Filibuster of Texas abortion bill makes a star of Wendy Davis. Will that last?

A Democratic state senator in heavily Republican Texas, Wendy Davis rocketed to global social media prominence on the strength of her filibuster and the failure of the abortion bill she opposed.

Eric Gay/AP
Sen. Wendy Davis (D) of Fort Worth (c.) holds up two fingers to signal a 'No' vote as the session where they tried to filibuster an abortion bill draws to a close, Tuesday, June 25, in Austin, Texas. Despite barely beating a midnight deadline, hundreds of jeering protesters helped stop Texas lawmakers from passing the abortion bill.

In less than 13 hours, Wendy Davis rocketed from being a Democratic state senator little known beyond heavily Republican Texas to a global social media celebrity, as her filibuster helped defeat a major abortion bill with a last-minute boost from hundreds of noisy supporters packed into the State capitol.

Ms. Davis’ raised profile – her Twitter account jumped from 1,200 to more than 46,000 followers in a day – and the defeat of a stroke-of-midnight vote on the bill by the deafening roar of supporters in the gallery, are moments that Texas Democrats are relishing, but ones that may not last long, analysts say.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry could call another legislative session with more time to pass the abortion law, and Davis faces an uphill battle if she wants to channel the attention into a bid for statewide office.

“It's over. It's been fun. But see you soon.” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told reporters after the bill's defeat early Wednesday, hinting that Governor Perry may soon call legislators back for another 30-day special session.

Davis earned substantial exposure during her 11-hour filibuster. Twitter reports that there were at least 730,000 tweets about the filibuster on Tuesday, with 5,776 tweets per minute at the height of the drama around 11:58 p.m. central time as Senate Republicans were trying for a last-minute vote before the midnight deadline. Hashtags including #StandwithWendy and #WendyDavis trended worldwide, while a YouTube live stream drew more than 180,000 viewers.

“Something special is happening in Austin tonight,” tweeted President Obama’s official twitter account at about 8 p.m. central time Tuesday as Davis entered the ninth hour of her attempt to block passage of the bill, which would have banned abortions after 20 weeks and closed nearly every abortion clinic in the state.

Some political analysts were impressed with Davis’ star-power Tuesday, but question whether she can sustain a lasting statewide or national role. 

“The biggest question is whether Democrats are really ready to compete statewide,” Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

There is both a governor and US Senate race in 2014, but the last time Democrats in Texas won a major statewide race – for president, senator, or governor – was in 1990 when Ann Richards was elected governor.

"I think the Republican leadership in both chambers of the Legislature unwittingly helped create a national Texas Democratic star," Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak, told the Texas Tribune.

Mr. Mackowiak called Davis’ fundraising potential “unlimited,” and suggested she can raise millions of dollars over the next couple of months, but questioned whether she has the ideology to win over wide swaths of the heavily Republican public.

"Wendy Davis does not have the profile of a Democrat that's going to win statewide in this interim period where Democrats are trying to become competitive again," he said. "It's going to be a pro-business, moderate, big-city Democrat."

Supporters hope Davis could emerge as a face of a burgeoning Democratic attempt to move Texas ever so slightly to the left. In January, national Democrats started “Battleground Texas,” an organization run by Jeremy Bird, the former national field director for Mr. Obama’s reelection campaign. 

Mr. Bird told Politico the group would be “a grass-roots organization that will make Texas a battleground state by treating it like one.” Sources told Politico that Bird "plans to engage the state’s rapidly growing Latino population, as well as African-American voters and other Democratic-leaning constituencies that have been underrepresented at the ballot box in recent cycles," and that the organization's budget would run into the tens of millions of dollars over several year.

Yet the track record for Democrats seeking statewide office points to a difficult path.

“The GOP boasts comfortable majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and controls every statewide office; in fact, Democrats haven’t won a statewide race in Texas since 1994, a 19-year losing streak that spans 101 defeats,” the Texas Observer wrote in May.

“Since that time, the party has struggled mightily to even be competitive,” wrote The Washington Post when it examined chances for Democrats in Texas in 2012. “The story at the gubernatorial and Senate level is no better for Democrats [than at the presidential]. Richards took 45.9 percent when she lost her bid for a second term to George W. Bush in 1994. And no Democrat for Senate has won more than 43.9 percent of the vote in the last twenty years.”

Over the past decade, several candidates with substantial funds were defeated in their bids for statewide office. Hispanic businessman Tony Sanchez spent $67 million of his own money on a gubernatorial run, but earned just 40 percent of the vote in his loss to Perry in 2002.

Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk and former Houston Mayor Bill White drew money to their campaigns for senator and governor in 2002 and 2010, respectively, but neither earned more than 42 percent of the vote, notes The Washington Post.

None of those candidates drew attention like Davis, say other consultants. "I have never seen a Texas senator suddenly make world news over the course of 13 hours," longtime Democratic consultant Harold Cook told the Texas Tribune. "I'm not sure it was possible before Twitter, honestly. At the start of the day, this was a local story. By the end, it was an international story."

"It's too early to tell, but I will say that it is episodes like tonight that are potentially game-changers and that change the electorate fundamentally,” he said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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