Texas state Senator Wendy Davis, whose filibuster of new abortion curbs drew national attention earlier this year, kicked off a bid to become the first Democrat to win the governor’s office since 1990.
“We’re here because we want to fight for Texas jobs and companies to grow,” Davis, 50, said yesterday at a rally in the suburban Fort Worth civic center where she graduated from high school. “We want every child, no matter where they start in Texas, to receive a world-class education.”
The lawmaker from Fort Worth grabbed a national spotlight in June as she spoke almost nonstop for half a day to oppose a measure backed by Republican Governor Rick Perry. Davis stood to block a vote on the proposal to curb abortions.
Democratic leaders in the Lone Star State say Davis has the potential to return the party to power in Austin. Their last governor was Ann Richards, who left the office in 1995, beaten by a future president, George W. Bush.
A poll released Oct. 2 suggests Davis will have her work cut out for her if she gains a spot on next year’s gubernatorial ballot. The survey showed her losing by 8 percentage points to state Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican who has already begun his campaign for the office held by Perry since December 2000. Yet the results showed half of voters had no preference.
“Democrats hoping to turn the state blue in the short term might also take solace in the fact that more than half of the electorate isn’t yet engaged with the 2014 elections,” said Daron Shaw, a University of Texas professor who conducted the poll for the Texas Lyceum, a nonpartisan leadership organization based in Dallas. Perry, who ran unsuccessfully for his party’s presidential nomination last year, isn’t seeking re-election.
Davis appealed to supporters to help her end decades of one-party rule in Austin, where Republicans control the state legislature as well as all statewide elective offices.
“Texans deserve better than failed leaders who dole out favors to friends and cronies behind closed doors,” Davis said. “Texas has waited too long for a governor who knows that quid pro quo shouldn’t be the status quo.”
Republicans, aided by dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama, will keep the governor’s office, Steve Munisteri, the state party chairman, said in an interview. Obama lost in Texas to Mitt Romney by 16 percentage points in 2012.
Abbott immediately began trying to define his would-be opponent next year.
“Texas Democrats are attempting to conjure support for California-style candidates that try to sell Obama’s liberal agenda and go against what makes Texas great,” he said yesterday in a statement. “Nonetheless, we welcome Senator Davis to the race, and look forward to presenting the clear differences and debating the important issues that will preserve the economic miracle in Texas.”
State Democratic leaders urged Davis to run at the top of their ticket following her filibuster against banning abortions after 20 weeks, requiring surgical center settings for the procedure and local-hospital admitting privileges for doctors involved. The measure she fought passed in a subsequent special legislative session called by Perry.
Davis, a lawyer in Fort Worth when not in the Capitol, spent the past several months traveling the nation to meet with supporters as she weighed a statewide campaign in Texas. By some estimates, she’ll need at least $40 million to compete for the governor’s office in a state with several major media markets.
Abbott has raised $25 million for his campaign, and may benefit from having won five previous statewide elections.
“The Republicans always outspend us in Texas, but we think we’ll be competitive because she has such a large national profile,” said Grace Garcia, executive director of Annie’s List, a Texas group that raises money for Democratic women.
The group gave Davis’s campaign $50,000 in July and about $450,000 of the $4 million raised for her 2012 senate re-election.
Abbott, 55, must defeat at least one challenger for the Republican nomination, Tom Pauken, a former state party chairman and head of the Texas Workforce Commission. Only Abbott received more than token support in the Lyceum’s telephone survey of 798 registered voters Sept. 6-20. The poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Davis and supporting groups need to raise $40 million to be competitive with Abbott, mostly because of advertising costs in the largest media markets, Garcia said. Because Democrats have trailed Republicans statewide for more than a decade, Davis will need out of state donors, Garcia said.
Annie’s List backed Davis last year because she beat a long-time Republican incumbent for a senate seat in 2008, Garcia said. The organization is also backing her run for governor.
While the Lyceum poll showed Latino Texans solidly behind Obama, Abbott said last week that he aims to win more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, matching the success of former Governor Bush in the 1990s. Statewide Republican candidates are typically supported by about a third of voters from that ethnic background, according to Mark Jones, who teaches politics at Rice University in Houston.
In 2010, Perry captured 55 percent of the vote to win over Democratic challenger Bill White, a former Houston mayor, by about 631,000 votes. The Lyceum poll showed 56 percent of voters approve of Perry’s job performance.
Davis’s success will hinge on attracting support for her stands on women’s health issues and education spending, said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for Democracy for America, an advocacy group started by Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman.
“She needs to be in the center of Texas politics to have a chance,” said Paul Brace, who also teaches politics at Rice. “When she plays the women’s health card, it plays well nationally and it’s a good source of campaign funds. But it could be problematic statewide.”
Davis focused on education yesterday while omitting references to women’s health issues.
“Texas deserves a leader who understands that making education a priority creates good jobs and keeps Texas on top,” she said. “‘With the right kind of leadership, the great state of Texas will keep its sacred promise that where you start has nothing to do with how far you can go.”
Both Davis and Abbott come to the campaign with compelling personal stories. Davis was a single mother by age 19 who worked her way through college and went on to Harvard Law School before entering politics. Abbott was paralyzed below the waist after a 1984 accident and won two terms as a Texas Supreme Court justice, an elective office, and three as attorney general.
Davis recalled her personal story yesterday as a path similar to those followed by many Texans who created “better tomorrows for themselves and their families.”
“Texas is more than a state,” she said. “Texas has always been a promise. The promise that where you start has nothing to do with how far you can go.”
“In Austin today, our current leadership thinks promises are just something you make to the people who write big checks,” Davis said. “But the promise I’m talking about is bigger than that. It’s the promise of a better tomorrow for everyone.”