Waiting for Wendy: Have Democrats found a way out of the political wilderness in Texas?

September 7, 2013 10:15:43 AM PDT
For weeks, national and state journalists have been discussing the prospect of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis running for governor in 2014. The Washington Post devoted two long articles to her possible candidacy -- one summarizing the arguments why she should enter the race, the other making the case against taking the plunge. Lately the subject of such intense speculation has been lying low, while tending to her hospitalized father. Since just about everybody else has weighed on the Davis case, let me give my perspective.

First, I am 90-95 percent confident she will run for governor. The reasons in no particular order are:

  1. She is a hot political commodity nationally and statewide at the moment, and a race for governor would build on that foundation. Pass on the race, and her 15 minutes of fame would almost certainly fade.
  2. Re-election to her state senate seat is far from a sure thing in November 2014, as she would likely face an extremely well-financed opponent in a marginal district and Republicans would seize the chance to get rid of a dangerous foe. Even if she were to hold her seat, Republicans would still have a 19-12 majority in the state senate, and might well change the rules to reduce the minority party's limited opportunities to influence legislation.
  3. The Democrats desperately need a credible gubernatorial nominee in 2014 if they are serious about this Battleground Texas project they have been promoting for the last six months. Ms. Davis is the only person who can realistically fill that void now that the Castro brothers of San Antonio have ruled out running next year.
  4. Experience in other American states shows the one office a minority party has the best opportunity to win is the governor job. Many "red" states like Oklahoma and Missouri have elected Democratic governors in recent years, and "blue" states like California and New Jersey have elected Republican chief executives.
  5. Finally, while Senator Davis has a tough path to victory if she runs for governor, at a minimum I believe she will be the best performing Democratic nominee in 20 years, and has an outside chance to pull off an upset in heavily Republican Texas.

Let me elaborate a bit on these last points. If we look at the last five governor elections in Texas, the last time a Democrat got over 45 percent of the major party vote was 1994, when Ann Richards took 46.2 percent against George W. Bush. In 1998, the hopelessly outspent Gary Mauro managed just 31.4 percent against Governor Bush's reelection effort. In 2002 Tony Sanchez out-spent Governor Perry by more than two-to-one, but still managed just 40.9 percent of the two-party vote. Chris Bell edge that up to 43.3 percent in 2006 in losing to Perry; and Bill White got 43.5 percent in 2010 against the long-serving incumbent. To point out the obvious, the best performing Democrat in these losing efforts was a white woman ? a demographic that Ms. Davis shares.

Nationally, Democrats have done pretty well in recent elections in large part because they run so strongly with women. In 2012, for example, former Governor Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama 52 percent to 45 percent among men, but lost the overall popular vote because women went for his Democratic opponent 55 to 44 percent. The Democrats' big national advantage with female voters is entirely driven by single women. Romney actually won married women 53 percent to 46 percent in 2012, but was crushed among unmarried women 67 percent to 31 percent.

Wendy Davis, like Ann Richards a generation earlier, will almost certainly do better with female voters in Texas -- who make up 53-54 percent of the total vote -- than the last four Democratic male nominees. Davis has particularly strong credentials -- like Ann Richards -- to appeal to single women, given her compelling person story of rising from trailer-park poverty to Harvard Law School and a successful political career.

I don't want to suggest that gender voting will be decisive if Senator Davis runs, but it likely will be a major factor in cutting into the usual Republican majority.

Even so, for Senator Davis, winning will be a tall order in Texas, but upsets do happen in politics, even in states pundits write off as safe for one party or the other. Voters ultimately decide elections, and they are less predictable than many commentators assume.

I will explore other aspects of this potential Davis candidacy, as well as that of her most likely Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott in the coming weeks.

Take ABC13 with you!
Download our free apps for iPhone, iPad and Android devices

Load Comments