FORT WORTH — Under the bright lights of a Tarrant County College lecture hall last week, state Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic incumbent, and her Republican challenger, state Rep. Mark Shelton, traded sharp jabs and bitter accusations — she is corrupt, Shelton alleged; he is an ideologue, Davis asserted — and held the rapt attention of their audience.
But interest in the Senate District 10 race extends far beyond the candidates’ debate performances: Statewide, all eyes are on the matchup, and not just because it is expected to be a nail-biter.
For Democrats, the implications are huge: Davis, a spirited, charismatic legislator and Fort Worth lawyer, is a rising star, and party leaders are pinning their hopes on her for a future run at statewide office. That excitement would surely subside if she were unseated.
“I can’t overemphasize the significance,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. “Particularly if she’s re-elected to a four-year seat, she’s someone that I think would be ready to jump into a statewide candidate for governor, for U.S. Senate, lieutenant governor.”
For Republicans, electing Shelton, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and reliably conservative two-term state representative, would get them within one vote of the two-thirds majority they need to render Democrats virtually obsolete in the Senate. A bonus would be knocking Davis off the pedestal her supporters hoisted her onto at the end of the last legislative term, when her Senate filibuster over multibillion-dollar cuts to public education sent lawmakers into a special session.
Winning back the district is such a priority for Republicans “because it’s a conservative area,” said Jordan Berry, a Republican political consultant who is not working with the Shelton campaign.
“Rick Perry won that district in 2010, and John McCain won that district in 2008,” Berry said. “I don’t think a Democrat will be holding that seat come early January.”
The Tarrant County district provides little certainty for either candidate. Four years ago, Davis, a well-known veteran of the nonpartisan Fort Worth City Council, unseated Sen. Kim Brimer, a Republican, with 49.9 percent of the vote to Brimer’s 47.5 percent. Davis is running for re-election in that majority-minority district after federal courts threw out redistricting maps Republican lawmakers drew last year that would have made the district very difficult — if not impossible — for her to win.
But the district’s voters traditionally lean right. In the last decade, no Democratic State Senate candidate has received more than 50 percent of the vote there. In the 2008 presidential election, McCain got 52 percent of the vote there, to Barack Obama’s 47 percent. In the race between Davis and Brimer, there was one more factor: A Libertarian candidate who won 2.6 percent of the vote. There is no Libertarian in the race between Davis and Shelton.
“It’s a presidential year in a Republican state, and she’s a Democrat,” Bill Miller, an Austin-based lobbyist, said of Davis. “There’s no wind at her back — everything’s a headwind for her.”
Even with a headwind, Davis has a lot going for her candidacy.
She has a compelling story: She is a twice-divorced single mother who delivered her first daughter as a teenager, was the first in her family to attend college and worked her way from junior college and a Tarrant County trailer park to Harvard Law School. Her campaign has had a fundraising head start; there was no doubt Republicans would put up a challenger, and as of early this month she had nearly three times as much cash on hand as Shelton, whom she calls “part of the problem, part of following hook, line and sinker a very narrow special interest-focused agenda that isn’t reflective of what families in our community want.”
Her opponent, whose story may be less striking, has had an unimpeachable career. The married father of four works at a children’s hospital treating patients with HIV and other serious ailments. His campaign has painted Davis as a self-dealing attorney who has used her political office to benefit her paying clients — allegations that even Democratic consultants acknowledge have been troubling. (Davis calls them “lies” and a “diversion tactic.”) Shelton said that if voters “want someone flashy to stomp their feet, obstruct things and spend all their time in front of TV cameras, they can vote for Wendy.”
While the candidates are all too happy to spar with each other, in the district they are running campaigns of nonalienation, taking careful steps to make themselves attractive to on-the-fence voters.
Shelton is taking aim at moderate fiscal conservatives. His talking points include balancing the budget, keeping taxes low and removing obstacles to businesses so the economy will improve. On social issues, he is an entrenched Republican, but he is not making waves about his opposition to abortion or his support for voter ID while campaigning in the diverse, blue-collar district. “The biggest priorities right now are the financial ones,” he said.
Davis, meanwhile, is revolting against the “liberal” brand, calling herself a “centrist Democrat” and saying her work with the Fort Worth business community and her openness to seeking nonpartisan solutions to community problems take her out of the traditional party framework. Her efforts on issues like school finance and women’s health — which contributed to an independent analysis that portrayed her as one of the Legislature’s most liberal members — would look moderate if not for the ever-reddening of the Legislature, she said.
“People are so weary of partisan bickering and unfair attacks and misleading characterizations,” Davis said. “They want us to say, ‘Here’s who I am, what I hope to do for you.’”
The big unknown is whether that strategy will work in November. Bryan Eppstein, a Fort Worth-based political consultant who is working for the Shelton campaign, said his internal polling shows Mitt Romney leading President Obama by 14 points in the district. While he would not release specific numbers for the Davis-Shelton matchup, he said, “We’re ahead and it’s going to be a close race.”
Davis said her campaign would not reveal its polling numbers either, but that they look good for her candidacy. “They reflect that my record is one that is reflective of the issues that are of concern in this district,” she said.
And while Davis said she is squarely focused on her current race, she also has not closed the door on a statewide run, regardless of the outcome in November.
“I haven’t made any decisions on that,” she said. “I do think there are opportunities for centrists in Texas, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans.”