Wendy Davis, little known Democratic state senator from Ft Worth, burst onto the Texas and national political scene last summer when in her running shoes she filibustered anti-abortion legislation. Her filibuster galvanized the grassroots of the party and ultimately in her filibuster’s failure she found success. Democrats easily courted her to run for Governor and were initially optimistic her gender and style, combined with Democrats massive Battleground Texas organization would yield a competitive race. Since that time Democratic expectations have cooled significantly.
It is not because of lack of fundraising. According to financial reports, Davis has already raised over $20 million. Running in Texas is extremely expensive as the state has over 20 media markets. The most expensive markets are clustered around cities with the largest votes (San Antonio, Houston, Austin, Dallas). Her opponent, Attorney General Grey Abbott, has raised far more and is better known to state voters as evidenced by name ID questions in the few surveys taken of the race.
Davis’s campaign has struggled to find the right message for their candidate. The anti-abortion filibuster part of her record makes her appeal to the hard left of the party but few moderates have shown they care. Worrying the party is the fact that in the Democratic Gubernatorial primary she lost 16 Southern Texas counties (many Majority-Hispanic) to little known opponent Ray Madrigal. To win in a red state such as Texas she needs to appeal to the state’s growing Hispanic bloc and questions persist on whether abortion is the best way to do so.
Perhaps this explains why at the party’s state convention in Dallas last week Davis railed against the good old boy system in control of Texas, her humble background and her strong defense of individual rights. She mentioned abortion a mere once in the 24 minute speech and the partisan audience ate it up. But Davis’s campaign, four months before Election Day, still has yet to fully define itself. Davis’s campaign’s attempts to do so have proved disastrous so far.
The Texas Star Tribune reported that Davis had embellished her humble background and resume earlier in the year. After initially rebuking the paper the campaign walked back their statement to saying they disagreed with the paper’s interpretation of Davis’s history. In damage control mode the campaign lashed out at her opponent, saying he has not “Walked a day in her shoes.” Abbott has been a paraplegic since he was 26 and the campaign went even further into damage control mode. Then, in a one on one interview. Davis, channeling Obama’s famous “It is above my pay-grade” comment, refused to answer whether she believes life begins at conception. One can be forgiven for being confused on this answer considering she filibustered a five month abortion ban. Lastly, Davis’s campaign has waffled on where she stands on social issues relating to gay marriage and guns. Most recently, after saying she supported gun control measures, Davis asserted she is strongly pro 2nd Amendment.
None of these struggles have made the grassroots sour on her but they have been noted by the DGA and Democratically affiliated national groups. Not helping her cause was an incident in April where Davis labelled DGA Chairman Pete Shumlin (the Governor of Vermont) a “Washington desk jockey” after he acknowledged the group was less than optimistic about her chances.
Davis’s struggles have resulted in her initial campaign manager, Karin Johanson, leaving the campaign merely 30 weeks into the campaign. Further, public polls on the race have shown Abbott by leading by a minimum of 12 points. Geographically and electorally the most recent poll, a UT/Texas Tribune survey show the work the campaign has to do to even get near a plurality of the vote. Electorally, Davis wins over 80% of the liberal vote and a plurality of moderates (40%) but she wins a mere 15% of the conservative vote. Conservatives make up 49% of the vote in the survey giving Abbott a high floor and Davis a low ceiling. Reflecting the national racial divide, blacks favor Davis and whites Abbott by large margins and Hispanics are closely divided (Davis leads 35%-29%). Davis only wins singles by 7% (42%-35%) and geographically, Davis leads in urban areas by 12% (42%-30%) but Abbott leads in the suburbs 46%-32% and rural areas 58%-16%. Considering the race will be decided in the suburbs, Davis’s weakness there is striking. Short of the Austin metro areas, Abbott leads in every other polled metro area by 6% to 30% (San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and elsewhere).
Publicly, none of this has phased the Davis campaign. But former Democratic Gubernatorial nominees, Congressman Chris Bell (2006) and former Houston mayor Bill White (2010), have shown their concern publicly. Bell worries that Davis is to scripted while White worries the campaign has no defining message other than I am less bad than the other guy. For their part, Republicans have watched the Davis campaign’s struggles with part glee and part wariness. Expressing this weariness are state party efforts to expand voter outreach to Hispanics and weaken the party’s Tea Party wing. Unfortunately for the state GOP their efforts to weaken the Tea Party wing have failed. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst lost his primary bid to remain Lt. Governor and activists at the state party convention inserted controversial language on abortion and gay marriage, complicating party outreach efforts. Still, none of the GOP’s issues seem to have impacted the race to Davis’s benefit. The cash has kept flowing into her campaign coffers but her poll numbers have not improved.
For a campaign that promised to reset the Texas Democratic Party it has been anything but. Davis’s campaign has been beset by struggles, an inability to define their message and exploit the state GOP split. Davis’s campaign was supposed to allow Texas Democrats to appeal to the state’s diversifying and younger demographic shift. But instead, all the campaign has done is show why Democrats have not won a gubernatorial race in the state since 1990 and a statewide race (Constitutional or federal) since 1994.