Wendy Davis for Texas governor: why she has a chance

Wendy Davis, who shot to fame with a June filibuster defending abortion rights, announced her campaign to replace retiring Texas Governor Perry. That the seat is open helps an otherwise longshot bid.

LM Otero/AP
Sen. Wendy Davis (D) of Fort Worth speaks to a supporter at a rally Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, in Haltom City, Texas. Senator Davis formally announced her campaign to run for Texas governor.

It’s official. Wendy Davis is running for governor of Texas. The state senator who shot to fame in June by staging an 11-hour filibuster to defend abortion rights announced Thursday that she will run for the Democratic nomination in 2014. 

By all rights, Senator Davis’s campaign is a long shot. Texas is solid red and has not elected a Democrat statewide since 1994. It last elected a Democratic governor in 1990, the late Ann Richards. As of July, Davis's likely Republican opponent, state Attorney General Greg Abbott, had raised $22 million; Davis had about $1 million. Mr. Abbott’s big money lead will allow him to define Davis early as he embarks on his fifth statewide race.

In her announcement speech, Davis portrayed herself as a uniter who will work across party lines to “get things done” to improve public education, health care, and economic development. 

"Texans don't want to sit back and watch Austin turn into Washington, D.C.," Davis said, speaking in her hometown of Haltom City, Texas, according to The Associated Press.

Davis, a two-term state senator and former member of the Fort Worth City Council, is a novice as a statewide candidate. And we’re not talking just any state. This is Texas, once an independent, sovereign nation (a status some Texans would like to recapture). Those are big cowboy boots to fill, being governor of the Lone Star State.   

But Davis, a Harvard-trained lawyer, has something that few newbies to big-league Texas politics have: mojo. She captured an instant national following when she put on her pink Mizunos and took on Gov. Rick Perry (R) last June over abortion restrictions. Her filibuster killed the legislation, though it passed in the next special session.

Governor Perry is retiring at the end of his term. After considering her options and holding some fundraisers, Davis is taking the plunge. Perhaps her best shot centers on the fact that it’s an open seat, analysts say.

“The fact that Abbott is not an incumbent is the real ray of hope for Davis and why it is the best time for her to run,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

More than a year before Election Day, the race is wide open. A nonpartisan Texas Lyceum poll released Wednesday shows Abbott beating Davis, 29 percent to 21 percent, with 50 percent saying they “don’t know.” Clearly, it’s early, and the campaign hasn’t started in earnest.

“Wendy Davis is an intriguing candidate, and I think she’ll be a good campaigner, so it’s possible she increases turnout, especially among young people,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Though “it’s not clear why Hispanics would be entranced by her.”

Notably, two rising Democratic Hispanic political stars in Texas opted not to run for governor – identical twins Julian and Joaquin Castro, one the mayor of San Antonio (and keynote speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention), the other a member of Congress.

Hispanics make up 38 percent of the Texas population, and are projected to become the majority by around 2030. In part for that reason, Obama campaign operatives have started the Battleground Texas political-action committee, which aims to turn Texas purple – putting its 38 electoral votes in play. But for Davis, running in a nonpresidential year, it will be especially challenging to get significant minority turnout.

If Davis is to have a shot, she will need to woo Hispanic voters, who are underrepresented in the Texas electorate relative to their share of the population. She also has work to do among women. In the Lyceum poll, women showed a slight preference for Abbott. She may need to “mute the abortion message and go with education and health care,” says Mr. Jillson.

At an appearance in August at the National Press Club, Davis spoke passionately about education, in part because of her personal story. She was raised by a single mother with a sixth-grade education, and by the age of 19 was herself a divorced mom. She enrolled in community college, transferred to Texas Christian University – and ultimately wound up at Harvard Law School.

But Abbott has his own compelling narrative. At age 26, he was hit by a falling tree, injuring his spine, and has been in a wheelchair ever since. He describes himself as a fighter for Texas with a spine of steel – literally, given the two permanent steel rods in his back. As attorney general, he says he has sued the federal government 27 times. That’s a big applause line in Texas.

For Davis, running isn’t a no-risk proposition. If she loses, the margin will matter. Lose small, by four to six percentage points, and she has a potential future in state politics. Lose big, and her options are more limited. But maybe Abbott makes a mistake, or a tea party independent named Debra Medina enters the race and splits the conservative vote. There are no sure things in politics. 

At her press club appearance in August, Davis was asked what Democrats must do to win statewide. Her reply: “First of all, people have to run.”

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