Who’s the ‘Life’ of the Party?

Anti-abortion infighting makes for mud-slinging Texas House races in the Republican primary.

Byron Cook and Debbie Riddle take their places among these "dishonorable" pro-life "frauds," according to Texas Right to Life.
Byron Cook and Debbie Riddle have taken their places among these “dishonorable” pro-life “frauds,” according to Texas Right to Life.

To hear Texas Right to Life tell it, the Texas Republican Party is rife with pro-abortion minions doing nothing to stop “the butcher of innocent babies.”

There’s Corsicana state Representative Byron Cook, the House State Affairs Committee chair who in 2013 helped usher in the Texas omnibus anti-abortion law now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He’s “the number one obstructionist to Pro-Life policies in the entire Texas Legislature.”

There’s Houston state Representative Debbie Riddle, who has compared reproductive rights supporters to Nazis. She’s a “pro-life fraud.” And there’s Dallas state Representative Jason Villalba, who once took an ultrasound image of his child in utero to the House podium in opposition to an abortion rights bill. To Texas Right to Life, babies being “ripped apart in the womb” is “too controversial” for Villalba.

Since the rise of the tea party in Texas politics, the anti-abortion lobby group has carved out a niche to the right of the right, using inflammatory language — rife with hyperbole and name-calling — to chip away at the anti-abortion bonafides of what it calls the mainstream Republican “establishment.”

But never is Texas Right to Life’s prickly position more public than during primary season, when the group goes on the offensive against weak lawmakers who it believes compromise on principles in behind-the-scenes negotiations.

“If you’re thwarting pro-life legislation behind closed doors, you’re dangerous to our movement,” Texas Right to Life’s political director Emily Kebodeaux told the Observer. “We don’t want you in office.”

As a result, Kebodeaux’s organization has developed a frenemy-like relationship with their comparatively more moderate anti-abortion colleagues at Texas Alliance for Life, whose bench is deep with GOP stalwarts like Cook, Riddle and Villalba. And over the last several months, the groups’ rivalry has become especially nasty as Texas Right to Life ramps up rhetoric against legislators who likely appear, to the casual Lege observer, to be as conservative as they come.

After all, when Texas boasts some of the most extreme abortion restrictions in the country, how can Republicans like Cook, who’ve done so much to erode reproductive rights, be anything close to “pro-life frauds”?

Both groups boast nearly identical missions: to advocate for Texans “from the moment of conception,” or, in Texas Right to Life’s case, “fertilization,” to “natural death.”

But Texas Alliance for Life tends to support bills authored by long-time GOP lawmakers, which may include exceptions for rape, incest or fetal anomalies. Without those kinds of exceptions, or other bits of legal finesse, anti-abortion laws may not pass constitutional muster.

Joe Pojman, Texas Alliance for Life’s executive director, told the Observer that his group is concerned with getting solid “pro-life” legislation on the books. They back laws that will stand up to the inevitable legal challenges that have defined the abortion conversation over the past three Lege sessions.

“We are very adverse to grandstanding, or proposing things simply to gain media attention, or to score some political points,” he said. “A bill doesn’t have to be our idea to support it.”

Texas Right to Life, on the other hand, opposes abortion in all circumstances, such as when a fetus has an illness incompatible with life outside the womb. They demand “nothing less than full commitment” to their ideology, which is couched in language of “resistance” rather than compromise. According to the group’s endorsement explainer, Texas Right to Life is happy to support even the greenest challengers who have “pledged and convinced our PAC panel that he or she proactively agrees with 100% of our platform.”

Corsicana 25-year-old Thomas McNutt is challenging powerful incumbent and House State Affairs Committee chair Byron Cook.
Thomas McNutt campaign/Facebook
Corsicana 25-year-old Thomas McNutt is challenging powerful incumbent and House State Affairs Committee chair Byron Cook.

This year, Texas Right to Life is throwing its support behind newcomers such as Thomas McNutt, a 25-year-old business owner from Corsicana who’s challenging six-term Representative Byron Cook. They’re also backing Valoree Swanson, a former real estate broker taking on five-term incumbent Debbie Riddle.

Neither challenger has ever held public office before — a plus from Texas Right to Life’s perspective. Texas Right to Life sees McNutt, known mainly for running a fruitcake bakery, as preferable to the man they mock as bully “Lord Byron,” the bane of truly pure pro-life politics. And Swanson? She will “protect you, the preborn, and hospitalized Texans!” better than “fraud” Debbie Riddle. How do voters know for sure? Because Texas Right to Life says Swanson said so.

But sometimes the underdog wins — as in the case of state Representative Molly White, a Texas Right to Life-endorsed anti-abortion activist who unseated a three-term incumbent to take office in 2015. To her supporters, she is a “pro-life hero” unafraid to propose bold anti-abortion legislation. To the political players at Texas Alliance for Life, White’s an ineffective lawmaker whose untenable proposed legislation has shown her to be more interested in “talking it” than “walking it.”

This primary season, Pojman’s group has thrown its support behind White’s opponent, Hugh Shine, a financial advisor who represented the district in the late 1980s, when he co-sponsored a bill to ban late-term abortion.

Pojman told the Observer that White’s “activist” nature works against her ability to be effective in the Texas House. He described White as uncooperative and unwilling to accept critiques of her legislation, specifically a 2015 bill she said would ban “coerced” abortions. While its goal was “laudable,” said Pojman, it needed serious improvements to pass legal muster. Cook, who chairs the committee where White’s legislation ultimately died, told White at the time to find some “real legal folks” to help her craft a better bill, instead.

To Texas Alliance for Life, White’s bill simply wasn’t up to legal snuff. To Texas Right to Life, it was the victim of what Kebodeaux called “political games” orchestrated by the GOP establishment.

The anti-abortion infighting is a microcosm of an internecine conflict within the Texas Republican Party, centered on the Texas House and speaker Joe Straus. Session after session, tea party Republicans associated with the far-right Empower Texans lobby group have repeatedly made unsuccessful attempts to unseat Straus. They decry Straus as a liberal obstructionist, much the way Texas Right to Life rails against lawmakers like Cook, who they see as “anti-life” oppressors.

Molly White
Molly White campaign/Facebook
Texas Right to Life champions state Representative Molly White as a fierce fighter for anti-abortion legislation, but Texas Alliance for Life says she’s got a long way to go before she files legislation that’s up to legal snuff.

But while these far-right groups make occasional inroads and a great deal of noise, primary election season only lasts a few months. How can they — or will they — diffuse the tension with their more moderate colleagues in the wider GOP and at Texas Alliance for Life when they head back to the Capitol in January?

Pojman said disagreements between Texas Alliance for Life and Texas Right to Life cause unnecessary “heartburn” for legislators.

“I think it is our obligation for the groups to get together and work with those legislators that have been elected, put those differences aside and come together for the best possible bills to advance the pro-life cause,” he said.

But Texas Right to Life’s legislative director, John Seago, told the Observer that his group doesn’t feel the need to “reconcile” with legislators who have publicly opposed what the organization sees as crucial “pro-life” measures.

“I’m not so worried about reconciling with them … because we’re holding ourselves to a high standard,” Seago said. “It may make things more difficult politically, but we have to be true to our mission statement. We’re not here to make friends, we’re here to pass strong pro-life legislation.”

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Published at 2:00 pm CST