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.

Comments

While I appreciate the Texas Democrats' desire to be competitive, when they hitch their wagon to a one-trick pony, it's not likely to take them where they want to go. The political problem with Wendy Davis' abortion stand is: not even a majority of women support late-term abortion. In addition, Roe v Wade specifically restricts 3rd trimester abortions, so there is no constitutionally-protected "right" to such a procedure. I don't think such a meager platform will carry her to the Governor's mansion. This article represents the best fantasy of Democrats, but the celebrity du jour isn't going to work in this case.

Here's the thing: Everyone needs to stop calling this omnibus bill a "20 week abortion ban" because it is SO. MUCH. MORE.
Senator Zafirini (D- Laredo) has said many times that she would vote yes on a simple 20 week ban, but she's been a strong fighter against this bill. It's not the 20 week issue that is really the problem, though the more I learn, the more I actually do oppose the 20 week ban as well. It's the admitting privileges, the requirement that abortion providers meet the licensing requirements for an ambulatory surgical center. It's the lack of a good exception for life/health of the mother. These are the things that we oppose strongly.

Congratulations, Democrats.

You finally found your Sarah Palin.

Wait - is this someone on the right finally admitting Sarah Palin was an unqualified moron?

Yes, Wendy is a woman that the Democrats really are excited about, just like the Republicans were about Sarah Palin. Now let's compare the two candidates.
Looks: Sarah - Hot, Wendy also Hot
Education - Sarah - Took a long time and two second rate schools to get a degree in communication.
Wendy - Daughter oi a mom with a sixth grade education divorced mom at 16, graduated Harvard Law
Intelligence: Sarah - Dumb as a post. (Did you ever try to read and make sense out of any of her major public statements)
Wendy - Head and shoulders above Sarah. Dummies don't get through Harvard
Character: Sarah - Quit her post as Governor. Cashed in on her notoriety with reality TV shows and a stint of Fox news (where she didn't make the cut)
Wendy - Stood up to old boys in the Texas Senate. I am sure there are a lot of other positive things to point out but I have not researched it. If there were any skeletons in the closet, I am sure Fox News would have tried to slander here by now.

The candidates and the campaigns the Republicans have run in the last decade are an insult to the American people. Just look at the strange collection of losers and wackos that ran for the Republican Nomination and couldn't even beat Romney who large portions of the party hated.

While I think Democrats can do better in TX than they've done in the past, Wendy Davis is not the answer. She rose to prominence on one issue - an issue that isn't that popular among TX voters. She's popular with the radicals in the base and in the media for her "daring stand" who think any restriction on abortion is too much, but beyond that, what is her base?

I'm guessing you aren't in Texas! She's also been very active in education and a number of other fiscal issues as well as social issues. She rose to national prominence over this one thing, but she's been a major figure in the senate for a variety of reasons.

abortion barbie will run for governor, she already knows that she can't hold on to her senate seat.

she's the first democrat to win texas 10 which had firmly been in republican hands since 1992.
and in her past 2 campaigns she's won each with a 2% margin of victory.

so it's just a matter of time, she'll announce for governor knowing she'll lose to greg abbott but do so in hopes of raising her profile attempting to land a gig in media somewhere.

anything to keep from having to practice law, since the majority of her life's work has been spent managing a mortgage title company.

the one thing i find puzzling about abortion barbie is that she's had a nose job (and not a very good) she's had a boob job, and yet she's left that gawd awful mole on the corner of her mouth staring out at you like a freakin third eye.

do us all a favor babe and get that thing removed before you run for governor .

for us all babe.

Thanks, the first two words alerted me that the rest of your post was crap.

When you ream out Maureen Dowd, Alec Baldwin, SNL et al. ad nauseum for "Caribou Barbie" then I'll believe you're not a mindless partisan of the left.

The people you mentioned are fools and/or entertainers (and/or both). But you are right - Caribou Barbie is lazy. I prefer Charles P. Pierce's honorific "Princess Dumbass of the Northwoods."

Davis can't understand even a basic issue:

"Wendy Davis says Texas women make more than $8,000 less than men for same jobs"
http://www.politifact.com/texas/statements/2013/aug/07/wendy-davis/wendy-davis-says-men-paid-more-8000-more-women-sam/

See also:

"Will the Ledbetter Act Help Women?" at http://malemattersusa.wordpress.com/2011/12/03/will-the-ledbetter-fair-pay-act-help-women/

I know Wendy Davis.......not the sharpest knife in the drawer. If she was really smart, she would be a Republican.

I also know Wendy Davis, and you are full of it.

The concern trolls are really out in force on this thread, aren't they?

I've been a voter in the state of Texas since 2000. I did some election work for George W. Bush in 1998, but by 2002 was batting for Team Blue.

I think it well and generally agreed upon that a large part of why Texas went from a competitive state in the 1980s and 1990s to a solid red state in the early 2000s was the realignment of conservative white voters to the GOP.

With that said though, it is often underappreciated (not by the author here, though, but elsewhere) that a lot of this is not the ascendance of the GOP... many moderate white voters in this state are ambivalent at best about the Republicans, especially goofballs like Louie Gohmert and Steve Stockman... but with the total collapse of the Democratic Party in the state.

The problem is not ideology or even money (although Texas blue dollars typically get exported to other states). The problem has been in large part a complete lack of inspirational leadership (at least until recently). All too often, the Democrats aren't asking people to do anything (except vote or give money) and even rare still, giving people a reason to do it.

In the past few years, we've had some good-but-less-than-charismatic candidates (Chris Bell, Bill White) as well as some real stink bombs (Tony Sanchez, Garry Mauro). But even beyond that, the party from precinct chair on up has atrophied. The only really exciting moments I've had have been during the 2008 primacaucus/caucamary.

If the Democrats registered Latinos and got them to vote at white levels, and could articulate a coherent vision to moderate voters, they would win.

The Obama people know how to win and they know how to do exactly what needs to be done in Texas. To the extent that Wendy Davis is an avatar for this kind of thinking, then she will have my vote.

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