Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis at National Press Club in Washington, Aug. 5, 2013.
Photo by Christopher Gregory/New York Times/Redux

Wendy Davis is in it to win it. But does she still have a shot?

Updated

In a hard-hitting new TV ad, her first of the campaign, Wendy Davis goes after Greg Abbott, her Republican opponent in the race for Texas governor, over a 1998 rape case. And she plans to hammer home that same theme Monday with a Houston event that will focus on her support for rape survivors.

But with Davis, a Democrat, trailing badly in the polls three months out, some observers are already counting her out.

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find even one Texas Democrat who honestly thinks she has a chance at victory,” said Mark P. Jones, the chairman of Rice University’s political science department. “Maybe there’s one out there, but I think they’d be delusional.”

James Henson, who directs the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Politics Project, doesn’t go quite that far, but close. “It’s a very narrow path,” said Henson. “It’s been a narrow path from day one, and it just doesn’t look like anything they’ve done up to this point has made that path any wider.”

It’s a long slide from when Davis, a state senator since 2008, launched her campaign last fall, buoyed by a tide of excitement stemming from her dramatic filibuster of an anti-abortion bill, and her compelling up-by-the-bootstraps personal story. In those heady days, there was a sense that the party had finally found a candidate who could take advantage of the state’s shifting demographics to fundamentally alter the dynamics of electoral politics in Texas, where no Democrat has won statewide in two decades.

Team Davis rejects any sense of gloom, of course—and it’s certainly not pulling any punches on Abbott, the state’s attorney general.

The ad was released Friday and runs a full minute. Described as a “significant buy,” it slams Abbott for voting as a state judge not to hold vacuum-maker Kirby responsible for failing to conduct a background check on a salesman who raped a young mother in her home. The salesman was already a convicted child predator.

The ad continues an effort to paint Abbott as an insider who doesn’t care about ordinary Texans, and as bad for women. But it may also be a sign of the campaign’s weak position: Leading off with a negative ad is a risky and unusual strategy that could alienate voters before they’ve given Davis a chance. That the campaign is trying it suggests it sees no choice but to go after Abbott as soon as possible. By contrast, the attorney general opened Friday with a gauzy spot in English and Spanish featuring his mother-in-law, a Mexican-American.   

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find even one Texas Democrat who honestly thinks she has a chance at victory … Maybe there’s one out there, but I think they’d be delusional.”
Rice University political science department chairman

Abbott, an unbending conservative, makes the current Texas governor, Rick Perry, look moderate. As attorney general, Abbott has sued President Obama 30 times and counting, and on the campaign trail he embraced the rocker Ted Nugent not long after Nugent called Obama a “sub-human mongrel.”

Davis may be making up a bit of ground in the polls. A Rasmussen poll released Friday showed her trailing by eight points, down from 12 in March. But most recent surveys have shown a larger gap, and a CBS poll this month put it at 16. That suggests Davis, 51, has made little headway in shifting public opinion since the campaign began, despite mounting a series of slashing attacks on her opponent. In fact, Abbott’s approval ratings have risen in that time, while Davis’s have stayed largely where they are.

It didn’t help that in June, Davis replaced her campaign manager, Karin Johanson, a nationally known Democratic operative who had been unveiled earlier this year to much fanfare. Chris Turner, a veteran of Texas politics but is little-known beyond the state, took over the role.

The Davis campaign insists that poll numbers aren’t likely to move much without voters being exposed to TV ads, which is only happening now.

“The campaign is just beginning in earnest,” said Zac Petkanas, a campaign spokesman. “As this race draws closer, the contrast will be made, and voters will learn about the choice they have between these two candidates. That will get us to where we need to be, which is one more vote than the other guy.”

They also say those polls don’t reflect what the electorate will actually look like in November, because the Davis campaign, working with allies like Battleground Texas, has conducted an unprecedented grassroots operation to register and mobilize new voters. The campaign says it’s already made 2 million phone calls, and recruited 24,000 active volunteers.

“She has had the guts to invest a lot of money early in these less sexy, nuts and bolt activities, so that when her hard messaging drawing the contrast between herself and Greg Abbott goes up, the structure is in place to deliver her vote,” Matt Angle, a Texas Democratic consultant and key Davis strategist, said via email.

Many of the national groups backing Davis don’t seem to have lost faith. EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice women, says it’s raised and contributed over $750,000 to the campaign, and expects to give more. And Planned Parenthood has said it plans to spend $3 million to turn out Democrats in Texas this fall.

Davis has largely kept pace with Abbott on the fundraising front. Between late February and mid July, both candidates hauled in just over $11 million—though the Republican had a massive $23 million advantage in cash on hand.

But even with a pumped-up grassroots, powerful allies, and impressive fundraising, it’s a steep climb. Henson, of UT Austin, said in some ways Texas Democrats, weak and demoralized after years of struggling, lost the race well before Davis even announced by failing to get organized around a potential candidate years earlier.

“When Wendy Davis comes out of the filibuster last summer, and everyone goes, ‘aha we’ve got a candidate!’—well, it’s too late,” Henson said. “Because she’s just coming out of what was essentially a vacuum.”

That might have been different if the campaign had succeeded in negatively defining Abbott—largely a blank slate to most Texans—at the outset of the race, Henson said. But that was hard to do without going up on the air far earlier, which wasn’t in the cards given Texas’s sky-high ad prices. 

At this point, both Jones and Henson said, the realistic goal for Davis is to significantly improve on the performance of the last Democrat to run for Texas governor, Bill White, who lost to Perry by 12 points in 2010. That might set her up for a re-run in 2018—and would boost confidence among  state and national Democratic party leadership that in the long run, the Lone Star State can be made competitive.

“She is going to lose – unless Abbott pulled a Todd Akin and threw a couple of other errors in there,” said Jones, referring to the 2012 Missouri GOP senate candidate who spoke of “legitimate rape”. “But if she runs a really solid campaign, she might be able to lose by six or seven points, and that itself would be a political victory—albeit not an electoral victory.”

Up With Steve Kornacki, 6/29/14, 10:32 AM ET

Can Wendy Davis overcome the odds?

It’s been one year since Wendy Davis laced up her running shoes and filibustered for 11 hours on the floor of the Texas Senate. Krystal Ball and Jim Moore discuss Davis’ chances of overcoming a 12 point deficit to become governor of Texas.

Greg Abbott, Rick Perry, Texas and Wendy Davis

Wendy Davis is in it to win it. But does she still have a shot?

Updated