Can Davis win?


Peter Hamby

CNN Digital National Political Reporter

(CNN) — Wendy Davis went public Thursday with some news that everyone in politics already knew: She’s officially running for governor of Texas.

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The state senator from Fort Worth electrified Democrats in June by slipping on a pair of pink Mizunos and a back brace to stage a dramatic 11-hour filibuster of a Republican bill that drastically scaled back abortion rights in the state. Never mind that the bill eventually passed in a special legislative session: Democrats around the country were in full swoon mode.

In an e-mail officially announcing her candidacy, she said, “As Texans, we believe that with hard work, determination, and a little old-fashioned common sense, we can build a better future for ourselves and our families.

We can make our communities safer, create jobs, and get Texas moving in the right direction.”

Davis, an attractive single mom who worked her way up from a trailer park to make it through Harvard Law School, danced around the question of running for governor all summer but is now ready to make it official. For the beleaguered Democrats of Texas, she represents the best shot at capturing the governor’s mansion since George W. Bush ousted Ann Richards in 1994.

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But the excitement swirling around her candidacy will quickly give way to a grim reality: Texas is still deep red and socially conservative, dangerous turf for a Democrat best known for standing up for abortion rights. In 2012, Mitt Romney drubbed President Barack Obama by 16 points there.

Smart political types in Washington and Austin have already come to the same conclusion: Davis can’t win. They’re probably right. Time and again, ambitious Democrats have been tempted by the forbidden fruit of Texas politics — a seemingly favorable demographic upheaval, driven by thriving urban centers and a booming Hispanic population — only to come up woefully short.

The task becomes even more challenging in a mid-term year, when Democratic turnout tends to fall off and the white share of the vote spikes, favoring Republicans.

The likely GOP nominee, state Attorney General Greg Abbott, has a substantial war chest, powerful allies and a compelling life story. He became a paraplegic in 1984 when a tree fell on him after a storm, crushing his spine.

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But in the spirit of contrarianism, here are eight glimmers of hope for Davis as she tries to pull off what would undoubtedly be one of the biggest upsets of the 2014 cycle.

1. She knows how to win

Winning a state Senate campaign is a far cry from winning a statewide election, especially for a polarizing Democrat in GOP-leaning Texas, but Davis survived two brutal campaigns in a Fort Worth-area district that, in many ways, is a microcosm of the state.

The area’s Hispanic population surged over the past decade, and nonwhite voters now make up a majority of Davis’s district, particularly in Forth Worth’s heavily Hispanic north side.

In 2008, when she first ran for the seat, and in her tough 2012 re-election fight, Davis outworked her opponents in Tarrant County and assembled a coalition of Hispanics, African-Americans, women voters and moderate Republicans to win. Both races were squeakers: She won by less than three points each time.

Davis isn’t afraid to throw a punch, either.

In 2008, her campaign nuked the Republican incumbent, Kim Brimer, with negative television ads portraying him as a crooked Austin insider (her supporters snarkily called him “Kim Shady”).

Four years later, Gov. Rick Perry and an armada of Republicans pumped time and energy into the race to unseat Davis, but she still beat back her GOP challenger — even in a district that Obama lost badly.

In fact, going back to her days on the Fort Worth City Council, Davis has run tough races.  Abbott, who served on the Texas Supreme Court before becoming the state’s attorney general in 2002, has not faced a credible opponent, Republican or Democrat, in years.

“I’m very optimistic about Wendy’s for upsetting Greg Abbott,” said Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, another bright light on Texas’s fresh-faced roster of Democrats. “She is a very talented candidate and incredibly hard working. Greg Abbott represents what has become a very extreme wing of the Republican Party. And more independent and moderate Republicans in Texas have had enough of tea party Republicans.”

2. Greg who?

In his three re-election bids, Rick Perry laid waste to a trio of Democratic challengers — Tony Sanchez, Chris Bell and Bill White — who dared to run statewide with a scarlet D next to their name. Perry’s political talents aside, he benefited from the power of incumbency and name recognition. Despite having more than $20 million in the bank, Abbott lacks Perry’s star power.

According to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released in June, more than half of voters had no opinion of Abbott, including 46% of Republicans.

A Texas Lyceum poll out this week showed Abbott leading Davis 29% to 21%, but showed a majority of voters had no preference in the race, and revealed that 45% of Republicans and almost 80% of independents didn’t know enough about Abbott.

Despite her buzz in political circles, Davis is similarly unknown to most voters. But unlike the Democratic gubernatorial candidates who preceded her, she’s getting started on a roughly even playing field and has an opportunity to define her opponent early.

3. Campaigns matter

Few things seem to send a thrill up the leg of polling wizards than writing off candidates before a race has even begun.

“Wendy Davis Won’t Win,” blared the headline of a recent New Republic piece by Nate Cohn, the magazine’s resident numbers-cruncher.

Cohn’s analysis was mostly accurate, but these high-and-mighty dismissals ignore one immutable fact of politics: Campaigns and candidates matter.

Just ask Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Todd Akin.

Texas offers a wonderful example. The state’s last Democratic governor, Ann Richards, began her campaign in 1990 in a 27-point hole against a well-funded Republican named Clayton Williams.

But “Claytie” did himself in on the campaign trail with a series of damaging gaffes — he once refused to shake hands with Richards at a candidate’s forum, and he made a rape joke that haunted him throughout the campaign. Meanwhile, Richards leveraged her natural charisma and appeal to suburban women to eke out a three-point win that November.

4. The Texas Hispanic boom

According to the 2010 census, the Hispanic population in Texas ballooned by almost 3 million during the previous decade, and it’s safe to assume that number has only expanded since then. Much as it does nationally, this demographic trend in Texas works unmistakably in the favor of the Democrats, who have capitalized on the abrasive anti-immigrant rhetoric emanating from conservative pockets of the Republican Party.

In the 2010 governor’s race, for example, Democrat Bill White won Hispanic voters, who made up about 17% of the vote that year, by a nearly 2-1 margin (the flip side of the math here is that White’s opponent, Perry, swamped him overall by racking up a huge margins among “Anglos,” as they say in Texas).

But Davis can’t take Hispanic voters for granted, argued Texas GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri, who said he has five full-time staffers assigned to outreach efforts in Spanish-speaking communities. Munisteri said Texas Republicans understand the pressing need to expand the party’s appeal beyond white voters, noting that the Texas GOP endorsed a guest-worker program into their 2012 party platform, even as conservative activists opposed the idea.

“It’s not just policy and whether there is action or inaction,” he said. “It’s also whether the Republican Party is viewed as welcoming to Hispanic citizens or hostile to Hispanic citizens. We have to come across as sincere that we really want to include Hispanics in the party.”

5. The Obama SWAT team

After re-electing the president last year, a handful of field marshals from the Obama campaign turned their eyes to Texas, with its exploding and under-registered Hispanic population, in hopes of growing the electorate and one day moving the state’s cache of 38 electoral votes into the Democratic column and forever road-blocking Republican hopes of capturing the White House. They dubbed their new group “Battleground Texas.”

The group’s organizers have been clear-eyed and honest with reporters about the challenging and long-term nature of the project. Few expect Battleground Texas organizers to register enough Hispanic, African-American and other first-time voters to overcome entrenched GOP advantages in such a narrow time frame.

Even so, Davis will have on her side the brains and muscle behind the most sophisticated voter turnout operation in American political history. That’s an unequivocal asset.

Critics have questioned how effective Battleground Texas can be without Obama, a uniquely talented and charismatic figure, at the top of the ticket rallying voters. But this is Texas, where Obama is about as popular as the Oklahoma Sooners.

Pragmatic Democrats are just fine keeping a safe distance from the president, even though Abbott and his team will do their best to make sure that doesn’t happen.

6. A potential spoiler

Debra Medina, a Wharton businesswoman and conservative activist, captured nearly 20% of the vote in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary by making a strong play for the nascent tea party movement.

She’s currently raising money for a possible 2014 comptroller campaign, but also leaving the door open to an independent run for governor next year, in part because of her not-so-subtle disdain for a long line of establishment-backed GOP figures in her state — Perry and Abbott chief among them.

“You look at our ticket, and it’s all rich white guys,” Medina said in an interview. “There are few women and liberty-leaning candidates on the ballot. If we go through the nomination process and end up with are whole bunch of Mitt Romneys on the ticket next November, people aren’t going to get excited about it.”

Medina said she plans to make a decision about an independent bid for governor by early December, after she decides whether or not to file as a candidate for comptroller. If she does run for the top office, Medina’s support would almost certainly draw from the tea party activist wing of the Republican coalition. That would be bad news for Abbott.

7. Suburban women

Davis is most famous for her filibuster of Senate Bill 5, which curtailed access to abortion in Texas after it passed this summer in a special legislative session.

The fight made her an archvillain in the eyes of many conservatives and anti-abortion activists, but it transformed her into a folk hero among left-leaning women’s groups, who believe Davis can use the issues of women’s health care to drive a wedge between Republicans and female voters.

She has an opening, according to Jim Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, and Joshua Blank, the project’s pollster.

As the pair recently wrote in the Texas Tribune, suburban women have been trending away from the GOP in recent years. In late 2010, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found that 50% of suburban women identified as Republicans. Two years later, 43% called themselves Republicans. And in their most recent survey, in June of this year, the number had dropped to 38%. Over the same three-year span, the number of suburban women calling themselves Democrats jumped from 37% for 46%.

In other words, women in Texas are increasingly kosher with voting for the blue team. Davis will need their help to break the Republican chokehold on white voters.

8. Outside money

The filibuster that went viral online in June and made Davis an instant Democratic celebrity had the added benefit of growing her list of supporters — an e-mail network that’s about to double as a national donor base.

But Davis will also have reinforcements.

While Battleground Texas works the ground game, the women’s groups who worked hard to recruit Davis into the race — Planned Parenthood, EMILY’s List and Texas-based Annie’s List — are expected to provide air cover, pumping money into Texas this year and next to fund radio, television and mail ads.

Even if Davis comes up short, the opportunity to help inch Texas toward Democratic hands in the makes it an appealing target for donors and outside groups, said one well-connected Austin Democrat who is close to the soon-to-be-launched campaign.

“There will be a confluence of excited and effective organizations that could have important roles to play inside and out of the campaign structure,” said the Democrat, who declined to be named because the campaign was not yet official.

“Annie’s List, the Texas Democratic Party, labor unions are all gearing up and appear to be working together effectively. And individual/institutional donors from across the nation saw Wendy’s filibuster and have made it clear they are interested. After all, there is a long-play beyond just 2014 that is very compelling.

“The more you invest in the state, the more you accelerate demographic change in voter turnout and the quicker you put Texas in play in the electoral college map and change the politics of the nation.”