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Analysis: For Davis, the Top Political Race Might Not Be for the Top Office

The price of political celebrity is often the attention it draws from the opposition. State Sen. Wendy Davis raised her profile with a filibuster, and now must decide whether to fight the GOP at home or on a bigger stage.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, at an abortion rights rally on July 9, 2013.

Democrats are coming up with all sorts of reasons for state Sen. Wendy Davis to run for governor, but that would be the toughest race on the ballot.

Not that there is an easy race for a Democrat on the statewide ballot. But as Davis told Texas Monthly, “Somebody has to step up” on the Democratic side.

She is the “it” politician among Texas Democrats right now, which is why her partisans are allowing themselves to dream about 2014 the way West Texans dream of rain.

The problem with the top race has a name: Greg Abbott.

Abbott, the Republican attorney general, is his party’s favored candidate at the moment, in spite of the presence of Tom Pauken, a former state party chairman, in the race. Abbott has scads of money in his political account and seems, for now, to be in the spot Arthur was in when he pulled Excalibur out of that legendary boulder: everything is in place but the crown.

That has some insiders talking about the next race down — the one for lieutenant governor. Instead of taking on Abbott, the best-financed Republican candidate in years, Davis, D-Fort Worth, would face one of a quartet of Republican candidates for lieutenant governor, a group that includes a politically vulnerable incumbent and a conservative state senator who might give moderate Republican voters pause.

That race does not have a pre-emptive favorite, and two of the candidates could be attractive foils for Davis. David Dewhurst, the incumbent, has been looking for his mojo since his loss a year ago to Ted Cruz in a Republican runoff for the U.S. Senate. One of his three challengers is that conservative senator, Dan Patrick, R-Houston.

Back up a step. Davis’s current celebrity is based on last month’s filibuster of legislation to tighten restrictions on abortion. She helped temporarily kill the bill — later passed in another special session — and she did it in front of a large audience that hadn’t seen a Democratic win in Texas in a long time.

Dewhurst and Patrick were on the other side. Running against one or the other would make it easy to remind voters of that battle. Davis is a social liberal. Patrick is a social conservative. So is Dewhurst, though his last race raised some doubts among some of his party’s voters.

The other two Republicans in the race — Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples — are former senators. They weren’t on hand for the filibuster, so that’s not in the mix. And in some ways, either might be a tougher opponent in November if they can get out of that crowded primary.

Republican voters rejected Dewhurst a year ago. Patrick has never run statewide. But in early polling, those two lead the field, unless you count a large undecided vote that looks like a result from a race without an incumbent in it.

However the Republicans decide, the contrast between general election candidates would be simple to make.

The contrast would be simple to make in almost every race on the ballot. But a statewide race at or near the top of the ticket — even a losing one — could build a foundation for future campaigns.

And if Abbott doesn’t have a tough challenge, voters looking for a debate will go to the next race.

It’s not like Davis has a cakewalk waiting at home. If she runs for re-election to her Tarrant County Senate seat in 2014, she’ll face a headwind.

Her district was drawn to favor a Republican candidate. But she defied that in 2008 and 2012, years when the ballot was headed by a Democratic presidential candidate who helped draw her voters to the polls. Her team is surprisingly confident she will do it again next year, if that’s the route she goes.

The headwind could be stronger now, however, and it is the candidate’s fault. Davis got the attention of the Republicans, too, and they will come after her whether she runs for re-election or for something higher on the ballot.

The lieutenant governor’s race might be the one to run. It will almost certainly go to the Republicans, but “almost” is a big word in politics. Losing a re-election bid could put her out of circulation.

Might as well go big.

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Politics 2014 elections Dan Patrick David Dewhurst Greg Abbott Wendy Davis