Wendy Davis's decision in Texas race could echo beyond governor's mansion

Texas Sen. Wendy Davis’s (D) decision on whether to jump into the state’s gubernatorial race has implications for more than just control of the governor’s mansion.

She rose to national prominence this month following an 11-hour filibuster of a restrictive abortion bill that, though it failed, sparked speculation that she could be the party’s best shot at the gubernatorial race. And her national popularity brought her $1 million in donations over two weeks in June, largely from grassroots supporters excited by her tactic.

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Her decision on whether to run could be both a catalyst for, and a progress check on, a growing Democratic movement to turn the longtime red state purple.

Key Democratic players in the movement say if Davis runs, her candidacy could accelerate the party’s efforts and potentially make Texas competitive in time for the upcoming presidential election — a prospect that could seriously complicate Republican hopes of taking back the White House in 2016.

Hillary Clinton is already popular in Texas, and many of her supporters believe she would’ve been able to put the state in play had she earned the party’s nomination in 2008 — and could still do so, if she runs in 2016.

The prospect of losing the state’s 38 electoral votes could increase pressure on Republicans to play in swing states or expand the map to typically Democratic havens to find a path to 270 votes.

But if she decides against running, and chooses instead to pursue the lieutenant governor’s race or defend her current seat, her decision may be interpreted as evidence the effort to turn Texas purple isn’t picking up traction.

One Davis adviser, former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Executive Director Matt Angle, said her entry into the race will be based partly on whether Democrats have built the structure to win statewide.

‘If Wendy decides to run, it will be because of the belief that there is a strong enough structure to give her the win,” he said.

Democrats believe that demographics are developing in their favor, noting that Hispanics and other minorities that typically vote Democratic are making up an increasing portion of eligible voters in Texas.

But without the infrastructure to win, demographics are largely meaningless — and the challenge in building that infrastructure is herculean, Democrats agree.

They’ll need to begin to recruit candidates at the local level, and draw the types of campaign staffers and volunteers that can implement the new technologies and tactics that win elections.

They’ll need to begin building a voter information database, and begin to “identify Republicans who have failed,” as Angle put it.

And they’ll need not only a financial structure, which entails convincing Democratic Texas donors to keep their money within the state, but they’ll also need to establish and develop super PACs and nonprofits to play in Texas races to support Democratic candidates.

Angle’s group, the Lone Star Project, along with a handful of others — including one run by Obama campaign veteran Jeremy Bird, called Battleground Texas — are taking the lead on those efforts.

Bird said that his group is looking to turn Texas blue in the long term. Battleground Texas has been cited as setting 2020 as the goal to make it a swing state on the presidential level.

But he admitted that the timeline depends on “good candidates stepping up and being courageous and running,” and a strong Democrat in the gubernatorial race next year could move up their deadline.

“I think actually if somebody strong does run statewide it might be a massive change of what everybody felt could happen over the next couple of cycles,” he said. “I think all of [our efforts are] sped up with a great candidate who runs in 2014. I think it’s definitely helpful in terms of building the kind of volunteer base that you need, and helping with that urgency.”

Republicans, too, are aware of the potential effects a Davis gubernatorial bid could have on the viability of the Democratic Party in the state.

Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based GOP strategist, said he doesn’t think Democrats can yet win at the statewide level, and noted that Davis might be seen as too extreme to win in Texas, as she’s become characterized by her abortion crusade.

But he did admit Davis’s margin could be an indicator for Democrats of whether the state is worth an investment on the presidential level in 2016.

“If she runs in 2014, I do think it could speed up the timeline [for Democratic investment in Texas]. Depending on how much she loses by, it helps decide whether Texas is a state national Democrats want to play in,” he said.

At the same time, however, Davis would “run to win,” as one adviser put it. And she can’t win without that infrastructure. And the infrastructure will be harder to build without her in the race.

“There's a certain amount of infrastructure that can only be built around a candidate,” Angle said.

It’s a catch-22 for a candidate at a curious crossroads in her career.

One Davis aide acknowledged that Davis is in a particularly tough spot, having to worry not only about her own political future but that of the Democratic Party in Texas — and even nationwide.

“You never want to be the savor of anything. It would tend to increase the pressure considerably,” the aide said.

And it’s unclear whether Davis’s choosing the gubernatorial race would ultimately be the best option for the party.

She faces a difficult battle if she chooses the gubernatorial race, not just because Democrats’ viability statewide remains a question mark. Her most likely Republican opponent, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, already has about $20 million socked away for the race.

Multiple Democrats insisted her loss wouldn’t set the party back in terms of organizing for the future, and Bird said Battleground Texas was honest with donors when explaining that “we’re looking at a long-term process here,” but it would undercut their arguments to national donors, and local politicos, that Texas can be viable in the long-run.

And as Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at University of Texas-Austin, put it, “the cost of the Democrats losing that seat at the state level in terms of state policy are really pretty serious.”

The Texas state Senate operates under regular order, which requires the consent of two-thirds of the body to bring most issues to the floor. Republicans hold 19 and Democrats hold 12 of the 31-seat body, and some Democratic senators are known to occasionally defect from their party, meaning every Democrat matters when it comes to blocking Republican-backed legislation they oppose.

Davis won in a hard-fought, expensive race, and Democrats have few options to defend the seat.

“If Democrats [lose Davis’s seat], you lose a critical piece of institutional leverage in an environment where you have none,” Henson said.

Republicans would have an easier route to passing conservative legislation, which would inevitably further dampen Democratic efforts to put the state in play at the local level and beyond.

The question facing Democrats, Henson said, is a tough one: “Do you gamble [Davis’s seat] in a bid to likely lose the governorship, or do you hang on to it and use her prominence to build for the future?”

Davis has time to answer that question for herself, but not much time. December is Texas’ filing deadline, and most observers say she has until early fall to announce her plans.

But as Davis admitted herself, in a story addressing her potential impact on the state party, accompanied by the cover treatment in Texas Monthly this month, “Somebody has to step up.”