Wendy Davis's Catch-22

AP Photo/Eric Gay

Texas state senator Wendy Davis

When a politician announces she may or may not run for office, it’s usually not news. But when Texas Democrat Wendy Davis told her audience at the National Press Club Monday that she could “say with absolute certainty that I will run for one of two offices, either my state senate seat or governor,” it prompted a slew of stories across the national media. Without saying much, Davis, who became a national liberal star when she filibustered a 20-week abortion ban last month, had everyone speculating. “Wendy Davis: Ready to ride for governor of Texas?” asked the Christian Science Monitor. "It Sure Looks Like Wendy Davis is Running for Governor" proclaimed The New Republic. Among conservatives, the speech prompted RedState founder and Fox contributor Erick Erickson to dub Davis “abortion Barbie.”

The national interest in Davis’s non-announcement only reflects the extreme anticipation among politicos; plenty of liberals see the stars aligning in Texas, believing they can overcome a statewide losing streak that's lasted nearly 20 years. At the beginning of 2013, a number of Obama campaign field staff members, who created the exceptional turnout operation that largely won the election, started Battleground Texas. The group is a political-action committee dedicated to turning Texas blue primarily through registering voters and delivering the Democratic message through knocking doors and engaging potential voters in long-neglected communities. The state has plenty of big Democratic donors, but for most of the last two decades, that money has flowed to races in other states. But for the first time in over 25 years, national liberal groups and state heavyweights are considering serious, long-term investment in Texas. 

Just a few months later, as Battleground Texas began generating buzz, its efforts got an unplanned boost as thousands of pro-choice activists stormed the state capitol to protest the abortion bill. In a state that consistently ranks among the lowest in voter turnout, with a Democratic Party that has often floundered at getting its message out, these activists stunned lawmakers on both sides. Then Wendy Davis killed the bill with a 13-hour filibuster. Though it was later passed in a second special session, the move was one of the first tastes of victory liberals in Texas have had in ages. 

It might seem obvious that Davis, with the help of a major organizing effort and a galvanized set of supporters, should run statewide. The trouble is that she—just like any Democrat—is almost certain to lose. 

The quest to turn Texas competitive—let alone blue—will require not only money and organizing and good candidates but, above all, time. Democrats have lost every statewide race since 1994—a 100-race losing streak. Demographic trends certainly favor Democrats; Latinos, who usually split two-to-one Democratic, are rapidly becoming a larger proportion of the state. (By 2040, 52 percent of Texas will be Latino and only 27 percent white, according to the state demographer.) But right now, Latinos only make up 26 percent of eligible voters, far lower than their population percentage; among registered Latinos, turnout is lower than in other states like California, Colorado, and New Mexico. In 2010, when Governor Rick Perry won re-election, the Latino turnout rate was just 16 percent. Democrats have tended to run statewide campaigns based on big media buys and selling a candidate—party investment in a sustainable grassroots infrastructure has been largely nonexistent outside of efforts in Austin and Dallas.

Similarly, women in Texas vote much more Republican than their counterparts in other states. In 2010, according to a poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune, around 54 percent of women supported Rick Perry. Nationally, women skew Democratic. Davis’s appeal comes in part out of hope that she could fire up the Democratic base and start turning around female voters. But there would still have to be a broad and long-term effort to get more people—particularly Latinos—into the voting booth.

Barring some political miracles, that means a sudden Democratic turnaround is almost certainly not happening in a single election cycle. It’s going to be a long haul. State Democrats have not invested heavily in grassroots organizing and there’s now a lot of ground to make up. As one organizer told me when I was working on a Prospect feature about Battleground Texas, “It takes at least ten years to undo 20 years of neglect.” Organizers will need time to build a much-needed political infrastructure, especially in all the state’s vast, spread-out, urban centers. 

That leaves Davis in catch-22. No one wants to run statewide without believing she can win; after all, losing is a brand-killer. There’s a reason the other famous Democratic prospects—San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and his twin brother Joaquin—aren’t getting in the ring. But if Democrats can’t run a serious candidate, then it will be harder to get people organized and excited—and thus make the odds of success better next time. (Remember the state Democrats’ U.S. Senate 2012 candidate Paul Sadler? Yeah, neither does anyone else.) For Davis, the timing is especially tight. She’s a national star with the sudden ability to rake in cash. (Even before her star turn in Washington, she’d already raised $1 million since the filibuster.) If Davis has a serious intention to run for governor at some point, this is her best shot. But she’s still the longest of long shots, and at best, her campaign may be more about paving the way for the Castros.

If Davis chooses to be a Democratic sacrifice, her challenge will be to find a way to lose without becoming a loser. There’s no question she’s a formidable candidate. She won her senate seat in Fort Worth by beating one of the GOP’s most entrenched good old boys, and held onto it in 2012 in the most competitive and expensive legislative race in the state. Her story of being raised by a single mom with a sixth-grade education, of becoming a divorced mom herself at 19 before going to college and Harvard Law, is nothing short of inspiring. 

But as a gubernatorial candidate, the best thing Davis could do—both for the party she loves and her own political career—would be to focus on a grassroots campaign that puts money into engaging new or unlikely voters, as well as focusing on women. Increasing turnout and building a sustainable outreach infrastructure would be key to winning, but it would also provide a long-term boost to the party. Given Davis’s current celebrity, consultants may be tempted to push a campaign entirely focused on TV ads lauding her most memorable moments. But that’s not going to give her a victory or serve Democrats’ long-term interests.

While Davis may currently have star-power, she, along with other state Democrats, needs to start thinking long-term. Or, as Democratic strategist James Aldrete told me, stop “waiting for the amazing candidate that’s gonna inspire everyone and solve all our problems.” 

Democrats have finally started to get serious about building a state party based on increasing turnout and political engagement. There are already groups like Battleground Texas and the homegrown Texas Organizing Project, both working on registering and engaging voters. Others are focused on big media buys and big-dollar fundraising. Still others are using databases to target specific neighborhoods. Battleground Texas has helped to integrate these different efforts and bring people together for a long-term effort. Given her new icon status among liberals and her skills as a candidate, a Davis campaign could give the fire a needed boost of fuel. 

There’s every chance that Davis will do a great thing for Texas Democrats—and for national Democrats, by extension. If she does, the benefits won’t just flow to the Castro brothers—they would also provide her with a more likely road to victory later on.

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