What happened to Wendy Davis? Texas' once-rising star set to fall. (+video)
State Sen. Wendy Davis made national headlines by filibustering a tough Texas abortion law. But her current gubernatorial bid is in danger of being a disappointment.
Tina, whose partner is a woman, and who asked that her last name not be used, supports same-sex marriage. Though describing herself as pro-life, Tina supports a woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. And, echoing a Davis talking point, she opposes the so-called "good old boys network" in Texas politics, what she derisively describes as "old money."
"Wendy Davis' campaign has connected with the issues that Texas sweeps under the rug, issues that are being addressed in other states," says the marketing professional from McKinney, a feeder city north of Dallas.
But the day before Texans go to the polls to vote for their next governor, the star that shone so brightly during a marathon filibuster in the Texas Senate last year over a tough new abortion law has faded.
Voters like Tina had hoped that the charismatic state senator could wrestle the Texas governor's mansion away from Republican hands for the first time in 20 years. Now, it looks possible that she won't even do as well as the Democrat in 2010. One of the most recent polls suggests state Senator Davis trails Republican Greg Abbott by 16 points.
Davis's task was always going to be a tough one. On Tuesday, Republicans will likely sweep all statewide offices – governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller, agriculture commissioner, land commissioner, and attorney general. But her failure to make the race closer might damage her political prospects both in Texas and beyond.
Moreover, it raises questions about Texas Democrats' ability to regain relevance in the near term. Despite an active ground game behind her – and a state electorate that is now 40 percent Hispanic – Davis's campaign appears to be highlighting just how deeply red Texas remains.
Short of beating Mr. Abbott, Davis could measure success by bettering the result of Bill White, the 2010 Democratic candidate for governor against incumbent Gov. Rick Perry. White finished behind the now-outgoing governor by about 13 points.
"If, as it now looks, the margin may not be even as narrow as it was four years ago, that will be a major disappointment for Democrats, and will suggest that Wendy Davis might not be competitive for elective office in Texas in the future," says Jim Riddlesperger, a political scientist at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
That disappointment looks likely up and down the ticket in Texas, he says, suggesting little positive for Democrats in this election cycle.
Looking further ahead, Democratic hopes in Texas have often rested on evidence of a demographic shift. Much of that is vested in the growing Hispanic population, which tends to favor Democrats. But some experts question the validity of such assumptions.
"The Democrats are betting that the demographics of Texas will change so much in coming years that Texas will be at least a blend of Democrat and Republican politics," says Allan Saxe, associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington.
"However, Hispanics already make up about 40 percent of Texas and Republicans still rule," he notes. "It is possible, though unlikely, that the minority voters that Democrats rely upon will not be the same politically as they are now. Same with younger persons."
In this race, Davis might have hurt her standing with the predominantly Catholic Hispanic population by revealing that she has had two abortions, says Professor Saxe.
At this point, getting as close to Abbott as possible may help Davis carve out a political future. A single-digit defeat may pave the way for another run at the Texas governorship in 2018 or a challenge against Sen. Ted Cruz (R) the same year, says Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.
But Democratic operatives suggest that Davis might leave behind a more-positive legacy. Working alongside her is Battleground Texas, a grass-roots organization founded by Jeremy Bird, orchestrator of President Obama's 2012 field campaign. The endeavor has longer-term aims, but with a week to go the group boasted an army of more than 33,000 volunteers who had made more than 4.2 million phone calls and 2.35 million door knocks.
Despite the bleak poll numbers, the group was talking up a record number of registered voters – 14 million – and early voting patterns it says shows it is reaching necessary demographic groups, such as Hispanics and African-Americans. In an interview, Battleground Texas spokesperson Erica Sackin refused to entertain talk of defeat or plans beyond Nov. 4, except to affirm the group was firmly entrenched in the state.
"We feel really good," she says. "It is very encouraging."
For Professor Jones, however, dreams of blue horizons in Texas remain distant: "At the present time, all indications are that Texas will not be turning purple or blue this decade, with the state virtually certain to remain dark red in the 2016 presidential election."
[Editor's note: Tina's last name has been removed to protect her privacy.]