Much as Republicans are struggling to connect with certain segments of the electorate, Southern Democrats are struggling to find a way forward after being devastated in 2010 and 2012. In the GOP there are two schools of thought: run the most electable conservative candidate or simply expand the outreach of the party and continue to run red-meat candidates. Southern Democrats seem to be testing whether they can run a liberal in a demographically changing Southern state, Texas, and create a viable path forward to winning statewide office going forward.
Enter Wendy Davis. The self-described tennis-shoe mom who famously filibustered a 20 week abortion ban in Teas has assembled quite a bankroll and national following. Based in a swing urban/suburban Austin state senate district she has played coy about her future plans but appears to be leaning towards running for the open Governor’s seat. She need not bother, even if she thinks she wins by losing.
Turn Texas Blue, the Democratic Super PAC started before 2012 to make the state competitive at the federal level by 2020 has been active on the ground. However, its donations have been less than stellar and at best the organization is still in its infancy stage as evidenced by its continued reliance on volunteer, as opposed to paid staffers. Turn Texas Blue would love to see Davis run. Jeremy Bird, founder of Turn Texas Blue and National Field Director of Obama’s 2012 campaign said as much.
“We believe that Wendy would be a great candidate for governor of Texas, and we’re engaging our volunteers and supporters to show her that they feel the same way,” Bird said. “Texans have been waiting for a candidate like her to do what no Democrat has done in two decades, which is to run a competitive statewide race and win.” Bird also touted that Turn Texas Blue raised $1.1 million in the second quarter. But the organization has yet to map out a strong strategy for actually turning Texas blue.
Republican groups are also watching what the organization does. Weary of seeing Hispanics turn in mass to the Democratic Party the state GOP has recently unveiled a plan to court new voter groups, particularly new Asian and Hispanic voters in growing suburban areas of the state. Republicans also point to the fact that exit and other polls show the minority population of the state is more friendly to the GOP than nationwide.
But even with the support of Turn Texas Blue, Davis has major problems. No Democrat has won statewide office in the state in almost two decades and her liberalism will likely turn off the swing and conservative voters she needs to win the race. Contrary to popular opinion Republicans have won in the state by staying competitive in key urban counties (Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston) and strongly winning surrounding suburbs. Davis has to turn the script and at least be competitive in the suburbs while somehow run up the margins in urban counties.
This is a tall task. Republicans have coalesced behind their nominee, former Texas Supreme Court Justice and state Attorney General, who has a whimsical and folksy way of talking. The AG is a paraplegic, having a tree fall on him in 1982, and has reported raised a whopping $20 million since announcing. Most analysts estimate it takes a minimum of $40 million to even have a shot for the Governor’s mansion. He also is already campaigning for the race, mindful that few voters have formed an opinion of him.
Davis’s preliminary strategy seems to be to win urban counties and heavily court minorities. But that will not get you near 50.1% of the vote. At best it gets you Obama’s 41% margin in 2012 or 2010 Democratic Gubernatorial nominee Bill White’s 44%. Branching out beyond her support will be a struggle. Beyond the state GOP, national Republican groups have signaled they will spend millions to keep the state red and have said they will get involved in the Governor’s race if necessary. Beyond Turn Texas Blue, few Democratic groups have signaled similar intentions.
Democrats are giddy to see Davis run because they think the issue of abortion will be a winning issue for the party. But a Texas Tribune poll taken before passage of the anti-abortion bill showed a solid majority of the state backed the bill. Hispanics, in public opinion surveys, also identify as strongly pro-life yet economically liberal. This will make it extremely tough for Davis to reach out beyond liberal enclaves and her African-American base.
Democrats counter that these surveys only look at registered voters and there is a vast number of unregistered Hispanics that lean left. But they have to first get these people registered and get them to turn out in big numbers to the polls. Similar Democrats, such as White in 2010, have contended that they have a unique appeal that makes them a strong statewide candidate and could win new votes, registered or not. But none have succeeded.
Finally, there is the drag Obama will create for Davis. While the President will not be on the ballot his approval rating in the state is barely above 40%. Those who disapproved of the President also showed up more often in the 2012 Presidential election and it is not hard to see the same thing happening next year. Of course Democrats will try to counter this and localize the race. But Abbott has had to run localized races to win his Supreme Court slot and AG position. Davis has only won once in a district she inherited before 2012.
Perhaps Davis thinks a bid will boost her future statewide electoral prospects. If so, she must be banking on what many Democrats are; demographic trends favor the party and continuing to do so well into the future. Whether this pans out is a question for another post. But right now, it is clear a Davis gubernatorial bid would fail, and fail badly.