Legendary Texas Longhorn football coach Darrell Royal famously said you should “dance with who brung ya.”
Democrat Wendy Davis appears to be taking that advice as she builds her campaign for Texas governor.
The Fort Worth state senator is relying on a tight-knit group of people who have fought in the political trenches together, often against the odds, and often in territory seen as inhospitable to Democrats. So it’s no surprise to her close allies that the Davis for Governor campaign will not be based in liberal Austin but rather in Fort Worth, which sits in the most Republican-leaning Texas county that has more than a million people in it.
“Austin is such a bubble,” said one Davis adviser who is helping lay the groundwork for the launch of her campaign on Thursday. “You’ve got to get out to know what people are really thinking, really saying.”
Longtime Davis campaign guru J.D. Angle, 47, is expected to take the reins of her gubernatorial campaign as the top paid consultant, according to people familiar with the planning. Angle, a voter contact and targeting expert who founded Angle Mastagni Mathews Political Strategies, LLC, in 2009, has been a Davis consultant since her days on the Fort Worth City Council, and he led her to two victories in a state Senate district that tilts Republican. A former vice president of the Tyson Organization, a Fort Worth-based consulting firm, Angle has worked for candidates in at least 47 U.S. states — and has consulted for every Democratic presidential campaign since 1996.
Angle’s older brother is Matt Angle, one of the state’s most prominent Democratic strategists. Matt Angle, 55, is expected to become a top Davis adviser in a gubernatorial run, but he will retain his role as director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratically aligned political action committee that harshly criticizes the state's GOP leaders.
Matt Angle cut his political teeth in the office of former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, a Fort Worth Democrat, when he was still in college. He rose to become Frost’s chief of staff, led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the late 1990s and headed up the Texas Democratic Trust, a group that funded coordinated campaign efforts for Democrats but failed to reach its goal of scoring a statewide win in 2010, which turned out to be a terrible year for the party nationwide.
“He’s a great talent scout,” said Frost, who lost his seat in Congress after the 2003 redistricting effort led by former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. “He identified and recruited talented young people to work for me.”
Another alum from the Frost political family, Democratic consultant Lisa Turner, will also be providing a major assist to Davis as state director of the Lone Star Project. The group has been a huge cheerleader for Davis and a thorn in the side of Attorney General Greg Abbott, the perceived front-runner in the Republican race for governor. Turner is the wife of state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie.
It’s not clear yet who Davis will name as campaign manager for her uphill race. Democratic insiders say she is looking for a nationally known strategist to take the job, so that’s still a big unknown ahead of the rollout. Davis is expected to formally announce for governor on Thursday in Haltom City, in the coliseum where she received her high school degree in 1981. Democrats, convinced they have their best shot in years at winning statewide office for the first time since 1994, are staging watch parties all across the state.
Davis’ Tarrant County-centric team will include Terrysa Guerra, 32, the campaign manager for Davis’ successful 2012 race. Guerra is the former campaign manager for state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who won a tough primary race earlier this year to fill the seat vacated by the late Sen. Mario Gallegos. Guerra also helped Chris Turner get elected to the state House in 2008 and 2012. She is expected to become a senior strategist in Davis’ campaign for governor.
A big test facing Davis right off the bat will be money — and whether she can raise enough of it to be competitive with Abbott should he become the nominee, as most people expect. For that task, she will be counting in large part on Elizabeth Connor, who raised money for Davis' 2012 bid and previously served in those same roles for U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, and Houston Mayor Annise Parker.
Connor has her work cut out for her: At last count, in the summer, Abbott had more than $20 million, while Davis reported a little more than $1 million in the bank. The latest reports don’t reflect recent and fairly frenetic fundraising activity, however, and the notoriety Davis achieved by her filibuster of a restrictive abortion measure in June has helped her raise lots of money from nontraditional sources and out-of-state contributors.
Longtime Democratic media man Hector Nieto, a former state party spokesman and state director of Obama for America during the president’s 2012 re-election campaign, has been serving informally as spokesman for the would-be Davis campaign for governor. But once she transitions into a real candidate, the communications job is expected to fall to Robert “Bo” Delp, former assistant press secretary for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Delp, 27, is a Texas native — and has the accent to prove it. He was born in Lubbock, went to elementary school in Fort Worth and graduated from Quitman High School near Mineola in deep East Texas. He's also a graduate of Texas Tech University.
Matt Angle, while not confirming the news that will have to wait until Thursday, said one might expect a Davis campaign for governor to be filled with a mix of trusted old hands and fresh blood. He also said she wouldn’t launch a race she didn’t think she could win.
“Wendy understands she’s gonna need the help of the people who have been with her — and she needs more help than that,” Matt Angle said. “Obviously, if she decides to run for governor, no one is under the illusion that it’s the same thing as running a Senate race."