Davis bid for governor to test Democrats’ appeal in a changing Texas

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis's (D) expected decision to run for governor will give Democrats their best chance at winning the office in two decades — an opportunity to show they can compete statewide in the longtime GOP bastion.

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Davis faces an uphill climb in her race to succeed Gov. Rick Perry (R).

A Davis win in 2014 would prove Democrats are alive in Texas and signal a potentially seismic shift in the country’s electoral map.

But if Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) wins comfortably, it could force Democrats to scale back their ambitions in the country’s second-largest state.

Davis, whose filibuster of a Texas law to restrict abortion rights made her a national sensation, is expected to announce she’ll run for governor early next week.

“It's a really hard race, it's a long narrow path, but there is a credible path for her,” says one Texas Democrat close to Davis, who asked to speak on background because she hasn’t officially announced her decision.

“We’re all very hopeful. But it's definitely tempered by the reality of how hard it is.”

No Democrat has won a statewide race for any office in Texas for more than a decade, and the last time a Democrat won a gubernatorial race in Texas was 1990.

Mitt Romney carried the state by a 16-point margin — and nearly 1.4 million votes — in 2012. Davis trailed Abbott by 48 to 40 percent in a mid-July survey from Democratic firm Public Policy Polling.

But Democrats hope the state's shifting demographics can help them be competitive there sooner rather than later. 

Texas's Hispanic population has exploded, and the number of African Americans has grown in recent years as well — more than 90 percent of the state’s population growth since 2000 has been non-white.

Texas is now a majority-minority state, and its economic boom has also attracted fewer conservative white voters from other parts of the country.

“When you combine the population changes and the attitude and sentiment of the Republican Party towards Hispanics, we're quickly reaching a tipping point. If not in 2014, by the end of the decade there will be Democrats elected statewide again,” says Texas state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D), a rising star in the state party.

Martinez Fischer says there are 3.4 million Hispanic voting-aged citizens in the state who either haven’t registered to vote or are unregistered. He points out that Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) margin of victory in 2010 was slightly more than 600,000 votes.

“When we start engaging these folks with our infrastructure and crystallize the difference between the parties, that's going to do a lot,” he said. “If you get one third of the people not voting pissed off, it's game over for Republicans.”

Republicans remain skeptical about Davis’s chances, however.

“I don't think it's going to be a race. No Democrat has won more than 42 percent in the Rick Perry era. I could see her get to 46 percent but not much further,” said Texas-based Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.

Martinez Fischer disagreed, predicting that Davis would be a tough candidate in the race should she run.

“The most appealing thing about Wendy is the fact that she's not afraid to stand up for her convictions, to take a principled stand,” he said, talking up not only her most recent filibuster but an earlier one in which she fought GOP cuts to education funding.

“She's not a polarizing individual as an office holder. You don't win a swing district by being an ideologue. She has some appeal.”

Democrats have taken notice of the state’s population shift — and are excited about Davis as a candidate.

A group run by a number of top-level former field staff for President Obama’s campaigns is working on a large-scale voter registration and field operation in the state called Battleground Texas.

The group raised $1 million in its first six months and has so far trained 3,000 people to be voter registrants in the state.

The organization’s goals could be furthered by a Davis candidacy. Battleground Texas has been pushing a ‘We Want Wendy’ campaign to convince her to run, and a competitive statewide race would help bring enthusiasm and money to the state and the organization.

In turn, some Democrats expect Battleground Texas to step in as a major player in the Democratic field operation. Texas’s lax state elections laws allow candidates to work closely with outside groups.

“This really is a long-term process. The goals are changing day to day. If Wendy decides to run and we hope she does, she'd be an incredible candidate, you have to step up the timeline and engage more quickly,” said one Democrat familiar with the group’s efforts.

Davis will start off the race at a serious financial disadvantage — Abbott has already raised more than $20 million for the race. Texas is a prohibitively expensive state to campaign in, with some of the largest and most costly media markets in the country.

She is likely to get serious national fundraising support, however.

EMILY's List, a group that backs pro-abortion rights Democratic women, has already been helping her raise her national profile, and a number of senators have stepped up to help her fundraise for the campaign at stops in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and New York City.

Texas statewide candidates have no contribution limits, making it much easier to raise huge sums of money.

A source close to Davis predicts she’ll need to raise $40 million for the race.  Even if her campaign reaches that mark, Davis will still likely be outspent by Abbott and his allies, the source said.

A big question is whether she can raise the necessary national resources, while carving the centrist image she’ll need to compete in the state.

Republicans say she’s already become closely identified with abortion rights, an issue that doesn’t play well for Democrats in the state. Davis has won tough elections in a GOP-leaning state Senate district, but a statewide campaign is a very different animal.

Mackowiak says Davis “talks like a centrist and runs like a centrist,” but that Republicans will have plenty fodder to paint her as a liberal.

“The kind of candidates that can win statewide in Texas as Democrats are going to be moderate pro-business candidates. Liberal donors across the country don't want to see that,” he says. “There's a real tension between the kind of candidate that could be successful in Texas and the type they can raise money behind. Wendy is the candidate they can raise money for.”