The Progressive Magazine cover story by Mary Tuma
Texas state Senator Wendy Davis faces an uphill battle in her race for governor.
After she stood for nearly thirteen hours on the floor of the state senate last June, with the aim of blocking an eleventh-hour attempt by conservative Republicans to push through one of the most restrictive pieces of abortion legislation in the country, she galvanized the grassroots in a way Democratic leaders say is unprecedented.
But she’s still behind.
Facing a formidable, well-funded, and well-disciplined opponent in conservative Republican attorney general Greg Abbott and a playing field that hasn’t granted a Democrat statewide office since 1994, Davis lags about six percentage points in the latest polls, though she has closed the gap some. Still, Davis has tremendous underdog appeal. From single mom living in a trailer to Harvard Law School to progressive Fort Worth city council member and, eventually, Texas senator, Davis has the kind of pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps personal narrative Republicans covet.
In a political sphere where likability often trumps all, her charm and name ID give her an advantage that recent Texas Dem candidates haven’t had. And her campaign, supported by a cadre of pro-choice activists, comes at a time in state history that will undoubtedly be remembered for its full-scale assault on women’s rights. The Texas legislature slashed family planning funding by $73 million, or two-thirds, in 2011, forcing an estimated seventy-six clinics to close to date. It launched an aggressive attack on Planned Parenthood, kicking the reproductive health care provider out of a lifesaving Medicaid program for low-income women. And, most recently, it enacted abortion-restrictive legislation that health leaders say is preventing access to abortion for one in three Texas women.
The stakes, say reproductive rights advocates, are higher than ever.
Plus, Davis’s campaign is getting a boost from a team of former Obama campaign veterans, like Jeremy Bird. He’s the founder of Battleground Texas, and his goal is to transform Texas into a competitive state. The approach includes everything from phone banking, canvassing, and social media to micro-targeting and data mining to reach potential voters. The group utilizes a “neighborhood team model,” which mirrors the one used by the Obama campaign. Since March, the group has helped bring almost 5,000 volunteers through county voter registration deputization sessions and has another 5,000 active volunteers.
“It’s a tremendous number,” says Battleground Texas executive director Jenn Brown.
“The excitement among Texans at the grassroots level is like something I’ve never seen before. There’s a real surge of enthusiasm on our side. Wendy has really shown that Texas can do better than it has, that the extreme policies that we’ve seen from the Republicans have hurt Texans in a lot of ways.”
So far, Battleground Texas is faring well. By July, the PAC raised $1 million, with most of the funds emanating from inside the state in relatively low dollar donations. In a possible sign of its threat to the GOP establishment, the Koch-brothers-linked FreedomWorks PAC vowed to spend $8 million to fight Battleground Texas’s efforts, according to an internal strategy memo obtained by Politico.
“In 2012, Team Obama turned out core supporters by registering new voters, offering transportation to the polls, and emphasizing early votes. Battleground Texas is sure to employ similar tactics to take advantage of these untapped constituencies,” the memo reads. “But FreedomWorks is ready to fight. We have a track record of engaging the grassroots through previous battles and victories, and have focused for years on rebuilding the Republican brand by holding legislators accountable for their votes.” At a well-attended “Stand with Texas Women” rally outside the capitol during the debate over abortion legislation, Davis stood alongside fellow Democrats and reproductive rights leaders, including Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards—the daughter of former Texas governor Ann Richards—and riled up the crowd of nearly 5,000 orange-clad activists.
Davis humbly credited the people: “It was your voices that made it possible for me to stand for those thirteen hours.”
Then, signaling her own intentions, to be made public just a few weeks later, Davis took a shot at current state leadership. “For years, too many Texas politicians have tried to boost their careers by bullying women who need help with health care,” she said, to deafening cheers and applause.
“It shouldn’t be unusual for a public official to stand and fight for the men and women who elected them. It should be a job requirement.”
But her hallmark cause—reproductive rights—didn’t find its way into her campaign speech.
The Davis camp wants to remind voters that she isn’t simply a one-issue candidate. Since 2008, Davis’s record in the Texas senate includes negotiating increases to cost-of-living wages for retired teachers and restoring some $5 billion in cuts to underfunded public schools, a fight that instigated her very first filibuster. As governor, Davis promises to continue the fight to fund public schools, create jobs, protect veterans, and—criticizing special interest tax breaks and the notorious pay-to-play strategy run by Governor Perry and Co.—to increase government accountability.
“Texans deserve better than failed leaders who dole out favors to friends and cronies behind closed doors. Texas has waited too long for a governor who knows that quid pro quo shouldn’t be the status quo,” she said during her speech.
Davis announced her run at the Wylie G. Thomas Coliseum near Fort Worth, the same spot where she received her high school diploma. She retold her struggle as a low-income, teenage single mother living in a trailer. College was a pipe dream. If it weren’t for a co-worker who handed her a booklet about a paralegal program at the local community college, Davis isn’t sure where she would be today.
From there, she enrolled in Texas Christian University and eventually graduated from Harvard with honors. But due to failed statewide policies that have led to increased tuition and limited choices for working families, the barriers to rise above circumstances like hers are much steeper now, she told the crowd. “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,” said Davis.
Invoking the populist spirit that helped propel her to the forefront of Texas politics, she continued, “We’re here because we want every child to have a world-class education to take them anywhere they want to go, so that success and opportunity is within reach of every single Texan, and no one in this great state is ever forced to dream smaller instead of bigger.”
It is this success story and the promise to deliver policies that make it possible for anyone to succeed that help voters identify with her in ways the GOP—criticized for being out of touch and entitled—cannot. Part of the Battleground Texas plan is to pull in minority voters, says Brown.
The goal of “turning Texas blue” centers on mobilizing the Latino vote. The estimated 2.1 million unregistered Latinos in Texas are an untapped resource. Only 27 percent voted Republican in the 2012 presidential election, according to a pre-election poll conducted by Latino Decisions. It also found 53 percent identified themselves as Democrats while only 15 percent were self-labeled Republicans. “A lot of the reason turnout is low has to do with the Democratic Party itself,” says Sylvia Manzano, senior analyst at Latino Decisions.
“Some people ask: What’s wrong with Latino voters? But it’s a two-way street. What are Democrats doing to win their vote or get them out to vote?” Just 25 percent of Latinos in Texas were contacted by a campaign, party, or community organization to vote or register to vote, badly trailing states like Colorado (59 percent), Ohio (52 percent), and Nevada (51 percent).
A loosely organized infrastructure, lack of investment in get-out-the-vote efforts, and largely uncompetitive races contribute to lackluster Latino voting in Texas, says Manzano. And it doesn’t help that Texas Democrats have generally been in a state of hibernation. However, the leaders of the state Democratic Party contend they are working overtime to rectify those weaknesses.
After the Republican “red wave” swept the Texas legislature in 2010, the wounded Texas Democratic Party knew it desperately needed to embark on some serious rebuilding. It ramped up efforts to restructure local parties, bulked up its staff, crafted a stronger message, rebranded its image, and increased funding by three-fold. The party has found strength in numbers, working closely on a weekly basis with allied groups like Annie’s List, the AFL-CIO, the Lone Star Project and, of course, Battleground Texas. The coordination effort is stronger than it has been in the history of the Texas Democratic Party, says party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, and so is the involvement.
While a couple of dozen people would show up at state election and party training sessions, today up to 400 eager faces grace the events. “It’s unheard of,” says Hinojosa. “It’s something we never thought we’d see after what we’ve been through as a party over the last twenty years.” One of the most important components of the Democrats’ resurgence strategy has been their ability to recruit strong statewide candidates, including Davis and fellow state senator Leticia Van de Putte, a friend of Davis and a dedicated champion of women, veterans, and immigrants. Hinojosa says the party set its sights on Davis months before her famous filibuster.
With the popular Castro brothers (San Antonio mayor Julian and twin brother U.S. Congressman Joaquin) taking their names out of contention, the path was cleared for another viable candidate. “We saw early on what Wendy Davis represented was essentially what every Texan wants for themselves and for their families: the ability to use the resources given, even if they’re limited, to make something of yourself and improve the quality of life for you and your community,” says Hinojosa, pointing to Davis’s rise from humble beginnings. “She was someone people could identify with.” Davis’s base of thousands of pro-choice advocates who stormed the capitol last summer during the abortion law debate represents an added advantage.
The Texas Democratic Party capitalized on these potential Democratic voters by keeping a list of those who showed up at the rallies, protests, and hearings surrounding the controversial bill. The overwhelming turnout netted positive results for Battleground Texas, too: The group registered five times as many voters as it did during previous field days.
“It wasn’t just against women; it was against everything that we’ve been fighting for the last sixty years we thought that we had already won,” says Hinojosa. “This is not just a women’s health care issue; this is an awakening issue. I think everyone just got fed up with the strong-arm tactics and the audacity of the Republican Party and their social agenda that did not represent mainstream Texans. They just said, ‘We’ve had enough of this.’ ”
However pivotal corralling the Latino vote may be for Texas Dems in the long term, it could be white suburban women who make the difference for a Davis victory. In a steady trend, these women seem to be recoiling from the Republican Party in recent years. While some 50 percent of suburban women classified themselves as part of the GOP in 2010, 43 percent said the same in 2012, according to polls conducted by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune. In June 2013, the number dropped again to 38 percent. At the same time, self-identified Democratic women jumped from 37 percent to 46 percent.
“For the first time in a long time, white suburban women are on the battlefield,” says Texas Democratic strategist Jason Stanford. “In one night, Wendy Davis became by some standards the most popular politician in Texas. And she did it with an issue on which the Republican political class is marginalizing itself and pushing away the voters Democrats desperately need to capture—white suburban women. These are the women who put their kids in public schools, these are the women who take birth control—two issues the Republican Party is attacking.”
A Texas Lyceum preliminary poll shows some 51 percent of women still undecided, allowing Davis to capture the possible swing votes. Some of these are moderate Republican women who feel alienated by the growing extremism of the Tea Party-pandering right wing, and the full-scale attacks on women’s health, including deep cuts to basic preventative care, like cancer screenings, pap smears, and birth control. Plus, the more than $5 billion in budget reductions to public education made by the conservative-led Texas legislature in 2011 has not pleased the suburban mom crowd.
“I think the more we get out there with our message, the more we’ll become attractive to moderate Republican women and they might join us,” says Sharon Hirsch, president of the North Texas-based Women Organizing Women Democrats. “There are a lot of issues that women care about—the economy, health care, education. It’s not only reproductive health.”
As for the power of Texas Democratic women, Hirsch expresses uncontained fervor. The Davis filibuster, she says, “lit the fire” underneath women candidates and activists alike.
“We are totally thrilled,” she says. “There has been a real void locally and statewide with women candidates. It’s a great time for us now.” But before tackling the target demographics, the voter mobilization groups must grapple with a tougher issue: actually getting Texans to the polls. Abysmal voter turnout and civic participation figures show Texans are asleep at the wheel when it comes to elections. Texas ranks dead last in the nation in terms of voter turnout, according to a joint report released last year conducted by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin and the National Conference on Citizenship.
In the 2010 midterm election, Texas ranked fifty-first in voter turnout, forty-second in voter registration, and forty-ninth in the number of citizens who contact public officials, the report found. Researchers concluded Texas is mired in a “troubling state of civic health.”
The figures for the 2012 Presidential race aren’t much better.
Texas ranked forty-eighth in voter turnout among eligible voters (a drop from the previous Presidential election), according to a study by Nonprofit Vote. “Texas isn’t a red state, it’s a non-voting state,” Stanford says bluntly. “And the reason is that non-hardcore conservatives, the moderates, and the liberals don’t believe Democrats can win. We have a chicken-and-egg problem with optimism: Nonvoters just aren’t going to vote until they think it’s a competitive election, but it’s not going to be a competitive election until nonvoters tune in.” But, he adds, “What Wendy Davis did was get those nonvoters to tune in.”
Brown agrees. “Having a strong candidate like Wendy Davis at the top of the ticket means more grassroots Texans will get engaged and voters across the state will be registering and participating and really paying attention to the election,” she says. What Davis may need atop the mobilization effort is a major gaffe from the other side, a controversial public revelation that exhibits the radical extremism of her opponent, or what Stanford calls “a clarifying moment.”
The obvious parallel is former governor Ann Richards, an outspent, feminist Democrat unafraid to stand up for women, who was written off by political pros and the mainstream press. Richards unexpectedly sank Republican opponent Clayton Williams in 1990 after he delivered a host of unrecoverable verbal blunders, including a hotly offensive “rape joke.” Comparing rape to inclement weather, Williams said, “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.”
On the national scene, insensitive and disrespectful remarks toward women have certainly cost GOP male candidates at the polls in the recent past—look at Missouri Congressman Todd Akin’s notorious “legitimate rape” comment, which destroyed his chance to beat incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill. “There’s going to need to be a Clayton Williams/Todd Akin moment,” says Stanford. “And I don’t think Texas Republicans can avoid Todd Akin moments.”
Stanford argues one of these moments has already come and passed largely under the radar of an electorate not yet paying attention. Abbott’s top adviser tweeted an article partially titled, “Why Wendy Davis is Too Stupid to Be Governor,” and Abbott himself showed gratitude on the Twittersphere to a supporter who called Davis “retard Barbie.” While Abbott later issued a “clarification,” the debacle could be a harbinger of what is to come.
An adamant anti-choice advocate, Abbott has yet to give a direct answer when asked if he opposes abortion in cases of rape or incest. In the meantime, activists and Democratic operatives revel in the Wendy Davis excitement.
They have a strong, charismatic leader for the first time in years. Moreover, governor’s mansion or not, Davis’s rise symbolizes a win for women’s rights and progressives in Texas. “The slate has never been this strong, ever—not even close,” says Hinojosa of the Democratic statewide candidates. “We have an unprecedented number of people with their sleeves rolled up and ready to fight.”
This article originally appeared in The Progressive's Feb. 2014 edition. For more great stories like this, subscribe today and get one full year for just $10!
Mary Tuma is a staff writer for the alternative newsweekly The San Antonio Current. Follow her on Twitter @TumaTime. Illustration by Zina Saunders.