How the Abortion Filibuster May Have Set Texas Democrats Up for Failure

When Davis became a star candidate for governor, Battleground Texas had little choice but to jump on board.

Wendy Davis concedes from her campaign headquarters in Fort Worth.
Patrick Michels
Wendy Davis concedes from her campaign headquarters in Fort Worth.

Fifteen months ago, in the aftermath of Wendy Davis’ filibuster and the fight against a stringent anti-abortion bill, many Texas liberals were feeling energized. They had lost the battle in July 2013—the Legislature had passed the bill—but many progressives believed they might win the war. They talked about the activism against the abortion bill growing into a movement that would help lift the beleaguered Texas Democrats back to relevance. There was hope.

Today, after Republicans swept to victory by surprisingly large margins, little of that hope remains. The political landscape is looking especially bleak for Texas Democrats.

I’m wondering whether the abortion fight and Davis’ filibuster may have—ironically and unintentionally—contributed to the Democrats’ 2014 catastrophe.

Let me state right away that there’s no doubt the huge protests against the anti-abortion bill in 2013 were extraordinary. No one had ever seen anything like it at the Texas Capitol—especially the night protestors shouted down senators and prevented passage of the bill. I’m not blaming protestors or Davis’ filibuster for last night’s results.

But the filibuster started a cascade of events that made the 2014 election especially bad for Democrats.

Let’s start with Battleground Texas. Perhaps the most damaging news yesterday for Democrats was the shrinking electorate. Voter turnout was down statewide from four years ago, and 283,400 fewer people voted for Wendy Davis than for Bill White in 2010.

That wasn’t supposed to happen. Battleground Texas, the group of Obama campaign veterans, had showed up in Texas in early 2013 with a plan to steadily build a turnout operation to help elect Democrats. The Battleground people said all along that their work wouldn’t be complete in just one cycle, but they have spent more than 18 months working hard to expand the electorate. On Election Day, they had little to show for those efforts. In fact, fewer people turned out.

The shrinking electorate is nothing short of disastrous for Democratic hopes of flipping the state and for Battleground’s long-term plans. Last night, Battleground staffers put on a brave face. They sent out a press release repeating their mantra that their turnout effort was never only focused on this election, that they’re playing the long game.

Well, maybe. But building a statewide grassroots turnout operation costs money, and you have to wonder whether Battleground’s failures this election cycle will throttle its fundraising.

All of which leads me back to the filibuster. Did the filibuster force Battleground to take on a statewide effort before it was ready?

Before the abortion fight, Battleground Texas planned to start small. The group’s leaders talked about building grassroots support in local races, perhaps in Harris County and, over several election cycles, growing their organization. Here’s what Battleground’s Jeremy Bird, Obama’s former national field director, told the Observer in May 2013, two months before the filibuster, “[T]his is a long-term process, and we’re going to have to show results at the local level and then sort-of build up from that.”

He also added, “One thing I’m really interested in is at the county level. I think there are a lot of counties you’re starting to see shade blue. There are some particularly interesting county races.”

That seemed like the smart approach. In a state the size of Texas, rushing to implement a statewide turnout operation in one election cycle was probably asking for trouble. It might blow up in your face. Bird seemed keenly aware of the risk: “We’re not going to let the Republicans put a year on it for us and say if we don’t have a Democratic senator or governor or presidential election that moves our way, we’re a failure.”

But then came the filibuster that turned Wendy Davis into a national star and changed Battleground’s calculus.

Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth). Texas Democrats
Patrick Michels
Wendy Davis during the abortion filibuster.

Even before her 13-hour filibuster, Davis was being talked about as a potential statewide candidate. After the filibuster, Davis had to run for governor. In retrospect, having suffered a huge defeat to Greg Abbott, Democrats may have been better off if Davis had run for reelection to the Texas Senate or run for lieutenant governor. But neither of those were an option. After the filibuster, whether she was ready to run statewide or not—and some Democrats privately suggested she wasn’t ready—her sudden celebrity left her little choice; she had to take advantage of the moment.

So did Battleground Texas. When Davis became a star candidate for governor, Battleground Texas had little choice but to jump on board. How could the group turn down what seemed like a terrific opportunity to revive Democratic politics in Texas? Battleground Texas moved its office to Davis’ Fort Worth headquarters and became the turnout operation for her campaign. As a result, Davis’ performance became directly tied to Battleground.

It was a risky play. In joining up with Davis, Battleground jumped right into a high-profile statewide race and handed Republicans an opportunity to label Battleground a failure after just one election cycle. That’s exactly what Republicans are saying this morning—that they defeated Battleground—just what Bird said 18 months ago that Battleground wanted to avoid. But it was a risk the Battleground people felt they had to take.

Davis’ entry into the governor’s race had one more side effect. It robbed Democrats of their twice-elected incumbent in Fort Worth’s state Senate District 10. Tea party activist Konni Burton won the seat last night and will replace Davis in the Texas Senate.

Without the filibuster, perhaps Davis runs for reelection to the Senate. Perhaps, with her ties to the Fort Worth business community and moderate Republicans, she holds off Burton.

Without the filibuster, perhaps Battleground Texas follows its original plan to focus on local races. Democrats would still have handily lost statewide. But perhaps, this morning, in addition to Democratic defeats, we’d be talking about increased turnout in Houston and Democratic wins in Harris County. Perhaps Battleground has a small success to show donors, a little victory to build on.

Of course, we’ll never know how it would have played out. And I certainly don’t mean to blame anyone who turned out to fight the abortion bill. It remains an extraordinary example of civic activism—one that no one who was there, pro-choice or pro-life, will soon forget. I’m also not criticizing Davis or Battleground for trying to take advantage of the momentum the abortion battle produced. They made logical choices at the time. No one could have predicted how things would turn out.

But the facts are these: The filibuster forced Davis to run, but also left her forever associated with abortion, a difficult issue for Democrats in Texas. Now, the Democrats have seen one of their once-rising stars discarded to the pile of failed statewide candidates. They’ve also lost a Texas Senate seat to a tea party candidate. And, perhaps worst of all, they’ve seen the image of Battleground Texas severely tarnished. That may hamper future fundraising and damage Democrats’ efforts to turn Texas blue.

Fifteen months ago, the energy produced by the abortion filibuster offered Texas Democrats hope for the 2014 election, hope that the filibuster might kickstart a Democratic resurgence. Instead, in a dark irony, the filibuster likely did just the opposite: It may well have set back a Democratic resurgence for years to come.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

Published at 2:52 pm CST