By KATIE GLUECK, POLITICO
Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis last week sent the clearest signal yet that she’s eyeing a gubernatorial run, telling supporters in an email blast that she will announce her next steps in early October. Attorney General Greg Abbott is the presumptive GOP nominee and, by all accounts, the clear front-runner in the race to succeed Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
“I expect it to be a bruising campaign,” said Texas GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri. “There’s a lot of material on Wendy Davis. I expect it to be within the bounds of appropriate political discussions. She’s going to have a lot of questions to answer.”
Matt Angle, a Davis adviser, said that Republicans — who have held the governor’s mansion for nearly two decades — need to brace themselves for a real race if she runs. He contended that Abbott isn’t used to competitive contests and that his team has already blundered.
Angle pointed to Abbott recently tweeting thanks to a supporter who referred to Davis as “retard Barbie,” though he later walked that back. In another instance, Angle noted, an Abbott adviser retweeted a user who said Davis is “too stupid to be governor.”
“Early on, it doesn’t look like Abbott really has a firm grip on a statewide race,” Angle, also director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic group aiming to turn Texas blue, said. “Early on, there are unforced errors. Wendy Davis is not officially running, and she’s all in his head. Look at his consultants hurling personal insults at her; he retweeted an insult. Just the kind of errors you see made by people running for city council rather than people running for governor.”
Davis catapulted into the national spotlight this summer after mounting a lengthy filibuster that temporarily derailed a restrictive abortion bill. That effort drew attention and plaudits from national Democrats up to President Barack Obama himself, who issued a “#standwithWendy” tweet.
Since then, she has appeared in the pages of Vogue, on stage at Washington’s National Press Club and as a speaker at an EMILY’s List event. She represents a state Senate district that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and in appearances like the one at the National Press Club has sought to paint herself as a moderate.
Abbott entered the race with more than $20 million in his war chest, while Davis pulled in about $1 million in the wake of this summer’s filibuster. The attorney general is crisscrossing the state, making the conservative case against Obamacare and government regulations. He is running on a platform of “preserving Constitutional, traditional values — like faith, family and freedom for future generations,” as his campaign website proclaims.
Abbott is no stranger to running statewide campaigns — he’s in his third term as attorney general and is considered a workhorse with sterling conservative credentials. He is paralyzed from the waist down, an issue he confronted head-on in his campaign announcement speech: “Some politicians talk about having a steel spine. I actually have one,” he said — before “the whispering” about his health could start, according to one Republican strategist.
Observers say Abbott will champion the Lone Star State’s economic growth and aim to paint Davis as a liberal easily linked to Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“Since announcing for his bid for governor, General Abbott has communicated that his focus will be on the continued growth of the Texas economy to preserve its reputation as No. 1 in the nation,” Abbott spokesman Avdiel Huerta wrote in an email. “To accomplish this, he believes we need to launch a new era of education reform and expand our transportation and water infrastructure to meet the growing demands of people moving to Texas as a result of our great economic environment.”
Davis would most likely seek to challenge the idea that Texas is on the right path, focusing on education problems, high rates of uninsured people and growth in low-wage jobs. She made her national name battling abortion restrictions, and Republicans would depict her as an extremist champion of late-term abortions, but neither side expects her to build her campaign around the issue.
Harold Cook, a longtime Democratic strategist who knows Davis well, acknowledged that any Democrat running statewide faces an uphill battle in Texas. But Davis has broader appeal than most others who have tried, he said.
If she can make inroads among suburban women and increase turnout among Democrats, I don’t know if she’ll win or not, but she’s gonna get pretty damn close,” he said.
Her support among those women helped propel her to victory in the last state Senate race. A senior national Democrat familiar with the governor’s race added that Davis would also aim to expand her base with Hispanic voters and some independents and Republicans.
“She will make the case that yet another member of the old boys’ club in Austin is not the best way to move Texas forward,” the source said. “She’s the best one to move it forward.”
But in a state Romney won by 16 percentage points and in which Republicans control more than 60 percent of statewide offices, Abbott would most likely try to tie Davis to the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
She is ranked fourth among the most liberal senators in the statehouse among those who have served two terms, according to an analysis from Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. In her first term, Davis ranked second among those most liberal but has since moved toward the center, according to Jones, who tracks ideological leanings of state legislators.
“[Among] the 31 senators, even in the most recent session, when she’s moved to the center, she’s still in the most liberal quartile,” Jones said in an interview. “If you look at the median Texas voter, she is to the left of the voter. You could make the case that Abbott is to the right of that voter.”
Angle dismissed the argument that Davis is a liberal, citing the conservative tilt of the Texas Republican senators against whom she’s measured.
“Republicans, they’re so far off the edge to the right, anyone to the left of them sits at the center or right of center,” he said. “If you have a centrist point of view in Texas, you’re to their left. It doesn’t make you a liberal.”
National Democrats would most likely play key roles in Davis’s fundraising efforts — several already feted her at a high-dollar Washington fundraiser this summer. Republicans plan to invoke some of the more polarizing Democrats on the trail should Davis run.
“Nancy Pelosi and President Obama are not good names” in Texas, Munisteri said of the state’s Republican Party. “It’s going to be easy to tie that to her.”
Democrats also aren’t dewy-eyed about how those names play in the Lone Star State. Cook, the Democratic strategist, said Davis would be well-positioned to fend off links to Obama. She’s articulate and charismatic, he said, and is likely to attract “nontraditional Democratic voters,” like women and independents. But whether that’s enough to overcome ties to Washington Democrats — and to win in deep-red Texas — remains unclear.
“[Whether] she succeeds or not is really a fair open question,” Cook said. “I don’t know and neither does anybody else.”