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Texas' Democratic Darling Will Decide On Governor's Race Soon

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis speaks at a Washington, D.C., fundraiser last month.
Nick Wass
Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis speaks at a Washington, D.C., fundraiser last month.

Official Washington has fled for dog-day vacations few deserved, leaving the nation's capital a bit languid and bereft of news.

Enter, as if on cue, Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis of abortion bill filibuster fame, with a speech Monday at the National Press Club.

She's the Democratic Party's newest national star, having blazed to prominence with her 11-hour attempt to block legislation limiting Texas women's access to abortion, and inspired all manner of liberal hopes in the deep-red Lone Star State.

Her speech Monday, which shed little light on the burning question in her home state and beyond — will she run for governor next year? — was just the latest turn in her rising Washington profile.

In previous visits this summer, she's been feted at sold-out fundraisers. Turned heads at parties. Huddled in closed-door Capitol Hill sessions with Democratic senators. And strategized with Emily's List, a powerful funding source for pro-choice female Democratic candidates.

Davis' white-hot political celebrity is undeniable, at least in Washington, where her single-mom-to-Harvard Law School story has provided a new and compelling party narrative in a state where Democratic success stories have been few in recent years.

But there remains a very open question as to how that will translate electorally for Davis, 50, back home, where Republicans thoroughly control the political structure, and where she barely held her legislative seat in a 2012 contest and is not even a shoo-in for re-election next year.

Davis said Monday, in response to a question about whether she'd run for the U.S. Senate or lieutenant governor in 2014, that she'll either seek re-election to the state Senate or the governorship — and nothing else.

Peggy Venable, an influential Texas conservative, said about Davis' path forward: "That's a story yet to be written. But I understand full well why progressives would see this as a tremendous opportunity."

Republican Grip Intact

There hasn't been a Democrat in the Texas governor's office since 1995, when Ann Richards turned over the keys to George W. Bush.

In the 2012 election cycle, the state ranked first in the nation in total money contributed to Republicans — in excess of $171.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Texans gave just under $60 million to Democrats.

That's just one example of how Republicans, and GOP money, dominates the state.

So, is Team Wendy simply engaging in irrational exuberance, keying off a singular filibuster moment — one that prompted laudatory tweets from no less than President Obama?

Here's a dash of cold, or at least cool, water from James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas: "If she's going to run statewide in Texas, that's a different political universe than she's finding now in Washington, or, for that matter, nationally."

"There's a lot of Republican here," he said, noting that he was stating the obvious.

Hints Of Change

But there are also some promising signs for Davis and for her long-suffering party.

Limited polling has found that Davis' in-state name recognition soared after her June filibuster.

One poll showed her running better against Republican Greg Abbott, the front-runner for the GOP nomination for governor, than any other prominent state Democrat — including San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.

Abbott still led, however, 48 percent to her 40 percent.

"Rarely do we get these political moments," Will Hailer, executive director of the state's Democratic Party, said of Davis' widely covered filibuster. "She's now a celebrity in Texas, too." (Her effort only temporarily halted legislation to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy; the measure was later approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature in a special session called by GOP Gov. Rick Perry.)

Though the filibuster ultimately failed to stop the bill, it may prove to be a seminal moment for Texas Democrats.

"It's not like this is some kind of mirage or something," says Henson, of the Texas Politics Project. "She's gone from someone who was well-known among people who follow politics to the most widely recognized, nonretired and alive Democrat in the state."

The difficulty is the seeming expectation that Davis, with her newfound place in the national party firmament, could almost single-handedly turn around the moribund Democratic Party in Texas.

"You see an unrealistic set of expectations for her — to move from the symbolic status that she has right now, to the much more complicated situation of being a statewide candidate on a ticket otherwise bereft of other Democratic candidates," Henson says.

Politicos in Texas note that Davis' electoral decisions have been complicated by, literally, the luck of the draw. She and half of her Senate colleagues drew the short straw in January, learning they would serve two-year, instead of four-year, terms in order to stagger elections post-redistricting.

The Texas Tribune noted at the time that Davis, who represents a Republican-leaning district, will now have to run for re-election — if she bypasses a statewide race — for the first time in a nonpresidential year, complicating her path.

Her last race was the most expensive legislative contest in the state; if she'd lost, the GOP would have controlled two-thirds of the Senate.

"She's attractive, she's well-spoken, but she barely won re-election in her district," says Venable, the Republican activist, who is also statewide coordinator for the conservative Americans for Prosperity.

"It's not like she's seen as a real threat politically here in Texas," she said.

Realignment And Reality

Venable, however, is among Texans who remember when Texas was a Democratic state, albeit one she describes as ruled by more conservative Democrats than today's breed.

"The challenge for fiscal conservatives will be to make sure that voters realize that Texas is tops in jobs and unemployment, and has been the nation's economic engine," she says.

"Maybe if she's not confident that she'll win re-election, she may see it as worth running statewide," Venable says, not necessarily winning, but potentially providing an assist to down-ballot candidates who might benefit by her presence at the top of the ticket.

Davis has until the December candidate filing deadline to decide her path. But after her National Press Club speech, when asked by a reporter when she planned to make a decision about whether to run for governor, she said in a "few weeks."

Until then her profile in Washington will likely continue to rise, and her favorable rating — and unfavorables — back home in Texas will likely do the same.

Everyone, Henson notes, Democrat and Republican alike, is trying to raise money off the Wendy Davis name.

It's difficult to find a corollary to her dynamic entry into the nation's political conversation.

But Hailer, the Texas Democratic Party official, is quick to provide one.

"I don't know if it's a fair comparison, but there was a state senator from Illinois....," he said.

Barack Obama did, indeed, emerge dramatically after his 2004 Democratic Convention speech, ending up in the U.S. Senate the following year.

But Obama was not only the beneficiary of the personal flame-out of Jack Ryan, his highly-touted Republican Senate race opponent, but he was elected in the very Democratic state of Illinois.

"If [Democrats] mount a statewide race in Texas, I anticipate there will be a lot of money pouring in," Venable says. "They were looking for a flash of hope for those wanted to turn the state blue, and Wendy did that."

Davis would have to have super human powers to overcome the situation the Texas Democrats are in right now, Henson adds. But she may have helped teach them a valuable lesson — how to be a more effective minority party in the face of truly daunting odds.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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