Wendy Davis became a folk hero to many liberals (and women) after she stared down Republicans in an all-day filibuster against one of the toughest anti-abortion bills in the country.
Her challenge now: convince voters in Texas that her candidacy for governor–which she made official Thursday–is about more than abortion. And that she can win.
“Thirty-two years ago, I walked across this stage, the granddaughter of farmers from Muleshoe, Texas, who could only afford to rent the land they farmed,” Davis said in Haltom City, Texas. She had walked across that stage to receive her high school diploma.
“I had no real idea what the future looked like. Today, I see it pretty clearly. It’s looking right at me. It’s you. It’s all of you. And all of you deserve to have your voices heard. Because our future is brightest when it’s lit by everyone’s star. And that’s why, today, I’m proud to announce my candidacy to be the 48th governor of this great state.”
Davis has proven a formidable fundraiser. She has a national profile. And she’s mobilized Democrats in Texas and across the country to her candidacy.
But she still starts at a disadvantage in the solidly red Lone Star State. It’s been over two decades since Texas last elected a Democratic governor and nearly as many since Democrats won any statewide office. President Obama lost Texas to Mitt Romney by 16 points. The last gubernatorial candidate touted to have a chance to beat Rick Perry was a moderate Democrat, former Houston Mayor Bill White. He lost in 2010 by 13 points.
Davis is expected to face off against Republican Greg Abbott, currently Texas Attorney General.
Those close to Davis acknowledge she begins as the underdog, but point out that’s never stopped her before. She had difficult fights in her two state Senate races in a district described as GOP-leaning. She fought against a partisan gerrymander of her district in 2011, and won re-election after she was targeted by the GOP in 2012.
Her impressive political resume is more than matched by her compelling personal story. She was a single teen mother who grew up in a Texas trailer park, worked her way through community college and eventually Texas Christian University, and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and return to Fort Worth to practice law.
“I’m not sharing my story because it’s unique or special,” she said in her campaign announcement. “I’m sharing it precisely because it isn’t. My whole life, I’ve seen Texans create better tomorrows for themselves and their families. But I worry that the journey I made is a lot harder and steeper for young Texans today. College is more expensive, the choices for working families are fewer, and far too many young people yearning to continue their own educational journeys are turned down for grants and loans because state leaders have turned a deaf ear to them and blocked their paths.”
Former Texas Democratic Rep. Martin Frost said just getting a strong Democrat on the ballot was a win for his party, but didn’t downplay the challenges she faces.
“Eventually we’re going to win a statewide race in Texas, and if you don’t run you can’t win,” said Frost. “It won’t be easy. I’m going to help her all I can, and lightning could strike here.”
Texas Democratic strategist Matt Angle, now an adviser to Davis, said he had taken notice of her long before she rose to national prominence, back during her first campaign for the legislature when she was a Fort Worth City Councilwoman, a non-partisan office.
“When people want to complain and start griping about each other, Wendy has a good quality of helping people find a way toward a solution,” said Angle. “Just her positive demeanor is inspiring to people.”
“The choice issue has never been a central issue to her career,” he said. “She’s focused much more closely on education issues, job creation.”
Since June, Davis hasn’t shied away from the spotlight, but she’s also looked to broaden her issue spectrum on the national stage too. At a speech at the National Press Club in D.C. she talked about her work on education issues and how her first filibuster was connected to that, not abortion. This past weekend at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin she sought to broaden her image beyond the stereotype of being a single issue candidate, focusing on other issues including the economy and health care. At her campaign kickoff, she never mentioned abortion.
Still, since Davis rose to political fame on the abortion issue, Republicans are eager to use that issue to take her down. Texas Right to Life was already up with radio ads in both English and Spanish on Thursday, calling her an “abortion zealot.” While Democrats may see a growing Hispanic electorate as their path to eventual victory in the changing state, Republicans point out that many Latinos are socially conservative, religious voters who are opposed to abortion.
“Most of the people encouraging her to run probably have no idea how hard it is for a Democrat to win statewide in Texas right now. The normal metrics just don’t apply in Texas,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “Her supporters talk about how she raised $1 million in the days after her filibuster. Well that’s couch cushion money for statewide race in Texas.”
It’s still more than 13 months from Election Day, but some things may be out of her hands, even if she runs a flawless race.
“In order to win, she probably needs to run a perfect campaign, have Abbott implode, and need at least one credible third party candidate in the race to lower her threshold for victory below 50%,” said Gonzales.
Republicans echo Gonzales’ assessment, and maintain they aren’t worried in a state that hasn’t been a realistic target for Democrats in years.
In a briefing with NBC on Wednesday, Republican Governors Association Chair Bobby Jindal said he wasn’t “concerned about Greg Abbott’s ability to win in Texas,” calling his victory a “a pretty safe bet” and saying he didn’t think the party would have to spend a lot of money on the race.
Abbott isn’t as well-known as Rick Perry, but that means he doesn’t carry some of Perry’s political baggage. And Abbott has a strong personal narrative as well. At 26, in a freak accident, he was hit by a tree while running and partially paralyzed. He’s been a favorite of conservatives, and joined other Republican attorneys general in suing against Obamacare and other environmental regulations.
Republicans have one word they’ll keep repeating to characterize Davis: liberal.
“Senator Davis has a very thin record of legislative accomplishment, is a liberal demagogue in the Texas Capitol and is unlikely to shake the extremist abortion position that catapulted her to media and activist fame over the summer,” said Republican strategist Ray Sullivan, a longtime Perry aide and former spokesman.
“She is an unabashed liberal in a conservative state,” Sullivan said. “She is not well-known and can be further defined.”
That’s just what Abbott’s campaign plans to do. With $25 million, they can buy ads to portray Davis as they want. “We have the fundraising capability to shape the race on our terms,” said a source close to Abbott.
“I do believe she is a strong candidate,” said the same Democratic source, “I just don’t know if demographics work for any Democrat in Texas.”