Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth)
Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth). (Patrick Michels)

Three Reasons Wendy Davis Can Win, Three Reasons She Can’t

by and

We don’t envy Wendy Davis. Pioneering is never easy, especially when millions are watching. The Fort Worth state senator, who officially announced her candidacy for Texas governor yesterday, will attempt to prove that a Democrat can win statewide in Texas and break the party’s epic 20-year statewide losing streak. There’s no shortage of pundits predicting Davis’ defeat. A poll this week by Texas Lyceum showed the odds she’s facing — she trails GOP favorite Greg Abbott by eight points — and why she might have a chance (half of the registered voters surveyed hadn’t made up their minds). Here are our top reasons why she probably has no shot and why she just might pull off the upset.

Three Reasons Why Davis Can Win

1) Greg Abbott — Abbott’s biggest advantage is that he’s a Republican running in a state that has exclusively elected Republicans to statewide office in the last 20 years. The other side to the coin, though, is that Abbott hasn’t faced a tough opponent in at least a decade, since he beat Austin Democrat Kirk Watson for attorney general in 2002 by more than 15 points.

All else being equal, Abbott would have to run a colossally bad campaign to put Davis within reach of the Governor’s Mansion on that basis alone. But it’s possible. Abbott has already shown a tendency to needlessly step in it. If there’s one thing that a Texas Republican running against a smart, strong Democratic woman shouldn’t do is pull a Clayton Williams. And Abbott has already edged in that direction. Last month, Abbott retweeted Dave Carney, Abbott’s top advisor who tweets as @granitewinger, retweeted a headline that read in part, “Wendy Davis is too Stupid to be Governor.” The link in the tweet took you to an article by a conservative blogger, Robbie Cooper of Austin, who frequently engages in violent, racist tirades. Abbott is fairly chummy with Cooper.

If this is the company Abbott is going to keep, he runs the risk of saying or doing something terminally stupid. So far, he’s running a hard-right tea party campaign featuring “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and lots of jerk-y red meat ads.

How far does Abbott take his pandering? Too far and it could backfire. But it would have to be more than just your run-of-the-mill gaffe to overcome his huge structural advantage in terms of money, party infrastructure and the Republican tilt of the Texas electorate. Still, Republicans have shown a knack for losing winnable races by speaking their mind about women (think: “legitimate rape” and “shut that whole thing down”).

In contrast to Abbott’s relative lack of scrapping on the campaign trail, Davis has won several hard-fought races she was picked to likely lose. In 2008, she toppled state Sen. Kim Brimer, a cigar-gnawing good ol’ boy who was the very picture of the GOP Establishment, in a Republican district. As testament to her ideological agnosticism, many in Fort Worth political circles were surprised to learn she wasn’t a Republican.

2) The Celebrity Effect — Davis’ national profile, created (almost literally) overnight by her 11-hour filibuster, means she has three valuable things she may not have otherwise: access to national money, instant name ID and a motivated grassroots. The last three Democratic gubernatorial candidates—Tony Sanchez, Chris Bell and Bill White—have each lacked two or three of those ingredients.

Money is going to be critical. Running a statewide race in Texas is expensive, with 20 or so television markets. Abbott has more than $20 million in his campaign account and could very well raise (and spend) $40 million—an enormous sum of money for a state-level campaign. By contrast, the average cost to win a U.S. Senate seat is $10.5 million.

Ironically, some of the big-dollar donors she can call on will be wealthy Texans who have been spending their money out-of-state in recent election cycles rather than “waste” it on losing battles at home.

Grassroots support can also translate, a la Barack Obama, to lots of small donations that really add up. A Texans for Public Justice analysis showed that almost half of the $1.3 million Davis raised between late May and late July came from donations of $100 or less, a phenomenon that TPJ said “may be unprecedented in Texas, where deep-pocketed kingmakers bankroll candidates facing no contribution limits.”

As a candidate, “Wendy Davis” is now a name that rings out. Unlike many other Dem flameout candidates—anyone remember Rick Noriega or Paul Sadler or Barbara Ann Radnofsky?—will not suffer from “also-ran” syndrome. She will stand for something and be given her due by the media, her opponents and the electorate.

3) Untapped Potential, or Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose — The potential for Texas becoming a battleground state has been written about ad nauseum in this space and many others. There’s no point in rehashing those analyses. Suffice it to say that abysmal voter turnout, especially among Latinos and other key Democratic-leaning constituencies, has made it next to impossible for even strong candidates to win statewide.

For the Davis campaign, what matters is that there’s plenty of room to grow the Democratic base but time is short. As Abby Rapoport wrote in an article appropriately titled “Wendy Davis’s Catch-22: “Increasing turnout and building a sustainable outreach infrastructure would be key to winning, but it would also provide a long-term boost to the party.”

Still, we’re talking about why Davis can win this race, not how she can build her party in Texas. For starters, Davis won’t do any worse than Bill White in 2010, who lost to Rick Perry 55-42. That was a horrible year for Democrats, especially in Texas, and Davis appears to be a better candidate. So, that’s her floor. Well, really more of a basement.

It’s arguable that Republicans have maxed out their base in Texas, largely by racking up huge margins with white voters. (One estimate puts the white vote for Obama in 2012 as low as 20 percent.) If Davis could significantly increase turnout among Latinos, improve on the usual 2-to-1 margin, erode the lopsided white vote (for example, by pulling in suburban women who “appear to be turning away from the Republican Party”), then she could stand a chance of fast-forwarding what many expect to be the eventual erosion of the GOP’s grip on Texas. That’s of course an extremely heavy burden for any candidate to shoulder. But, Davis will have support from Battleground Texas and independent, but left-leaning grassroots groups like Texans Together and Texas Organizing Project.

Three Reasons Why Davis Can’t Win

1) Greg Abbott—The presumptive Republican nominee and heir apparent to Rick Perry could be a formidable candidate. In his decade as attorney general, Abbott has made himself well known and well liked among Republicans by challenging the Obama administration in court on health care, voting rights, redistricting and immigration. His fund-raising has been impressive. In July, Abbott’s campaign reported nearly $21 million on hand and could accumulate $40 million by the end of the campaign.

Davis’ celebrity will attract donors, but she can’t compete with Abbott on money. In Texas, a notoriously expensive state to run a campaign, the candidate with more money usually wins. Abbott’s tens of millions will pay for many a television ad demonizing Davis as an “Obama, Pelosi-style pro-abortion, tax-and-spend liberal out of step with conservative Texas values” or some such nonsense. Davis is a middle-of-the-road pragmatist who’s won a Republican-leaning Senate district by attracting conservative voters. But no matter. In politics, perception is reality, and with $40 million Greg Abbott can turn Wendy Davis into whatever he chooses.

2) Texas is Still Republican—With the breathless media coverage of Texas perhaps “turning blue,” it’s easy to forget just how dominant Texas Republicans have been. They have won every statewide race since 1994—a 20-year winning streak that totals 101 straight victories. Most weren’t even close. Only a handful of Democrats have gotten within 10 points, the closest races being Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s 52-46 win over John Sharp in 2002. Supreme Court Justice Dale Wainwright beat Democrat Sam Houston 51-46, a veritable nail-bitter by recent Texas standards. That race was in 2008—one of the best elections for Democrats in decades. It produced an African-American president and a 60-seat majority in the U.S. Senate, and the best Texas Democrats could manage was losing by only 5 percent.

So, yeah, it’s been unspeakably bad for Democrats in Texas. The state’s changing demographics do give Democrats some hope. But Latino turnout remains abysmal. Of the voters who actually turn out most are Republicans. Many analysts believe the GOP has a built-in 10-point advantage in Texas. That’s a big hole to start your campaign in.

3) Democratic Defeatism—Twenty years of losing takes a toll. The Texas Democratic Party lacks money and organization. In some parts of Texas, the party has simply melted away. Davis will have the help of Battleground Texas—the group founded by Obama campaign staffers—helping her cause, but it’s been on the ground in Texas less than a year.

Democrats aren’t just lacking party infrastructure. In some areas, they lack hope. Losing has become acceptable, even expected, among Texas Democrats. Davis may generate more excitement than any Democrat since Ann Richards, but she’ll have to convince the party base that she can win. That won’t be easy with Republicans and many political pundits predicting another GOP sweep of statewide offices.