texas state House speaker who left politics last year, promoted Davis to various leadership positions and campaigned for her during her primary two years ago. Straus himself faced fire from far-right Republicans who saw him as too moderate for Texas. “If the Republican Party is going to have a long-term viable future in this state and others,” Straus says, “it needs to have a big-tent philosophy and get away from lecturing people,” he says. “We need more Sarah Davises in our party, not fewer.”