The 2014 political season is just beginning to ramp up, and, for fans and the professionals, it’s time to start gauging which races to watch—and guessing which candidates can go all the way. Thursday will mark the emergence of one of the hottest Democratic prospects to come out of Texas in more than a decade: State Senator Wendy Davis, who’s set to announce her candidacy for governor. But hold on to your hats, sports fans, 'cause this one is gonna get messy.
Davis garnered national attention this summer when she successfully filibustered an abortion ban that was passed in a later special session of the state legislature. Over 100,000 people watched a live feed, and in Texas thousands stormed the capitol in a show of support unprecedented in recent memory. By all accounts, today Davis will tell the world that she’ll be the standard bearer for a team with that’s lost more than 100 consecutive races statewide: the Texas Democratic Party.
But Texas Democrats are in the midst of a major set of changes, many of which aren’t easy to see or assess, particularly from outside the state. There are the steady demographic shifts; the state is becoming less and less white, as the Latino population, which leans two-to-one Democratic, continues to grow. At the beginning of the year, the Obama campaign’s national field director Jeremy Bird announced his soon-ballyhooed plans to turn Texas blue, creating the group Battleground Texas. The group promised to invest in field organizing and build strong volunteer-driven grassroots—a strategy state Democrats had been notably slow to embrace, despite low turnout among the groups most likely to vote for them.
With that work just getting underway, and the demographic changes not translating yet into a critical mass of new voters, Davis’s campaign is a serious long shot. “It would take a pretty cosmic alignment of things going right for her and a lot of things going wrong for [the Republicans],” says Jim Henson, a political scientist who directs the University of Texas’s Politics Project. Two polls, including one released Wednesday, showed Davis within eight points of Attorney General Greg Abbott, the leading Republican candidate with a war chest of nearly $20 million—and eight points was better than many expected. At The New Republic, Nate Cohn appears to be writing a piece each week about the hopelessness of Davis’s candidacy. But Democrats’ dreams for Davis don’t rest solely on her winning the election. Given how weak the party has been for so long, if she can come within single digits of Abbott next year—and build a strong grassroots network that will last beyond her race—then she will have done more for the Democratic cause in Texas than anyone else has in a decade.
Untested and on a perpetually losing team, even a hot rookie like Davis is bound to face challenges. After all, this is a team sport. She’ll need to capitalize on her own strengths and play her game—and hope the team can back her up if they’re going to move the ball forward. The question is, how does she stack up?
She’s a veteran of competitive races.
Davis may just be graduating to the big leagues, but she’s got a long history of duking it out till the end. In a state where just about every legislative race is decided in the primaries, Davis won and then held one of the only competitive districts in Texas—no small feat. After serving on the Forth Worth City Council, Davis managed to unseat GOP senator Kim Brimer, one of the more powerful senators and good ol’ boys in the state. The race was tight—she took 49.9 percent of the vote and a Libertarian candidate with 2.6 percent helped give her the plurality. During redistricting in 2011, Republicans tried to make her district impossible to win, but thanks to court intervention, it remained a tough, but competitive, district. Last year, she narrowly won again, this time without the help of a third party.
Winning in a competitive district—rather than a Democratic stronghold—has given Davis valuable experience pushing turnout in nonwhite communities and persuading white voters, both tasks key to running a competitive gubernatorial campaign. FiveThirtyEight marked Davis’s home of Tarrant County, where Forth Worth is located, as a bellwether for the state.
She does well with suburban women—a group ripe for Democratic inroads.
The Democratic brand has become toxic among white voters in Texas; upwards of 70 percent vote Republican in any given election. “Obviously she’s got to win back some of the Anglo voters we’ve lost,” says longtime Democratic consultant Glenn Smith. She’s got a chance.
According to research from Henson and others, suburban white women in Texas are beginning to move away from the GOP. In the last three years, the percentage of suburban women identifying as conservative dropped from 49 percent to 38 percent. They’re less likely to identify with the Tea Party than voters overall. This fits nicely with Davis’s celebrity, born largely out of her filibuster over abortion rights. While abortion remains divisive, suburban women are among the most consistent supporters of abortion rights, with 45 percent believing the procedure should be allowed in all circumstances.
There’s still time to define Greg Abbott on her terms.
Wendy Davis may get a chance to play the game on her own terms. After a decade as attorney general, Abbott is still largely unknown among rank-and-file Texas voters. A June poll from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune showed that over half of Texas voters had no opinion of the guy—including 46 percent of Republicans.
While Abbott is familiar with running statewide, he’s never done so against a formidable opponent in a competitive year. Smith sees plenty of opportunity for Davis to force Abbott into making errors that can drive more voters to the Davis camp. Already, he came under fire for tweeting thanks to a supporter who referred to Davis as “retard Barbie,” and one of his chief advisors fell under similar criticism for retweeting that Davis was “too stupid” to run. By increasing the political pressure—through everything from press conferences to political stunts—Smith hopes voters may start hearing about Abbott through these gaffes. Abbott, meanwhile, has started his own efforts to introduce himself to voters, most notably with a feature in Texas Monthly that includes a cover photo of the wheelchair-bound candidate outdoors, with a gun slung over his shoulder.
She’s never been outspent before.
While Davis has won two hotly contested legislative races, she’s done so by out-raising and out-spending her opponents. That’s not going to happen this time. Even if money pours in from across Texas and out-of-state—hardly unlikely given her national acclaim on the left—there’s almost no way Davis will have more than Abbott, whose got the biggest bank account of any Texas candidate. That will leave Davis on new, difficult terrain. In her last race, Davis spent nearly $25 per vote. This time, she’s got to find more cost-effective ways of mobilizing supporters and getting her message out—though of course she also will need help from outside groups. (More on that below.)
She’s got some ethics skeletons in her closet.
Since her first election to the part-time state legislature, Davis has faced fire for her day job. She and Brian Newby, the former chief of staff for Republican Governor Rick Perry, are partners in a law firm that offers services to government contractors and local and county governments. Davis has refused to identify her public-sector clients, citing attorney-client privilege. However, the Texas Tribune has reported she’s worked for a toll authority, school district, and a water authority, all impacted by her legislative work. Her office dismisses the charges and argues she voted on measures before she actually began work for the clients. During her 2012 race, a series of ads accused Davis of peddling her influence to the highest bidder.
Davis has strenuously denied all claims of impropriety, and her campaign points to ethics legislation she championed this past legislative session as evidence of her commitment to transparency. The negative ads weren’t enough to defeat her in 2012, but the charges aren’t likely to go away—instead they may get louder. Abbott’s currently the frontrunner and unlikely to want to draw any more attention to Davis. But if she starts to come close, the attorney general will likely deploy some of his considerable funds to ensure everyone with a TV, radio, or computer hears about the flaps. The question will be if the charges will stick or if Davis can effectively combat them. “The microscope on politicians dials in higher” when they run statewide, notes Bryan Eppstein, a GOP consultant who helped manage the opposing campaign in 2012. The criticism politicians face at the legislative level, he says, “is less than half the scrutiny they’re gonna get if they run statewide.”
Texas is still really conservative.
While Texas is certainly in the midst of a political and demographic change, it’s a slow process. This spring, before any candidates had emerged, Battleground Texas executive director Jenn Brown declared to a group of volunteers, “If 2020 is the year we turn this state around, that is OK with me.” Between building turnout and registering and persuading voters, it usually takes years to change a political culture. Davis is hoping to do it in months. While there are obvious areas to focus on—driving up Latino turnout, motivating those suburban women—it’s hard to see how she can get enough votes to add up to a victory. “She’s going to have to fight to get 50 plus one and she’s going to have to do everything right and force some errors on the Abbot campaign,” explains Smith, waxing optimistic.
Davis made her name through a fight for abortion rights and garnered praise from folks like Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—and California liberals ain’t too popular in Texas. While Davis won her state senate races as a business moderate, her newfound celebrity comes with some challenges back home. Eppstein reflects what’s likely to be a common Republican position: “She’s trying to be Hillary Clinton,” he says, “but she’s not doing what Hillary did: Leave Arkansas and move to New York.” He estimates Davis will struggle to get 40 percent of the vote.
Perhaps Davis’s strongest asset is having marshaled the kumbaya spirit that’s descended on Texas Democrats in the last several months. After two decades of losing, the party has atrophied, and allies who should be teammates have often fought amongst themselves. But that seems to be shifting. Smith noted he runs a weekly call for around 24 partisan organizations, including Battleground Texas, the House and Senate Democratic caucuses, and Annie’s List, which supports Democratic female candidates. “Everyone is on the same page [and there’s] a surprising amount of cooperation and unity,” he says. “Let’s just say that has not always been true.”
But harmony within a party that’s a distinct minority in its state won’t be enough. Battleground Texas has begun work on a robust field operation, employing much of the technology and tactics the Obama campaign used to win swing states like Ohio. According to several consultants, Battleground Texas is upping the grassroots game in Texas beyond anything the state has seen before. Davis’s candidacy will give Battleground Texas a 2014 rallying cry and boost an operation that could last longer than a single political cycle.
But a win—or even moving the ball forward—will require a perfect game. And ask any baseball player; those require a stunning pitcher, flawless defense, and some mistakes from the other side.
“At the end of the day, can the Democrats execute as a party?” asks Henson. “I fully expect Wendy Davis will do her part, but a lot of other pieces have to do their part too.”