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Davis Enters Race, Mudslinging Begins

A governor's race with lots of buzz

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 11, 2013

Wendy Davis supporters gathered at Scholz Garten on Thursday to watch the gubernatorial candidate's kickoff announcement.
Wendy Davis supporters gathered at Scholz Garten on Thursday to watch the gubernatorial candidate's kickoff announcement.
Photo by Jana Birchum

When the banner came down, it was official. At roughly 4:50pm on Oct. 3, at the Wiley G. Thomas Coliseum in Haltom City – the same stage she had crossed to graduate from high school – Fort Worth Dem­o­cratic Sen. Wendy Davis entered the 2014 race to be governor of Texas.

In her address to supporters, Davis laid out her biography as "the granddaughter of farmers from Muleshoe": a single mother, divorced by 19, who worked her way through community college, then on to the Fort Worth City Council and finally the state senate. Her platform was simple: To give everyone else the opportunities she had. She said, "We're here today because we believe it's time to give all Texans a voice in their future and a place in Texas' future."

Davis' official, formal announcement was scheduled for 5pm, so uncovering the "Wendy for Governor" sign was an early treat for supporters at the rally. But her decision to challenge the Republicans' two-decade stranglehold on the governor's mansion was already the worst kept secret in Texas politics. She had become the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination back in June, when she mounted an 13-hour filibuster against new GOP-authored abortion restrictions. But the roots of her candidacy stretch back to 2011, when she ran a much shorter filibuster of the GOP's multibillion dollar cuts to public education.

When Davis delivered her announcement, she steered clear of any mention of the reproductive rights debate, instead concentrating greatly on the 2011 education fight. While she admitted that the filibuster had only delayed the cuts by days, she said it "bought enough time for educators and parents to come to the Capitol in a special session during summer break and make their voices heard." That additional pressure meant that "we were able to undo over $3 billion of that damage and give the next generation a chance at success."

Davis immediately secured the endorsement of teachers union Texas AFT, which praised her not only for her fight for adequate school finance, but also her stance on "the misuse of testing." Calling her "a champion for public education," Texas AFT president Linda Bridges said, "With Davis at the helm, we'll finally put an end to the ideological puppet show of the current governor and welcome in a new era of thoughtful governance that seeks progress and solutions over party politics."

While the abortion issue was conspicuous by its absence in this opening volley, reproductive rights group NARAL Pro-Choice lauded her candidacy. National president Ilyse Hogue said she had "witnessed firsthand Wendy's power to electrify the state and the nation," while Texas executive director Heather Busby framed the filibuster as being about individual medical choices: Davis "has inspired women across the state, and now those women are ready to fight for her in this campaign, the way she fought for us."

Unsurprisingly, the anti-choice factions were quick to make this race all about abortion. Texas Right to Life announced on Oct. 4 that it will be running attack ads against Davis, concentrating on white evangelical and Hispanic Catholic voters in South Texas and the Valley. Heading straight into mudslinging, the group called her "fanatical" about medical terminations and "the new harridan for third trimester abortion."

There was also a quick response from Davis' Republican opponents. Former Tex­as Workforce Commission chair Tom Pauken welcomed her to the race, saying that "while I disagree strongly with her liberal views, she is very intelligent and will be a formidable candidate in this race." He seemed far more eager to tear strips out of his primary opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, calling him "a career politician who will not debate a true conservative or even state his positions on critical issues." Abbott didn't return fire on Pauken, but said that, in Davis, "Texas Democrats are attempting to conjure support for California-style candidates that try to sell Obama's liberal agenda and go against what makes Texas great."

Serious political calculations surround Davis' decision to run for governor, not least finding a Democratic replacement for her senate seat. If it falls to the Republicans next November, the Dems will lack the votes to block GOP legislation that requires two-thirds approval in the Senate. However, since Republicans have been leaving much of their most radical agenda – including abortion bans – to special sessions when the two-thirds rule doesn't apply, that point could be moot. More importantly, Demo­cratic activists calculate that having Davis at the top of the ticket could energize their base, and put more GOP-held legislative seats in play. Other candidates are already hitching their wagon to Davis, with Travis County Precinct 4 Commissioner hopeful Garry Brown and House District 50 candidate Celia Israel quickly issuing statements of support.

While the conventional wisdom is that Davis faces an uphill struggle against Abbott, the presumptive GOP nominee, the most recent round of Texas Lyceum polling showed a race still left to be won. In a survey conducted Sept. 6-20, Abbott led Davis 29% to 21% in a head-to-head contest. However, that means 50% of voters remain undecided; moreover, the poll was held before Davis had declared or started seriously fund­rais­ing. And of the pair, only Davis has real recent campaign experience. Abbott hasn't faced a serious challenge since he beat then-former Austin mayor Kirk Watson in 2002. By contrast, Davis was never supposed to hold her Republican-leaning Fort Worth district. Yet not only did she dethrone incumbent Kim Brimer in 2008, but she fought off a well-funded and determined assault by former state rep Mark Shelton in 2012.

The GOP faces an additional kink in its plans: the Oct. 2 declaration by Kathie Glass that she plans to run as Libertarian candidate for governor for a second time. In 2010, Glass pulled in 2.2% of the vote when Gov. Rick Perry defeated former Houston mayor Bill White. If Davis can close the gap with Abbott, even a small turnout for the Libertarians could help the Democrat substantially.

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