By any measure, Wendy Davis is a star. The Texas state senator has more Twitter followers than any politician in California, the most famous pink running shoes in the world, and a strategist who says she is “looking very closely” at running for governor. But even for a white-hot prospect like Davis, charting a path to the governor’s mansion is an exercise in hope.
Celebrity or not, any Democratic gubernatorial nominee starts out in a big hole. Democratic pollster Stefan Hankin recently tamped down Democratic expectations of turning Texas blue, predicting that shifts in the electorate will likely earn a Democratic nominee only 41.6% in 2014.
Texas elections don’t require a majority to win, and Libertarian and Green Party candidates usually siphon off a couple percentage points, which is how Ann Richards won the governorship in 1990 with 49% of the vote. But as an intellectual exercise, figuring out whether Davis can win requires charting a path from the 41.6% baseline to 50%, a tall order.
Nationally, talk of turning Texas into a battleground state involves strategizing about how best to wake up the sleeping giant of Hispanic voters. Hankin predicts whites will make up 65% of the 2014 vote. On average, Texas Democrats get only 26% of white voters, which is why most objective analysts make sad noises when asked about Davis’ chances.
But Davis has been running successfully in a swing district in Ft. Worth where you have to win over white voters. It’s not apples-to-apples, but comparing her overall vote share to President Barack Obama’s in her district roughly approximates how she did with that voting block. In 2012, she received 51.11% of that vote, 5.71% better than Obama. Add that to the Democratic baseline, and Davis is at 47.31%.
Usually the national political environment hurts Texas Democrats. Four year ago, Gov. Rick Perry effectively won re-election by nationalizing the race when he played footsie with secession at a Tea Party rally.
Now Republicans can’t seem to get out of their own way on immigration, hurting their standing with Texas Hispanics, especially after Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz voted against immigration reform. A 2012 poll found that 58% of Texas Hispanics know someone living in this country illegally, and they overwhelmingly supported Obama’s immigration position over Mitt Romney’s calls for self-deportation.
Usually Texas Republicans get 37% of the Hispanic vote. According to a pre-election poll by Latino Decisions, only 27% of Texas Hispanics voted Republican in 2012.
If Davis can muster 73% of the Hispanic vote in 2014, she would be in Richard's territory, within reach on Election Day. Richard’s main opponent in 1990 compared rape to bad weather. “If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it,” he said to reporters.
Davis may not get to run against a Republican who makes rape jokes, but if she’s lucky she’ll get to run against a man no Democrat has ever defeated—Gov. Rick Perry. In January—before Davis’ extraordinary filibuster—Public Policy Polling had Perry leading Davis 47%-41%, putting the then-unknown senator at the baseline.
But if Perry signs the anti-abortion bill that Davis fought so hard and so publicly against, it may be the best shot the Democrats have had in Texas in two decades.