HALTOM CITY — State Sen. Wendy Davis, standing on the stage where she got her high school diploma more than 30 years ago, finally announced Thursday what has been anticipated, telegraphed and talked about for weeks: She is running for Texas governor.
Davis promised to be an advocate for those who feel they no longer have a voice in the halls of the Texas Capitol, to fight for more education dollars and to take on Republicans leaders who she said are listening to their campaign contributors instead of average Texans.
"In Austin today, our current leadership thinks promises are just something you make to the people who write big checks," she said. "But the promise I’m talking about is bigger than that. It’s the promise of a better tomorrow for everyone. Texas deserves a leader who will protect this promise. Texas deserves a leader who will keep it."
Abbott spokesman Avdiel Huerta used a phrase in Spanish — "pan con lo mismo," or same old thing — to describe what Davis had to offer.
"Nonetheless, we welcome Senator Davis to the race, and look forward to presenting the clear differences and debating the important issues that will preserve the economic miracle in Texas," he said.
The GOP has painted Davis as a liberal who, in the words of prominent Republican activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, "wants to turn Texas blue by way of a sea of red ink and a flood of high taxes."
Davis, anticipating the attacks, spoke of her service on the Fort Worth City Council, where she said she developed a reputation as a bipartisan consensus builder.
"I didn’t have a partisan affiliation by my name, and I didn’t govern with one either. When I meet folks who want the same thing but disagree about how to get there, I invite them to sit down at the table and hash out a solution working together with respect and an open mind," she said. "Real leaders know that our problems deserve real solutions. That’s the approach I brought to Austin."
But she pulled no punches in describing the Republican in charge in Austin, describing them as "failed leaders who dole out favors to friends and cronies behind closed doors."
"Texas has waited too long for a governor who knows that quid pro quo shouldn’t be the status quo," she said.
The Wiley G. Thomas Coliseum, where Davis attended her high school graduation ceremony in 1981, was packed with cheering supporters. Davis aides said more than 5,000 had sent in RSVP notices that they planned to attend, and after the event ended they claimed 2,000 showed up. Thousands more Democratic activists, convinced Davis has a rare shot at breaking the party’s 20-year losing streak in 2014, staged watch parties all across Texas.
It is the first Texas governor’s race without an incumbent since 1990, when another Democratic woman, Ann Richards, defeated Republican Clayton Williams.
Mary Beth Rogers, who ran Richards' 1990 campaign, was on hand for Davis's announcement. She said it brought back memories of the last time a Democrat was elected governor.
"I see a lot of similarities," she said. "She had a bunch of naysayers saying she couldn't do it, just like they're saying now. It can be done."
Davis promised she'd give the race everything she had.
"Until the families who are burning the candle at both ends can finally make ends meet, we will keep going. Until the amazing health care advances being pioneered in this state reach everyone who needs them, we will keep going. Until every child from Longview to Lubbock to McAllen to Mesquite makes it to a stage like this, and gets their diploma, and knows that nothing will wash out the road to their future dreams, we will keep going," she said. As she spoke, the crowd yelled "we will keep going" along with her.
"With the right kind of leadership, the great state of Texas will keep its sacred promise that where you start has nothing to do with how far you can go," she said.
Davis was accompanied on stage at the end of her 15-minute speech by her two adult daughters, Amber and Dru. Her boyfriend, former Austin Mayor Will Wynn, accompanied the trio as they met with supporters for a few minutes after the speech.
Her intention to run for governor was perhaps the worst-kept secret in Texas politics. She had been expected to jump in the race early last month, but her father’s sudden and unexpected death prompted a monthlong delay — and a slow, anticipation-filled walk toward Thursday’s announcement.
Speculation that Davis would run for higher office took off like a rocket right after she waged a dramatic 11-hour filibuster against a restrictive abortion bill in late June. More than 100,000 people watched a livestream of the proceedings, and thousands more packed into the Capitol. Mention of the summer showdown was conspicuously absent from her remarks.
The filibuster and boisterous citizen protests only derailed the measure temporarily. The Republican-led Legislature simply passed it in a subsequent 30-day special session.
But Davis raised almost $1 million in the two weeks immediately following the filibuster, and she has used her newfound celebrity to pull in donations from every U.S. state.
Still, at last count, Abbott, had at least 20 times more money than she reported this summer. And with the heavy Republican tilt of the Texas electorate, even Davis’ supporters admit it’s a very difficult challenge. Democrats haven’t won statewide office in Texas since 1994.
While an expected clash between Abbott and Davis has consumed political insiders, a recent poll by the Texas Lyceum indicated half of registered Texas voters are undecided in the marquee statewide race in which primary voters will begin weighing in less than six months. The poll showed Abbott leading Davis by 8 points, and the two candidates were statistically tied among women — a key demographic for Davis.
For all the talk of a surge in the minority population, Anglos still make up about two-thirds of the Texas electorate. And with some 70 percent of whites routinely supporting the Republican candidate, Davis needs to peel some of them away to be competitive.
Making a direct appeal to suburban women, on issues like cuts to education and health care, is a natural place for her to start.
During an interview last weekend at The Texas Tribune Festival, Davis said that everywhere she goes now, young women, “many of them with tears in their eyes,” tell her the filibuster awakened something in them.
“Somehow that day tapped into what was a feeling for many young women that they weren’t being heard,’’ Davis said.
That day in June awakened conservatives too, though, and they believe Davis’ opposition to a ban on abortion after 20 weeks leaves her outside the mainstream. And while Davis is broadening her message far beyond abortion rights, Republicans and their allies don’t plan to let her forget it.
Even before she took to the stage Thursday, Texas Right to Life, a leading anti-abortion group whose leaders side with Republicans, unveiled a radio ad running in English and Spanish. It’s set to air this weekend if not sooner.
“Wendy Davis puts late-term abortion ahead of our faith, ahead of our families, and ahead of Texas values,” the ad says. “Wendy Davis believes terminating babies even after halfway through the pregnancy is okay. Wendy Davis is wrong on life, wrong for our children and wrong for Texas.”
And at the site of Davis’s announcement, anti-abortion protesters were waiting to greet supporters with placards and slogans. One man stretched a sign along a fence on his property, adjacent to a street leading to the coliseum.
“Wendy Baby Killer,” it read.
A Davis spokesman declined to comment on the protesters.
Abbott also released a new web ad ahead of the announcement, giving a glimpse of the strategy he’ll employ in a matchup with Davis. It tries to tie the state senator to President Obama and warns voters that putting a Democrat in the Texas Governor’s Mansion could jeopardize the strong Texas economy.
“I’ll keep government small, taxes low and regulations reasonable. I'll protect your Second Amendment rights,” Abbott says in the video. “This campaign is going to present Texans with real clear choices. We won’t allow Texas to be taken over by California-style government.”
Davis said Texans have a right to be proud of their state's economic successes.
"Texas is a place where we aim high and take big risks," she said. "From the wildcatters who built the oil and gas industry, to the innovators who make our computer chips smaller, faster and cheaper, to the ranchers and farmers who provide for our families and our nation, we’re builders and doers, leaders and dreamers."
But she said state leaders have shortchanged the future by engaging in petty partisan squabbles and failing to provide enough funding for its priorities, particularly in the domain of public education. Though she is best known for her stand on abortion, in 2011 Davis waged a filibuster against a school finance plan that sliced billions of dollars out of public education.
“Texas deserves a leader who understands that making education a priority creates good jobs and keeps Texas on top. Texas deserves a leader who will fight this fight for the future of Texas,'' she said. "There are too many young people yearning to continue their own educational journeys are turned down for grants and loans because state leaders have turned a deaf ear to them and blocked their paths."
Both Abbott and Davis have compelling biographies, and each have emphasized their struggles to overcome hardship.
Abbott, 55, has been paralyzed from the waist down since 1984, when a tree fell on him while jogging. He rose from state district judge to the state Supreme Court and the office of attorney general, which he has held longer than any other Texan.
Davis, 50, who struggled financially after her parents divorced when she was 11, was a divorced single mother at age 19. After living in a trailer park in southeast Fort Worth, Davis attended Tarrant County College and then Texas Christian University before graduating with honors from Harvard Law School.
In her speech Thursday, Davis said she stresses her biography because Texans can relate to struggle.
"It wasn’t uncommon for me to come home to my power shut off or my phone disconnected," she said. "A lot of people in our state today can tell similar stories. It wasn’t the life I’d imagined. And it definitely wasn’t what I wanted for Amber."
While Democrats are palpably excited about Davis, her measured speaking style and soft approach sometimes falls a bit flat for her eager partisan supporters.
Writing recently in Texas Monthly, author Robert Draper said “nothing we’ve seen thus far suggests that Davis is a dazzling orator, or even that quotable.” But he said her serious nature and thoughtful answers give her “much-needed gravitas.”
Longtime Democratic operative Harold Cook, former consultant for the Senate’s Democratic Caucus, said Davis has an uncanny ability to both absorb complex policy issues and explain her positions in a way that strikes a chord with average Texans.
“She always does better than just about anybody at attracting independent voters and exciting Democrats,” Cook said. “She speaks a plain language that people can understand.’’