In June 2013, Texas state senator Wendy Davis erupted onto the national scene with an 11-hour filibuster against a bill to restrict abortions in Texas, and became known as a Democratic Party "rising star."
When she announced that she'd run for governor just three and a half months later, the field cleared — and some speculated that an increasingly-Hispanic Texas could might turn toward the Democrats. But now, polling shows that Davis is near-certain to lose her election next week — potentially by double digits.
And recently, she's only made national headlines for running an offensive attack ad.
Davis' campaign has been criticized as poorly-run, and some have wondered if she was the right nominee for the party. But these criticisms miss the point — both the long-term structure of Texas politics and the state's short-term situation mean that 2014 never looked like a promising year for a Democratic comeback. "The assessment of Wendy Davis has been a little unfair, and too focused on her rather than on the context of the candidacy," says Professor James Henson of the University of Texas at Austin. Here's why.
Texas hasn't become more Democratic yet
The Republican advantage in Texas has been deep and enduring. "No Democrat has come within 12 points of winning a statewide race here since 1998," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist from Southern Methodist University. "Good Democratic candidates have lost by 12 to 14 points, and poor ones have lost by 30." Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, concurs: "When you look at who actually turns out to vote in the state, any Republican starts off with somewhere between a 10 and 15 point advantage."
Since Obama's strong performance among Hispanics in the 2012 elections, however, Democrats have increasingly hoped that a demographic transformation of Texas would lead their party to greater success. In 2005, Texas first became a majority-minority state, and the Hispanic population has only grown more since. "It was 38 percent in 2010, it could be 40 percent now," says Jillson.
Yet so far, these new demographics haven't given Democrats much reason to celebrate — Obama didn't do any better in Texas than previous presidential candidates. One reason why, Nate Cohn argued, is that "White Texans keep getting more Republican." Another reason is that Hispanics make up a far lower percentage of the state's electorate than its population — only 22 percent in 2012, according to a report by Latino Decisions. Some are too young to vote, and some aren't citizens. But there's also low registration and turnout among Hispanics, and particularly among lower-income Hispanics.
"These demographic changes are being filtered through a political system that has very low voter turnout among the groups that would possibly cause political change," says Henson. Former Obama staffer Jeremy Bird launched the high-profile organizing effort Battleground Texas in 2013 to try and change that — but always emphasized that it would be "a really long-term project." Jillson expects it will be "the work of decades."
There are some other features of the Texas political situation that always made a Davis victory seem very unlikely. Unlike in Kansas, where the GOP has fractured ideologically, Texas Republicans have tended to unite around conservative candidates who oust moderates in primaries. What's more, Texas' budget situation is basically the opposite of beleaguered Kansas'. "The big issue in 2015 is going to be what to do with the gargantuan surplus the state has," Jones says. Additionally, outgoing Republican Governor Rick Perry remains popular despite his indictment, so there's little sense among Texas voters that they need a major change — particularly in a year that looks to go poorly for Democrats nationally.
Overall, the conditions that would enable a major upheaval of the state's politics don't exist now. "While Texas may eventually turn blue, it was never going to turn blue this election cycle barring some cataclysmic gaffe by Greg Abbott," Jones says. Henson concurs: "The story of the campaign has always been, 'Would Wendy Davis's really rapid ascension be the beginning of a successful effort to reverse what have been deep structural trends in Texas?'"
Davis isn't losing because of her personal traits or a bad campaign
Since Davis is headed for defeat, there's naturally been some second-guessing of whether Democrats should have staked their hopes on someone known primarily for her defense of abortion rights. But the abortion issue hasn't been the focus of Abbott's campaign. "Abbott himself has problems with public opinion on abortion," says Henson. "Neither side really wants to run on abortion, because public opinion is too closely divided and fraught." Plus, despite her national reputation as a liberal icon, Davis holds moderate views on the death penalty, on working with business — and even on abortion itself, since she's said she could support banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
According to Henson, though, the campaign hasn't really been about issues at all — Abbott's strategy has been mainly a partisan one, attempting to tie Davis to Obama and national Democrats. "Almost any discussion of issues immediately results in Republican campaigns comparing Davis to President Obama," says Henson. "So I think structure matters more than her political profile."
Davis' campaign has also been criticized for a series of gaffes, and got unflattering coverage in the national press twice in recent weeks. First, Davis ran an ad mentioning the wheelchair-bound Abbott's disability that Political Wire's Taegan Goddard called "among the most vicious you'll ever see." Second, Davis's campaign criticized Abbott for not answering a hypothetical question about whether he would have opposed interracial marriage in the past — even though Abbott's wife would be the first Hispanic First Lady in Texas history.
But these probably haven't mattered too much either. "Certainly she hasn't run an error-free campaign and if you're starting off with a significant deficit, every error costs you," Jones says. "But the minor errors her campaign made perhaps will cause her to lose by one or two percentage points more, but nothing more than that."
The question is whether Davis will do better than past Democrats
Ultimately, most Texas political observers understand that Davis was always very likely to lose. She will be judged instead on whether she draws a greater share of the vote than the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Bill White — whether she made progress for the party. White received no national buzz and lost to Rick Perry by 12.7 percentage points in a very Republican year.
"If she does worse than Bill White, despite having all this money, the national star power, Battleground Texas, and demographics in her favor, that's going to really demoralize Texas Democrats and set them back in their efforts to turn Texas purple or blue," Jones says. "On the other hand, if she manages to move the margin of defeat to 6 or 7, that will likely invigorate the Democratic Party and create a virtuous circle of more investment and enthusiasm."
The latest HuffPost Pollster average has Davis trailing by 11.7 percentage points — one point better than White's loss. But polling of the race has been sparse, and it's possible that the few ones released are underestimating turnout among Hispanics. Regardless of whether Davis outperforms White, though, it's clear that Texas isn't turning blue for a a long time to come. The question is whether 2014 will be viewed as a small step in that direction — or a step backward for the Democratic Party.
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