AUSTIN, Texas — Texas attorney general hopeful Barry Smitherman turned some heads when he suggested this summer that many aborted fetuses might have voted Republican had they been born.
Upon further reflection, he still insists it's a no-brainer.
"What we've seen in our state is that Republicans are more pro-life than Democrats. Let's hypothetically ask an unborn child: 'Here's the Republican position on life, here's the Democrat. If you're born, which way would you vote?'" Smitherman told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
"I think they vote Republican," he added. "To me it was pretty simple."
Speculating about fetal voting habits was one of several issues that thrust Smitherman, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission and former head of the Public Utility Commission, into the spotlight lately.
He also retweeted a list of U.S. Senate Republicans who voted for an ultimately unsuccessful federal gun control bill next to the word "Treason" and a noose, and decried criticism of a group with ties to white supremacists known as "Crusaders for Yahweh." Then there was his suggestion that Texas was well-positioned to survive on its own should the U.S. government collapse.
But the former investment banker shrugged off suggestions he's running to the right, attempting to impress a conservative base that will likely decide the Republican primary in March: "I'm not trying to get anywhere that I'm not already comfortable being."
Popular Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott is running for governor, but Smitherman is facing a fight for his party's nomination with state Sen. Ken Paxton and state Rep. Dan Branch.
The influential Texas Right to Life PAC has endorsed both Smitherman and Paxton. Still, Sarah Crawford, political associate for the group, said officials were especially impressed by the Aug. 15 speech Smitherman gave to top Texas Right to Life officials, when he suggested that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on Roe V. Wade had seen 82.5 million would-be Americans lost to abortion. "I also suspect that many of them that were not born would have voted Republican," he said in the speech.
"He has been very open about his passion for life," Crawford said of Smitherman.
On other headline-grabbing matters, Smitherman says he issued the retweet without seeing the noose. He says his point about Texas surviving the collapse of the federal government was that the state has its own power grid that's not connected to other states and its own supply of oil and natural gas.
The Crusaders for Yahweh brouhaha grew out of a letter he wrote to his then 15-year-old daughter's teacher, objecting to supplemental materials produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center being used as the class read "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Smitherman says he was angered by the center's past characterization of conservative groups like Texas Eagle Forum and the Family Research Council as extremist, but didn't know about Crusaders for Yahweh's racist associations when he similarly defended that group.
"I clearly don't support anything that's racial or advocates white supremacy or brown supremacy or any racial supremacy," he said.
Gov. Rick Perry appointed Smitherman to the Public Utility Commission in 2004 and he became its chairman three years later. In 2011, the governor named him to the Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and natural gas licensing. Smitherman won re-election to the commission in 2012, making him the only Republican attorney general candidate to win a statewide race.
Smitherman said he hopes voters will focus on his experience. He's a former prosecutor in Harris County, which includes his native Houston, and helped issue more state oil and natural gas drilling permits this year than any year since 1985.
At the Public Utility Commission, Smitherman says he helped state electric rates fall to some of the lowest in the country, while also returning over $100 million appropriated by the Legislature back to the state unspent. Smitherman said he was able to trim the utility commission budget through job consolidation — and that similar downsizing could be in order for the small army of state lawyers in the attorney general's office.
"With 4,200 people and a half-a-billion-dollar budget, I've always found that there's room for improvement," he said.
Smitherman promises to continue Abbott's crowning achievement as attorney general, filing 30 lawsuits against the federal government since President Obama took office.
Pledging to keep arguing the 18 of those cases that remain active, Smitherman said he's especially committed to helping Texas battle clean air rules that "are poorly scienced and frankly just bone-headed."
"Climate change is, in my estimation, not an issue associated with CO2 and greenhouse gasses," he said, referring to carbon dioxide emissions.
Meanwhile, Smitherman's ready with a comeback for critics who blame climate change for Superstorm Sandy and other recent weather catastrophes.
"You're talking to a guy from the Texas Gulf Coast where we get hurricanes a lot," Smitherman said. "But, if you've noticed, we've not had a bad storm in the last couple of years."