The last time Democrats won statewide office in Texas, Bill Clinton was in the White House, John Paul II headed the Vatican and Twitter was the chirping noise birds made. Breaking that losing streak, now almost 20 years in the making, won’t be easy.
But newly famous state Sen. Wendy Davis, who is sounding more and more like a Democratic candidate for Texas governor, is giving party leaders hope of revival next year in the only reliably Republican state where minorities are in the majority. Davis is expected to reveal her future political plans by Labor Day.
“On a scale of one to ten, the enthusiasm level is about a 42,” said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. “People are just really excited about her candidacy to a point I’ve never seen before. I’ve been involved in this business for 30 years, and I’ve never seen Democrats so passionate about a candidate that has not announced for governor or any other position.”
In remarks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Davis said she’d either run for governor or try to hold on to her hard-fought state Senate seat, but ruled out running for the U.S. Senate, lieutenant governor or any other statewide office. Some allies want her to run for re-election in the hopes that Democrats will continue to have a voice, albeit muted, in the upper chamber. Others, like Hinojosa, say a Davis gubernatorial bid would help revitalize the bedgraggled party and help candidates in competitive legislative and congressional races by boosting turnout.
Davis became an instant celebrity — and a social media phenomenon — after waging a filibuster over a restrictive abortion bill in late June. She pulled in nearly $1 million in campaign contributions at the end of the first special session, thanks in large part to the filibuster, and saw her followers on Twitter rise from 1,200 beforehand to more than 140,000 today.
Increasingly, she has used her newfound fame to talk about issues that go beyond the concerns of a single Senate district in North Texas. On Monday, she seemed to take that a step further by laying out a potential rationale for running for the state’s top elected office and making it clear that she's thought quite a lot about it.
After saying voters wanted “a change from the very fractured and very partisan leadership” in state government, Davis was asked what it would take to make Texas hospitable to Democratic candidates after so many successive losses.
“First of all, people have to run,” she said.
That sounds obvious, but in Texas Democratic politics it’s a point worth making. In recent years Democrats have fielded no one — or no-name candidates — for major statewide offices. This year, even with Gov. Rick Perry retiring and open-seat opportunities emerging in several statewide offices that have been occupied for years, the list of even remotely possible statewide Democratic candidates is short. At this point, Davis is the only well-known Democrat who is openly flirting with running for statewide office.
Indeed, the number of Texas Democrats to whom the label “well-known” can be affixed would probably fit on one hand.
And none of them — as in zero — have yet emerged as potential candidates for those down-ballot slots, including for the powerful posts of lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller.
The sitting attorney general, Republican Greg Abbott, is now the heavy favorite to succeed Perry, and he will be hard to beat. Davis, in what could be an opening salvo in a potential contest against him, singled him out in her remarks on Monday.
“We have a very, very low voter participation in Texas and we certainly know that our current attorney general has done everything he can, actually, to depress that as much as possible,” Davis said.
Though a battle over abortion propelled her to stardom, Davis said voters’ concerns go much deeper — to bread and butter issues like education, health care and jobs.
“It isn’t just about reproductive rights,’’ she said during her speech in Washington. “It’s about the vacuum of leadership that’s happening there, it’s about the failure of our state leaders who are currently in power to really be connected to what Texas families want to see.”
Abbott’s campaign declined to comment.
Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri said the ruling party is taking a potential challenge from Davis as a real threat and has been urging candidates to treat Texas “already as a competitive state.”
But Munisteri said Texas remains a “center right state” whose voters won’t easily be convinced to switch horses at a time when the state leads the nation in job creation. Munisteri also laid out what’s sure to be the party’s leading attack line if Davis becomes the Democratic nominee for governor.
“I think her greatest vulnerability is, when people take a look at her voting record and see she is one of the most liberal senators in the state, that’s going to hurt her,” Munisteri said.
The lack of an incumbent in the governor’s race — for the first time since Ann Richards ran and won in 1990 — presents both opportunities and challenges for Davis.
Abbott isn’t nearly as well known as Perry. A July poll from Public Policy Polling, conducted before Perry said he wouldn't seek re-election, had the sitting governor leading Davis 53-39, a 14-point spread. A hypothetical matchup between Abbott and Davis was much closer, with the Republican attorney general leading by only eight points, or 48-40.
But Abbott, despite being elected to three terms as attorney general, is still not that well known, said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. With the largest warchest in Texas politics and anointment from the GOP establishment, Abbott will dramatically increase his visibility by the time November 2014 rolls around, and doesn’t have any major vulnerabilities at this point, Henson said.
“Unexpected things can happen, just ask Clayton Williams,” said Henson, referring to the Midland Republican who blew a big lead against Richards in 1990. “It is hard to imagine Wendy Davis overcoming the patterns in partisan identification and electoral performance in one cycle.”