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The Wendy Davis braintrust

An impressive mix of national campaign pros, long-time Texas advisers, and powerful organizations suggests that for the governor's race, she's in it to win it.
Wendy Davis
Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, speaks to supporters at a rally on Oct. 3, 2013, in Haltom City, Texas, where she declared her candidacy for Texas governor.

Talk to Wendy Davis’ political team, and you’ll learn one thing pretty quickly: It’s the candidate who’s in the driver’s seat. “Wendy comes to me with what she wants to do and says, ‘how do we do it?’” J.D. Angle, Davis’ closest political adviser, told MSNBC. “She doesn’t come to me with, ‘what should we do?’”

Still, it’s hard to succeed in high-level politics—especially as a Democrat in deep-red Texas—without some smart strategists on your side. As her campaign for governor ramps up, Davis is assembling a mix of nationally-known Democratic campaign pros, powerful progressive groups, and long-time Texas advisers—including a pair of brothers who have played crucial behind-the-scenes roles in the senator’s rise.

Here’s the brain-trust behind Wendy Davis:

The Inner Circle:

J.D. Angle: A Texas Democratic political consultant, Angle, 47, may deserve more credit for Davis’ success in recent years than anyone except the senator herself. Davis asked Angle to crunch the numbers before making the two biggest decisions of her political career so far—whether to run for a state Senate seat in 2008 that few people thought was winnable for Democrats, and then whether to go after the governorship. Angle said it was thanks to him that Davis kept supporters waiting for several months this year before confirming that she’d run. “I’m probably to blame for that, because I wanted to make certain that we were doing things just right,” he said.

With the race underway, Angle’s now working out of the Davis campaign HQ, where he’ll provide high-level strategic direction and manage relationships among the varied mix of people and organizations on board. “The senator often refers to me as her rainy cloud,” Angle said. “I’m the careful one.”

Matt Angle: In 2006, a low point for Texas Democrats, Matt Angle, J.D.’s older brother, founded the Lone Star Project to identify and support Democratic candidates for winnable local and state legislative races. Davis’ 2008 state Senate run was a key early success, and he worked with J.D. again this year to assess Davis’ prospects in a run for governor. A former chief of staff to Martin Frost, a moderate Texas Democratic congressman, Matt Angle, 55, told MSNBC he’ll continue to offer strategic help from Washington on an unpaid basis.

There’s been talk that Davis’ run could help Democrats even if she loses, by strengthening the party for future battles. But Matt Angle said he wouldn’t have backed the effort if he and J.D. didn’t see a clear path to victory. “One of the biggest challenges is to get past the idea of, gosh, Wendy Davis running really sets us up and makes us  competitive,” he said. “That’s not why you run. You run to win.”

Lisa Turner: The state director of the Lone Star Project, Turner is another former Frost staffer and the wife of a Democratic state legislator. She’ll serve as a key on-the-ground adviser to Davis, with whom she’s personally close.

The Campaign:

Karin Johanson: One sign that Davis is in it to win it came last week when her campaign announced the hiring of the widely respected Johanson as campaign manager. A veteran Democratic operative, Johanson ran the successful 2012 U.S. Senate bid of Tammy Baldwin, a staunch Wisconsin progressive who became the Senate’s first openly gay member. And as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, she was a key architect of the party’s 2006 takeover of the U.S. House.

Terrysa Guerra: Deputy campaign manager Guerra, 32, ran Davis’ 2012 state Senate re-election campaign—a race in which Republicans spent millions and deployed Gov. Rick Perry in a failed effort to unseat her. Guerra, who stands barely five feet tall in her signature cowboy boots, has managed several other successful state legislative races in Texas. “She has a tremendous self-confidence,” Davis told the Texas Tribune of Guerra earlier this year.

Elizabeth Connor: As the campaign’s finance director, it’s Connor’s job to make sure Davis, unlike some past Texas Democrats, has enough money to truly compete statewide—which means raising a cool $45-50 million. Connor played the same role in Davis’ 2012 re-election—the most expensive state Senate race in Texas last year—and for U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards and Houston mayor Annise Parker. She’ll be backed by a team of new Washington-based fundraising pros, including Julianna Smoot, a former Obama White House social secretary who’ll serve as a senior financial adviser.

Bo Delp: A West Texas native, Delp, 27, is the campaign’s communications director and a former press secretary for the Obama administration’s EPA. He’ll get help from Hector Nieto, a former Texas Democratic party spokesman and another Texas-based employee of the Lone Star Project, who’s been assigned to help the press operation.

The Consultants and Advisers:

The campaign’s polling will be handled by Washington-based Anna Greenberg, whose list of big-name Democratic clients includes Rahm Emanuel and Amy Klobuchar. Anna Bennett, a veteran Texas pollster who in 1990 helped elect Ann Richards as governor and who ran polling for Davis’ 2012 senate re-election, will offer advice. Peter Cari will serve as a media consultant. A former political director of the DCCC and a long-time associate of the Angles, Cari’s Washigton-based firm specializes in electing Democrats in conservative areas. And Ed Peavy, another experienced Democratic hand, will handle direct mail.

Since she was on the Fort Worth city council mulling a run for the state Senate, Davis has relied on a circle of local Democratic political allies for informal advice. That list includes Marc Veasey, now a congressman from the Forth Worth area, Roy Brooks, a local county commissioner, and Sergio De Leon, a Justice of the Peace. All three will continue to act as key sounding boards.

The Organizations:

The Lonestar Project: Beyond Matt Angle’s role, and operatives like Turner and Nieto who the group has dispatched to help Davis, the Lone Star Project looks likely to take the lead in going after Greg Abbott, Davis’ probable Republican opponent. Last week alone, it issued reports attacking Abbott’s economic plan and his support for voter ID.

Battleground Texas: Created this year by veterans of President Obama’s re-election campaign, Battleground Texas aims to make the state competitive for Democrats going forward. For 2014, the group looks likely to operate as an adjunct field arm of the Davis campaign, mobilizing an army of volunteers to conduct the kind of grassroots organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts that gave the president an edge in 2012. Its executive director, Jenn Brown, ran Obama’s much-praised Ohio field operation last year.

Annie’s List: Texas’s answer to EMILY’s List has supported Davis since day one. “She has said on many occasions she would not have won had it not been for the help we provided to her,” Executive Director Grace Ann Garcia told MSNBC, “not only with early funding but with strategic campaign advice.” The group also donated $50,000 to the state senator in June, and now Davis will be its first statewide candidate endorsement. Annie’s List will also partner with Battleground Texas to train 20 “campaign school graduates” to serve in field, finance and press roles on Davis’ campaign.

EMILY's List: The national organization devoted to training and supporting pro-choice Democratic female candidates has endorsed Davis. It's also lent its press secretary, Marcy Stech, for Davis' campaign rollout and the National Press Club event. Its donor base is fired up for the candidate. 

Planned Parenthood: “We’re all in with Wendy Davis,” said Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards. Richards is a Texan and the daughter of the state's last Democratic governor, Ann Richards, Cecile Richards was in the statehouse for Davis’ filibuster. (She famously read a text message from Davis to a crowd of supporters telling them the filibuster had worked–for the time being). Davis also joined Planned Parenthood’s bus tour and rally in March.

In Texas, Planned Parenthood hopes to replicate its strategy in Virginia, where its PAC has mobilized volunteers and spent a million dollars on a TV, radio and web campaign educating voters on Ken Cuccinnelli’s stances on birth control and abortion. “We will make sure that voters know the stark difference between Wendy Davis, who will protect women's health, and Greg Abbott, who supports cutting women off from cancer screenings and shutting down health centers,” Richards told MSNBC.