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Analysis: Wendy Davis Filibuster — Was It Just a Moment, or a Movement?

With the anniversary of the filibuster that made her a star for Texas Democrats, Wendy Davis is still trying to turn a momentous event into the kind of campaign that will upset the state's entrenched political order.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Ft. Worth, begins a filibuster of SB 5 the abortion regulation bill on June 25, 2013.

A year has passed since the filibuster that pushed a Fort Worth lawmaker into a governor’s race that so many Texas Democrats had decided to avoid in 2014.

The lawmaker, state Sen. Wendy Davis, turned that special session filibuster on abortion legislation into political theater and reality TV.

As political moments go, it was a stupendous start. A party that had been shaking the trees for competitive candidates for governor suddenly found a star who had been sitting there all along.

But in the year since, the Davis campaign has been raising money and organizing, trying to expand beyond the issue that brought her to the public’s attention into other areas where they hope Democrats might have an edge over Republicans. She is on her second campaign manager, has seen a seemingly endless stream of progressives, liberals and Democrats wanting to give her advice, and — this is the important part — has struggled to catch on with Texas voters.

Now, with four and a half months left until the general election, Davis and her followers are trying to use the anniversary of the filibuster to rekindle the excitement they generated a year ago, to attract new, like-minded voters to the polls and to convert voters who have a two-decade habit of putting Republicans into the state’s top offices.

That Republican advantage is evident in recent polling. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll this month found Republicans in statewide races running seven to 15 percentage points ahead of their Democratic rivals; in the race for governor, Attorney General Greg Abbott held a 12-point lead over Davis.

Democrats in Texas also face strong antipathy to President Obama, whose unpopularity they will have to overcome to succeed in November. The routine Republican play at the moment is to glue the president to any Democrat running for office.

“Barack Obama and his operatives have set their sights on Texas,” Abbott said in his speech at this month’s Republican Party of Texas convention. “Liberal elites from the East Coast to the West Coast have fawned over and financed my opponent to try to remake Texas in their image.”

He went on, but you get the general idea.

The primary season served as Abbott’s opener. Davis opens in two steps, with the reminiscing over the anniversary that has already begun and with the Texas Democratic Party’s convention at the end of the month.

The anniversary is only partly about the legislation that Davis was trying to stop a year ago. That bill tightened restrictions against abortion and raised regulatory standards for women’s health clinics to a level many did not reach. It failed to pass before the midnight deadline, in large part because of the filibuster, but Gov. Rick Perry immediately called a special session where lawmakers passed the legislation.

By that measure, the Democrats won the battle and lost the war last summer — hardly a reason to celebrate.

What got the attention of the political people — the professionals and the people who put on orange or blue T-shirts to support or oppose the legislation — was the energy. It wasn’t that the Democrats lost a fight everyone expected them to lose, but that they turned out for the fight the way they did, in both the real and virtual worlds.

Crowds packed the Texas Capitol and made both consequential and hilarious news, all watched live by a much larger audience on the Internet and picked up in a wave of news that followed.

The crowd disrupted a Senate debate that quickly went out of control, unnerving politicians who sometimes like the idea of the public’s engagement more than they like the actual public itself.

And rumors about what protesters were doing prompted state police to confiscate tampons from people entering the Capitol, for fear that senators would be ridiculed in a hailstorm of women’s hygiene products. All the worries about the crowd also generated still-unsubstantiated reports from state police that some protesters had tried to enter the building with jars full of feces and urine to throw at the Senate.

HBO is working on a series about the Texas Legislature. Clearly, someone thinks there is an audience for this. The Davis campaign is trying to see that some of those viewers are Democratic voters.

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Politics 2014 elections Greg Abbott Wendy Davis