A number of Republican Texas House candidates have cast themselves as champions of women’s health care in the closing weeks of the 2020 election, a departure from the party’s messaging in prior elections as its nominees try to overcome President Trump’s implosion among suburban women.
The battle for control of the lower chamber is playing out almost exclusively in Texas’ suburbs, where polls repeatedly have shown Trump has lost ground among white women voters, a group he won in 2016. House Democratic candidates have sought to capitalize, recently sharpening their focus on health care — an issue that resonates with women at a far higher clip than with men in both parties — by rolling out a plan that includes Democrats’ long-sought goal of Medicaid expansion and reversing Texas’ funding ban for health clinics that offer abortions.
Forward Majority, a national Democratic super PAC focused on state legislatures, has run TV ads in Houston for about a month hammering House Republican candidates on health care, among other topics. The targets of their health care spots are state Reps. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, and Sam Harless, R-Spring, both of whom are running campaigns that emphasize their records on health care.
State Rep. Gary Gates of Richmond, facing a repeat challenge from Democrat Eliz Markowitz, and Republican candidate Lacey Hull, who faces Democrat Akilah Bacy for an open west Houston seat, both are running ads in which they promise to fight for increased funding for women’s health care and access to cancer screenings for “lower income women.”
Democrats generally could count on a slight advantage among women before Trump’s presidency, but the gap became much more pronounced once white women — typically a reliable vote for Republicans — began voting more for Democrats, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.
“I think these ads are primarily a recognition by these Republican candidates that to be victorious, they need to reduce the gender gap in their race,” Jones said. “And the best way to do that is by reaching out to women, especially to Anglo women, which is probably the target audience in all of those districts.”
Harless, first elected in 2018, again is facing Democrat Natali Hurtado after defeating her by about 10 percentage points. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz carried the northwest Harris County district by fewer than 4 percentage points, however, and Democrats believe the suburban women revolt against Trump puts districts like Harless’ in play.
In his healthcare-focused ad, Harless says he “increased funding for women’s health care and expanded access to cancer screening and mammograms” — apparent references to his “yes” votes on the state budget, which included a hike in spending on women’s health care, and a law that requires health care plans to cover the full cost of diagnostic mammograms.
Hurtado said she supports all the components of House Democrats’ health care plan, such as expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Texas is within the group of 14 states that has yet to do so. The result is a gap in coverage for the hundreds of thousands of Texans who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to earn tax credits to buy insurance plans through the ACA.
And she criticized Harless for reportedly telling the Houston Chronicle editorial board in 2018 he supports Medicaid expansion, before voting against it when it failed on a party line vote in 2019.
“Rep. Harless is now claiming to support healthcare because his polling on the issue is bad. But actions speak louder than words,” Hurtado said. “Medicaid is the number one provider of health coverage to low-income women, for him now to claim to champion women’s health is a false campaign pitch and a slap in the face to women who need affordable care.”
Harless could not immediately be reached for comment.
Forward Majority, meanwhile, has focused its attacks on Republican efforts — led by Texas — to strike down the Affordable Care Act, arguing the move would be tantamount to stripping protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Republicans have insisted they intend to keep those protections in place, though they have not lined up a replacement plan that would fully cover those with pre-existing conditions.
Davis, meanwhile, is running a TV ad that says she “broke with her party to support Medicaid expansion.” The ad cites a 2019 House vote on an amendment to expand Medicaid; Davis was absent for the vote but left a statement saying she “would have voted yes.”
In addition to the Republican candidates’ individual ads, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott released a 30-second spot in which state Rep. Tom Oliverson, a Cypress Republican and anesthesiologist, dons a lab coat as he lists a series of bills passed by Republicans last session, including a law designed to stop patients from being billed for costly out-of-network charges, or so-called surprise medical bills, and one that imposes stricter drug-price transparency measures.
“So, remember on healthcare, Texas Republicans are working for you,” Oliverson concludes.
The ad opens with Oliverson saying Texas Republicans “passed legislation to protect patients with pre-existing conditions from losing access to health insurance.” The law lets Texas’ insurance commissioner establish a temporary high-risk insurance pool, which would offer coverage to those left without insurance options due to their pre-existing conditions, but with far costlier premiums.
When state lawmakers shut down a similar program in 2013, just 23,000 people were participating in the pool, the Texas Tribune reported.
Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman accused Republicans of lying in the ad.
“Texas Republicans are making one last-ditch effort to cling to power,” Rahman said. “They know they can’t run on their real records, which have endangered the lives, health, and welfare of our communities. That is why they have resorted to desperate tactics like running false advertising.”