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Point Austin: The Davis Challenge

The road from Haltom City to Austin

By Michael King, Fri., Oct. 4, 2013

Unless we've all been the subjects of a very elaborate and pointless scam, by the time you read this, state Sen. Wendy Davis will have announced her candidacy for governor at her Haltom City high school (actually Fort Worth, but that's another story). The "rumors" have been emanating from Dem operatives for a couple of weeks, and were Davis planning to decline to run, she could do so as easily by press release or public rally. A couple of days ago, robo-calls from her daughter, Amber, were inviting people to make the Thursday trek to Cowtown; you don't bother with that unless Mom has something to say. But what clinched it for me was Davis telling Evan Smith at the Texas Tribune Festival Sunday morning that if she were governor, she wouldn't raise property or sales taxes, and indeed would "veto" any such increases.

In Texas politics, only non-candidates can get away with imagining a rational, sustainable state tax system; would-be candidates running away from tax hikes are all but declared. Davis added the usual bromides about "loopholes" and "exemptions," but the Davis campaign is unlikely to get any more specific than that.

Nevertheless, it goes without saying that a Davis administration would be enormously more progressive than the endless Perry reign (a very low bar), or that of the current front-runner, Attorney General Greg Abbott, who's been waiting his GOP turn for a decade. Does she have a shot? – is quite another question, and certainly her odds are not easy. Texas is structurally still a red state; Abbott is better known and has bottomless pockets; 2014 is not a presidential year; and it is still to be demonstrated whether the Democratic Party can build a sufficient statewide organization to get its voters motivated and to the polls.

No doubt Davis has smarter people than me telling her all this, but as she also told Smith, she's run tough races before and she's used to being called nasty names – "Abortion Barbie" only the least of it – so she has sufficiently thick skin to take on Abbott, the Texas GOP, and their surrogate trolls. Moreover, she's got the visceral momentum of the public outcry over the Lege anti-abortion steamroll – it's at least possible that that support, much of it from previously uninvolved young people, can be sustained through the next year.

Inmates in Charge

Of course, all of this is occurring in the dismal shadow of the federal government shutdown, currently embodied by the malevolent visage of freshman Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. It was amusing that because of the D.C. crisis, Cruz couldn't do his Trib­une Fest keynote conversation in person. Instead, his video head loomed over Smith and the audience like an Orwellian balloon, as he pretended to be just a bit player in the public disaster orchestrated by the hardest right faction of the GOP – while blaming it all on Obamacare and Harry Reid.

Cruz hasn't been alone in representing the worst of Texas politics; backbencher John ("Let's Roll!") Culberson is suddenly a national spokesman for government-shutdown-as-fighting-the-terrorists. Mean­while, John Cornyn has been consigned to eating Cruz's dust – when Smith asked Cruz why he wouldn't endorse his senior colleague, Cruz began recounting his own glorious upset victory over David Dewhurst.

It remains to be seen whether this arrogant political nihilism in D.C. will finally become so repulsive as to force even long-apathetic or -cynical Texans to get off their butts and throw the bums out. It's difficult to be optimistic when a quarter of the state population still believes that Barack Oba­ma is a Muslim socialist. But Anita Perry's TribFest defection on abortion – calling it a "woman's right" to decide – is a reminder that there are plenty of Texans who find the GOP's obsession with enforcing female reproduction more than a little absurd.

Shaking the Dome

Amanda Marcotte even speculated in Slate that Anita's comment was in fact calculated to calm moderate Republicans, or even to soften her husband's national image pending another futile presidential run (even as Rick told reporters it was all a misunderstanding). Even if that's true, it's a reminder that there are plenty of such voters who need to be placated, often the same folks who won't vote Republican until they've been reassured that state policies that disproportionately disadvantage minority groups actually have nothing to do with racism.

Davis will need to win over plenty of those Texas "moderates" – such as they are – if she hopes to get within striking distance of Abbott. On the other hand, Abbott could be bloodied a bit by the acerbic Tom Pauken, and on election day, diminished from the right by Libertarian Kathie Glass or maverick independent Debra Medina.

Davis' task is undoubtedly daunting, but not impossible. Although she's already being painted as a one-issue candidate, her first filibuster was over public education cuts, and the uproar over that issue had hardly subsided when it was amplified as the GOP resumed its assault on women's health care, of which the abortion restrictions are only the most visible aspect. Many young voters, especially young women, have had it up to their keisters with the GOP's moralistic approaches to public policy, most specifically the fomenting of anti-abortion hysteria partly as a means to distract and suppress demand for broader social programs. If that understanding catches fire and maintains its heat through next summer, Davis just might shake the Capitol Dome, one more time.

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