DAVE MONTGOMERY Austin Bureau
As she waited in line for an event at the recent Texas Democratic Convention in Dallas, 34-year-old Midland party activist Amanda Rosales sported a blue T-shirt emblazoned with a five-word declaration: “When women vote, Democrats win.” The message might have been a bit simplistic – and subject to rebuttal by Republicans – but it concisely summed up one of Texas Democrats’ fundamental objectives as they head toward the Nov. 4 election. Capturing the women’s vote – particularly white suburban women who typically vote Republican – is considered essential to Democratic hopes of propelling gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and other statewide contenders to victory in the fall after years of defeats by Republicans. “If you’re a Wendy Davis, the two groups that you’re most focused on for November are Hispanics and Anglo women,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “And those are two groups where you both need to improve your vote share and ramp up turnout.”
Davis, a two-term state senator from Fort Worth who rode to political stardom by filibustering a Republican bill restricting abortions, plunged into the governor’s race in October but she has consistently trailed Republican nominee Greg Abbott in the polls. The latest University of Texas/Texas Triune poll in June showed Abbott, the Texas attorney general, with a 12-point lead. In order to close the gap against her Republican adversary, say analysts, Davis must overcome being tied strictly to the abortion issue and reach beyond her Democratic base to appeal to conservative independents and Republicans who might be disenchanted with the GOP after 14 years under outgoing Gov. Rick Perry. One potential building block centers on white suburban women, who have shown signs of frustration with Republican policies, according to polls. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll in February of this year showed Davis trailing by only two points in that category although Abbott has since stretched his advantage and led Davis by 43 percent to 30 percent among suburban women in the June UT/Texas Tribune poll. Abbott had a 10-point lead among all women voters in the June poll. At their three-day state convention, which ended June 28, Democrats vigorously signaled their intention to reach for the women’s vote with a relentless display of hard-hitting rhetoric and a strong focus on their two women candidates at the top of the ticket. Davis and state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, were often at each other’s side and delivered rousing back-to-back acceptance speeches that constituted the convention’s high point. Davis cast Abbott as part of the state’s “good old boys network” and stirred cheers and thunderous applause by asserting that women can no longer be relegated to the sidelines. “Women can go to college now. We can vote now,” Davis declared. “And we no longer iron the pants any more. We wear them.” Democrats also forged a first-of-a-kind section in their platform devoted solely to women. Declaring that Republicans have “maintained a targeted attack on the rights and autonomy of Texas women” for the past 14 years, the platform affirms Democrats’ commitment to equal pay and equal rights for women and expresses opposition to “any and all attempts” to overturn the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortions.
Democrats also assailed Perry’s veto of a bill that Davis sponsored in 2013 to create a state version of the Lilly Ledbetter Act that would make it easier for plaintiffs to sue over pay discrimination. Abbott has also signaled his opposition to the bill, echoing Perry’s position that equal pay protections are already imbedded in state law. Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project that conducts the UT/Texas Tribune poll, said that Davis’ earlier close showing among women dissipated after heightened campaigning by Abbott and “increased political interest” among Republicans. But he said the polls are likely to display further shifts as Election Day gets closer. “An important question lurking below the surface here is just how many women predisposed to vote Republican are open to persuasion by the Davis campaign,” said Henson. Polling between 2010 to 2013 showed that the number of suburban women who described themselves as Republicans dropped from 50 percent to as low as 38 percent. It has since climbed back to 50 percent in the latest poll, conducted in June. Forty-one percent of suburban women describe themselves as Democrats, Henson said. Jones, the Rice University analyst, said that white women represent an important bloc in the upcoming election. For Davis to be competitive, he said, the Democratic senator must do far better than Democratic nominee Bill White did in that category in his unsuccessful 2010 race against Perry.
Perry had 68 percent of the vote among white women while White, a former Houston mayor, had 30 percent. Jennifer Hall, chairwoman of the Tarrant County Republican Party, disputed Democrats’ assertions that Republicans are carrying out a war on women or that Republican women are susceptible to leaving the party. “There is certainly no war on women,” said the 44-year-old mother of four. “That’s a buzz word that Democrats are trying to create as an issue.” Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak acknowledged that the presence of two women on the Democratic ticket could inherently appeal to women voters. But he said Abbott has taken steps to offset a potential disadvantage by repeatedly campaigning with his wife, Cecilia, who would be the state’s first Hispanic first lady. He also is often introduced by his daughter, Audrey. Abbott’s high-profile engagement on education also ties him to an issue that typically has a strong degree of interest among women, said Mackowiak. Although Davis and Van de Putte both trail their Republican adversaries, Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said the polls mask a deep-seated reservoir of enthusiasm and energy that he said is drawing more and more voters to the Democratic ticket. “Right now you cannot gauge what’s going to happen in this election by these polls at this time,” he told reporters. “We can close this gap.”