Senator Davis for Governor? Lawmaker inches closer to decision on 2014 race

Dave Montgomoery Austin Correspondent

WASHINGTON – Propelled by political stardom reaching far beyond her home state, Wendy Davis appears to be moving closer to a possible run for Texas governor in what could become one of the most intensely watched races in the country next year.

A decision by the Democratic state senator from Fort Worth to pursue the top political post in Texas could also create a wide-open scramble for the District 10 Senate seat that she wrested out of Republican control in 2008. During an appearance at the National Press Club on Aug. 5, the 50-year-old lawmaker confirmed for the first time that her political options boil down to two: running for governor or seeking re-election to the Senate. She told reporters that she hopes to make a decision within “the next couple of weeks.”

State Attorney General Greg Abbott has raised well over $20 million and is expected to easily win the Republican nomination to succeed Rick Perry, who with more than 12 years in office is the state’s longest-serving governor. Abbott’s lone announced opponent in the GOP primary for 2014 is former Texas GOP Chairman Tom Pauken of Dallas. “If she runs, this would be the marquee race in the entire country,” retired Congressman Martin Frost said of Davis. “She’s the real deal.” Frost, a Democrat, formerly represented Fort Worth and Dallas and now lives in a Washington, D.C., suburb. Davis became an overnight political celebrity in June after waging an 11-hour filibuster against a Republican-backed abortion bill during the first of three special legislative sessions. Her appearance at the prestigious 105-year-old press club – believed to be the first ever by a state legislator – came after a wave of national media appearances and other events that elevated her as a potential Texas gubernatorial candidate. Win or lose, a run for governor would force Davis to relinquish her hard-won Senate seat because Texas law prohibits her from running for both posts at the same time.

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Democratic leaders acknowledge the high stakes but believe that Davis’ star appeal gives them a realistic opportunity to reclaim the governorship, which Republicans have held for more than 18 years. “You have to strike while the iron is hot and right now Wendy is very hot in the state of Texas and across the country,” said Precinct 5 Justice of the Peace Sergio De Leon, who was among a contingent of Texans attending Davis’ press club speech. A decision by Davis to run for governor would not only create a showcase battle for that post but would likely ignite a partisan battle for her Senate seat, which Democrats desperately want to keep and Republicans want to recapture. The GOP waged a full-scale campaign last year to retake the district, which stretches across the southern half of Tarrant County, but Davis ultimately defeated former state Rep. Mark Shelton of Fort Worth.

Republican Chairman Steve Munisteri has repeatedly said he would eagerly welcome Davis into the governor’s race, contending that Republicans would not only defeat her in that arena but would also be able to take over the Senate seat if Davis isn’t on the ballot. Democrats say that defending the seat would be one of their highest priorities in 2014. “If Wendy runs for re-election, I don’t think you’re going to have a lot of Republicans running … she’s going to have so much money,” said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak. “But I think if she doesn’t run for re-election, it’s going to be a cattle call. You’re going to have five, six, eight, 10 candidates running.” The Republican primary field now consists of two candidates: Shelton, a pediatrician, and tea party activist Konni Burton of Colleyville. Both vow to stay in the race regardless of Davis’ plans but Shelton says he expects the contest to get more crowded if she seeks a promotion to governor.

“There may be a lot of people in this race before it’s over,” Shelton said. “I would think if she ran for governor a lot of other people would enter the race.” On the Democratic side, Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns told the Fort Worth Business Press that he might run for the District 10 Senate seat if Davis doesn’t. “It’s something that I would consider and I’m certainly looking to get a sense of what the voters are interested in,” Burns said. “But Wendy has to make her decision first before I can entertain such a question.” A Tarrant County candidate recruiting committee made up of a dozen Democratic activists “tossed around” the subject of a potential Davis successor at a meeting Aug. 5 but is holding back on seriously pursuing the issue while Davis explores her options, said Fort Worth attorney Steve Maxwell, co-chairman of the committee. If Davis does run for governor, “recruiting somebody to take her place in Senate District 10 will be our biggest priority,” Maxwell said, adding that he expects a contested Democratic primary without Davis in the Senate race. “To replace somebody like Wendy Davis will be extremely difficult for us to do but we’ve got some good people out there,” said Maxwell, who served as Tarrant County Democratic chairman from 2008 until this year. “I’m confident when the smoke clears and the process works its way through the primary we will have a great candidate and we will keep Wendy’s seat.” Washington-based political consultant Matt Angle, a Davis adviser and brother of Davis campaign consultant J.D. Angle, said Davis will likely make her decision by Labor Day. Key factors would include fundraising, campaign infrastructure and the personal commitment, he said.

The race, he said, would likely cost at least $30 million to $40 million. “It would not surprise me if it got beyond that,” Angle added. In her National Press Club speech, which included the probable themes of a gubernatorial campaign, Davis declared that Texans have grown weary of Republican policies and said she is prepared to help them find their “voice” in turning the state in a new direction. “Every Texan deserves a voice. Every voice matters,” she said. “And every Texan needs to know that the future belongs to all of us. And that we have a role to play in shaping it.” Davis assailed Republican leaders for “doing serious damage to the lives and opportunities of the very Texans they claim to represent,” saying that Texas has the lowest percentage of high school graduates and the highest percentage of uninsured children. A quarter of Texas children live in poverty, she said. She also said that Republicans “brag about our low unemployment” but are “crippling the future of our workforce by slashing funding for education.” Davis said the many Texans who rallied behind her filibuster are part of an emerging “force” that will have “a lot to say about the shape the future of Texas takes.”

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The abortion bill that Davis filibustered ultimately passed in a second special legislative session, but she has remained at the center of attention as a leading advocate of women’s health and a fierce critic of Republican policies in Texas. Her appearance at the National Press Club made her part of a long parade of speakers there that has included world leaders, members of Congress, Hollywood celebrities and captains of industry. Located just a few blocks from the White House, the club has been visited by every president since Theodore Roosevelt. Other speakers have included Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat and the Dalai Lama.