Can Wendy Davis Help the Democrats Crack Texas?

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One of a kind? Photo: Eric Gay/Corbis

When the Wendy Davis Moment bubbled up out of Texas, it was hard not to hear her defiant filibuster as a long-awaited rejoinder to a lineage of figures like old Clayton Williams, the 1990 GOP candidate for governor with the timeless line about rape — “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” Standing tall in her pink sneakers, leading a legislative maneuver that inspired a successful act of feminist civil disobedience, Senator Davis streaked to fame in classic Texas style, equal parts Molly Ivins and Farrah Fawcett. Nobody had to tell the national media how to take it from there: the hardscrabble backstory, the Harvard credentials, the hotness, the blondeness, and the attagirl tweet from President Obama.

But next comes the tricky part. While the abortion restrictions Davis held back are widely expected to pass in the new special legislative session starting today, both sides are preparing for her ascendance as a transformative figure in the state, with the potential to make an impact on national politics.

“Until this week, the Texas Democratic Party has been like a dull black-and-white old movie,” the GOP strategist Mark McKinnon told me in an e-mail. “Wendy Davis has suddenly provided some 3-D excitement and color. More importantly, parties don't make comebacks. Parties come to power when they have bold and compelling personalities leading the charge. Texas Democrats now have a crusader in Wendy Davis.”

As Democrats see it, the framework is already coming together. Back in February, the consulting firm 270 Strategies, led by architects of President Obama’s reelection, opened a major initiative to groom the state for a presidential candidate from their party. Though no timetable has been disclosed, it’s safe to say the campaign took note of the performance by Senator Davis.

“The tenaciousness and poise she showed against incredible odds have thrown a real spotlight on the kind of statewide leader she would be for Texas,” said Lynda Tran, a spokeswoman for Battleground Texas. “One thing is clear: Wendy Davis made a lot of people in Texas and around the country very proud yesterday, and we expect folks on both sides of the aisle are taking notice.”

On the national stage, Senator Davis — who has hinted that she might have gubernatorial ambitions — has been cast as a champion of abortion rights, with figures like Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood and daughter of Ann Richards (who beat old Clayton in the race for the governor’s office in 1990), singing her praises in the media.

In the statehouse, though, Senator Davis has established a more versatile profile as a champion of working people, especially women. Those tensions are not buried far below the surface in Texas. A few weeks ago, to choose just one policy example, Governor Perry vetoed a bill that would have prevented wage discrimination. And for those on the front lines of public life, the lines are drawn clearly and sometimes personally. At one point during the spring legislative session, for example, when Democratic senator Judith Zaffirini proposed reserving a breast-feeding room for staffers at the Capitol, Republican senator Kel Seliger responded with an amendment that would have designated her office for that purpose. From my vantage in the chamber that day, I did not see any female senators joining in the chuckle.

While many Democrats have pursued a (fairly successful) strategy of quietly playing nice to secure economic development projects for their districts, Senator Davis has gone the other route. She showed up for 8 a.m. committee hearings to aggressively debate the powerful chairman of the Finance Committee, Tommy Williams, on a proposal to require drug testing for unemployment benefits. Her legislative agenda focused on strengthening protections for rape victims.

Her natural fearlessness is all the more notable given the tenuousness of her electoral situation. In 2011, the Republicans sought to redraw her district in the most unfavorable terms possible, meaning — unless she can find a bigger stage — she’ll have to keep winning reelection in a purple-at-best portion of Tarrant County where she prevailed last year with just 51 percent of the vote. So far, she’s been coy about her new prospects. While “Clinton-Davis 2016” bumper stickers are already for sale online, she navigated the Washington Sunday circuit without disclosing any specific plans to run for higher office.

Still, the road to higher office for a Democrat in Texas remains a tough one. Running for governor, which Davis told NBC this morning she is taking a "second look" at, is an eight-figure proposition in a state with half a dozen major media markets spread across 268,000 square miles. The leading Republican candidate, Attorney General Greg Abbott, has already raised $18 million, enough to scare off any serious challengers (with the possible exception of the three-term incumbent). The path to Congress would require challenging a fellow Democrat or winning a strongly conservative district, depending on how the maps look on Election Day. And a run for the U.S. Senate would pit her against John Cornyn, no fund-raising slouch as former chairman of the party's national senatorial committee.

When I called Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, he compared the Wendy Davis Moment to the Julian Castro Moment of 2012, when the San Antonio mayor delivered the keynote address at the Democratic Convention. The fact that they both seem genuinely talented does not change the fact that they are operating in an arena where the standards for generating excitement are fairly low. And within that framework, last week’s excitement comes into perspective.

For the course of a week’s news cycle, at least, she managed to keep the Republicans on the defensive. That’s no small feat. Her star turn featured prominently in countless new fund-raising e-mails. Governor Perry, speaking to a national pro-life group in Dallas, attacked her directly. “Even the woman who filibustered the Senate the other day was born into difficult circumstances, the daughter of a single mother and a teenage mother herself,” he said, according to a transcript. “It's just unfortunate that she hasn't learned from her own example: that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential; that every life is precious.” The backlash to his remarks rounded out the rest of the week.

“Organized political activity by Democrats and their allies actually had an impact on the process. That’s going to sound like a low threshold, but that’s where we are in Texas,” Henson told me. “The kind of changes the Democrats are looking to get out of this moment aren’t going to come overnight.”

For once in a long while, though, Texas Democrats are having some kind of moment. It may be a Wendy Davis Moment; it may be a Women’s Moment; it may be a Transformative Moment. But while it lasts, Republicans will have little choice but to relax and enjoy it.

Michael Brick recently covered the Texas statehouse for the Associated Press. He is the author of Saving the School: The True Story of a Principal, a Teacher, a Coach, a Bunch of Kids and a Year in the Crosshairs of Education Reform. (Twitter: @brickmichael.)