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Analysis: As Davis Aims to Widen Appeal, Filibuster Remains a Calling Card

Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor, is trying to broaden her appeal beyond the filibuster that made her famous. But in her latest fundraising mailer to supporters, that June night is front and center.

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Wendy Davis doesn’t want to be known just for the filibuster that made her a political celebrity, or for the issues — abortion and women’s health centers — that were the subjects of that long night last June.

But that's how she rose to prominence, and she is trying to capitalize on it: The Democratic gubernatorial nominee’s latest fundraising efforts are anchored in that summer struggle, starting with a picture of her on the envelope, standing on the Senate floor and, inside, a written pitch that invokes memories of that event.

Every candidate wants to be known for something, but nobody wants to go into the history books as a one-hit wonder. Davis and her campaign want this to be about the fighter and not about the fight — about the fact that she was willing to filibuster and not just about the subject of that particular debate. It's one thing to be an advocate for a particular subject; Davis would rather be known as someone who'll take up for supporters on any subject. 

At the same time, they don’t want supporters and potential supporters to forget about the subject.

The Republican nominee, Greg Abbott, on the other hand, isn’t known for a particular moment at center stage. He’s got his accomplishments — district judge, Texas Supreme Court justice, longest-serving attorney general in Texas history, various legal fights — and his personal life is an inspiring tale of thriving after an accident that paralyzed him. Davis' identity grows from a particular incident, and she is trying to fill out the rest of her story for an electorate that mostly had not heard of her before last June’s filibuster. Abbott’s campaign started with a relatively unknown candidate who is noted for a number of things but not one thing in particular.

Back in October, more Texas voters were familiar with her name than with his, a situation he has been working to correct for several months. He has had some success; polling this year showed him closing that recognition gap and widening his lead over the Democrat.

Everybody has to start somewhere. Rick Perry worked his way up the ladder from the Texas House to a party switch to agriculture commissioner to lieutenant governor and then governor. He wasn’t all that famous until he had been governor for a while, but three expensive campaigns for governor and one for president will make a guy prominent. The party switch in 1989 and his upset win in 1990 helped mark him as part of a new generation of Republican leaders at that time.

Ann Richards did it with a speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Her opponent in the 1990 race for governor, Clayton Williams Jr., did it with publicity stunts for his various companies, like the time he rode a horse to the state Capitol’s south entrance to make the case for legislation sought by his telephone company.

George W. Bush was already famous when he became a gubernatorial candidate, the son of a president and the best-known person without a glove or a bat associated with the Texas Rangers baseball team. George P. Bush won the Republican nomination for land commissioner this year, testing that famous name on a Texas ballot for the ninth time. 

For most politicians, getting enough public attention to spark a campaign without getting it for the wrong reasons is an enormous problem. Established pols like Abbott can do it with well-established organization and, in his case, an astonishing aptitude for raising political money. Abbott had $29,982,907.90 in the bank at the time of his last report in late February, which ought to buy enough advertising to tell voters he exists.

Davis won the state’s attention with her second end-of-session filibuster in two years. A 2011 number on public education made the news without catching fire. But her half-day stand against legislation restricting abortions and requiring women’s health clinics to meet hospital standards was national news before it was even over.

The Democrat doesn’t want to run a statewide campaign on a divisive single issue, and she is talking about many other issues, like education and equal pay for women and economic development. Her image-makers hope voters will remember that she fought for this thing and that one, too, keeping her positions clear on issues like abortion and pay and schools, but trying to keep more than one thing on everyone’s mind.

She might not want to talk about it all of the time, but this is the horse she rode in on. And that’s why the picture on the outside of her latest fundraising envelope shows her standing next to her desk in the Texas Senate chamber last June, wearing that white suit and those pink tennis shoes. It was her first impression on many voters, and the only reason she zipped past any number of Democrats who might have been this year’s nominee for governor.

In her fundraising pitches, it remains the calling card and her defining issue. But governors are generalists, not specialists. The challenge in front of her is to add to the list.

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Politics 2014 elections Greg Abbott Wendy Davis