What It Takes

After months of anticipation, the most interesting Texas gubernatorial contest in decades will (probably) start Thursday. Does Wendy Davis have a chance?
Wed October 2, 2013 9:30 am
Evan Smith, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of The Texas Tribune, speaks with state Sen. Wendy Davis during the closing one-on-one keynote session of The Texas Tribune Festival on September 29, 2013.
Callie Richmond

Tomorrow, Wendy Davis will almost certainly consummate Democrats’ fantasies by at last declaring her candidacy for governor. Last weekend, I watched her participate in an hour-long one-on-one conversation at the annual Texas Tribune Festival with Tribune Editor-in-Chief and CEO (and former Texas Monthly editor) Evan Smith before a decidedly admiring Austin audience. Davis didn’t want to cannibalize her own rollout, so she remained coy that Sunday morning as to her ambitions. But she revealed a lot about what to expect from a Davis candidacy—and, to a lesser degree, from a Davis administration.

Though a duel between the petite but tough Democrat and the wheelchair-bound but rock-ribbed Republican Greg Abbott augurs an optically fascinating race, rhetorically we’re in for a year of numbing message-discipline. Abbott commits few unforced errors; and I’m here to report that in a public setting Davis is every bit as measured. (This is pronouncedly less so offstage; more on that in a minute.) Comparisons to Ann Richards are misguided: Nothing we’ve seen thus far suggests that Davis is a dazzling orator, or even all that quotable. She does come across as sincere, thoughtful, and serious—and those traits will balance her newfound celebrity with some much-needed gravitas. Still, there are politicians—Richards, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Rick Perry, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Chris Christie and yes, Sarah Palin—who instantly own the airspace of any room they enter. Davis, by contrast, still seems a bit abashed by the fact that she’s in the room at all.  

When Smith asked her a question about higher education, Davis immediately went to her own hardscrabble unwed-mother narrative: from the squalor of a trailer park to a community college to TCU and then to Harvard Law School. It’s a stirring story that I predict will serve her well for about two or three months. An Austin Democratic operative had insisted to me earlier, “All she needs to do is tell her story, and we’ll provide the infrastructure.” So easy! But in fact, the story Wendy Davis needs to tell most if she wants to be governor is one she has yet to articulate, which is the story about how Texans should give her party a fresh look after two decades of viewing Democrats with studied antipathy.

At the conclusion of the Davis/Smith colloquy, I stepped up to the microphone and asked her to give an example of an issue where she disagreed with President Obama. Cunningly, Davis cited a single area: the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against the US Airways/American Airlines merger, which she believed would cause the Fort Worth economy to suffer. More significantly, the suit marked the rare instance where Abbott was in lockstep with the feds. (Until several days later, when he announced that Texas would withdraw from the lawsuit.) But she’s going to need to do better than that. Why? Because, as Davis told me herself with wry understatement during our first interview for my August cover story, “Let’s face it: Obama is not a hugely popular figure in the state of Texas.” In her 2008 and 2012 state senate races, Davis significantly outperformed the president. Her opponents in both of those contests sought to cast her as an Obama liberal. When I asked her how she had responded to such charges, she coolly replied, “I just didn’t.”

What this means, among other things, is that Wendy Davis has no experience explaining what it means to be a Texas Democrat. I’ve seen her tell several interviewers now that she doesn’t believe that people see things through “a partisan lens.” That may be true in Fort Worth, where Davis is known as a results-oriented former city councilwoman with staunch ties to the local business community. Elsewhere, however, she’s known as Abortion Barbie, a darling of the Pelosi set. Already she’s being pilloried as a standard-bearer of limousine liberalism. If, like John Kerry in 2004, Davis leaves it up to voters to determine that she’s more than the sum total of her caricature, then “I just didn’t” is sure to be her political epitaph.

But for what it’s worth, the candidate does have a rejoinder to those who wonder how a Democrat like her could possibly end the party’s long statewide drought. Here’s the rather elaborate reply she gave me in May when I asked what she says to such doubters:

“I say, I represent a conservative district and I’ve been able to win. And anecdotally I’ll just tell you that I think people—when they don’t have a choice in front of them that excites them, they fall back into their political framework that their comfortable with, right? I don’t think you can say that that decides the equation, that Texas is quote-unquote conservative. Texans care about public education. Texans care about property rights. Texans care about making sound economic policies and infrastructure investment. I don’t think Republicans own the ground on those issues. The problem is we haven’t necessarily communicated that those are Democratic values as well.”

Davis went on, by way of illustration: “I and others have urged, for the last few sessions, that we take a very serious look at the tax exemption and loophole policies that we have in the state of Texas. What’s been happening here is that somebody gets a loophole, and forever more they have it. In the last legislative session, when decisions were being made about cutting billions of dollars out of public education, we pointed out that the LBB, the Legislative Budget Board—a completely objective group of staff people—had suggested that we needed to go back and look at these things. And one of the ones that they pointed out was the high cost gas well exception. It was created—specifically, really, leading up to the drilling in the Barnett Shale, to help stimulate the technological development to make that possible. And it was a good idea. I chaired the Economic Development Committee of Fort Worth for eight years, and I firmly believe in public-private partnerships. I think they yield tremendous economic benefit when they’re done right. But I also think that you have to be very good guardians of the taxpayer dollars that are going into those; you have to measure outcomes and you have to understand that at some point that public dollar is no longer needed in order to stimulate that activity. It had a termination date—it was supposed to last for ten years.

“But of course when the termination date comes, somebody scratches it out in the big omnibus budget book and the next thing you know [the exemption] is there for a another four years, another six years. The LBB pointed out that between 2002 and 2007, I think it was, we had given up about seven billion dollars in tax revenues. And what they were suggesting was that we needed to go back and determine whether this activity would continue to take place anyway. Obviously that’s a valid question.”

Davis then went on to acknowledge that this wasn’t exactly pithy stump-speech material. But, she added, that didn’t mean she would let a Republican opponent get away with blithely claiming that such exemptions and loopholes were always sacrosanct in the name of job creation. “I mean, it’s an absurd argument,” she said. “And again, going back to my experience as the Economic Development chair in Fort Worth, you must do a ‘but-for’ analysis…to see whether all of those jobs would’ve been here anyway. Austin’s a perfect example of that. You look around the city of Austin. There’s been very little in the way of public-private partnership that’s created the incredible economy here. What’s created the incredible economy here is a work force. Because, you know, young people flock to Austin in droves. Attracted by a quality of life, which is the result in a large part by a highly regulated city.

“Rick Perry gets to stand and say, because no one challenges him on it, ‘Look at how all of this incredible economic growth occurred in Texas based on my leadership as a governor and the policies that I’ve put in place.’ No one pushes back on that, no one questions it. It’s cronyism at its highest, and I don’t think that’s a conservative value. And I think that if he’s called on the carpet about it—if someone really educates voters about it—they don’t like it. So I don’t think you can assume that it will be forever away before Texas elects a Democrat, because Texans are conservative and they’re not going to vote for Democrats. They’re going to vote for their values. And the problem is no one’s communicating with them in a way that triggers those values.”

As a “vision thing,” this is pretty convoluted, at once over-long and marginal. And in any event, her monologue sidesteps the nagging little reality that Wendy Davis’s name on the top of the 2014 ballot will have a “D” next to it. What does that letter stand for, in her view? So far, she’s not saying exactly. And Texans will want to know.

                    

In the current issue of Texas Monthly, Mark Jones, the chairman of Rice University’s political science department, states matter of factly that “one thing is certain: absent a black swan event, [Davis] will not become the next governor of Texas.” (The cover of the issue makes much the same point.) You might think, by the remarks I’ve made above, that I concur that Wendy Davis’s defeat next year is all but writ in stone.

I don’t.

Davis is neither delusional nor possessed by kamikaze demons. She is not swaggering into the gubernatorial race. Contrariwise: she and her various advisers were deeply wary about her prospects. Certain members of her kitchen cabinet didn’t want her to walk away from a hard-won Senate district (even though she’d have to hard-win it again). Others were skeptical about whether all that filibuster fervor was in any meaningful way transferrable to the ballot box. For all of the shimmering melodrama associated with that 11-hour stand-with-Wendy tableau, Davis emerged from that moment inextricably bound to the thorny issue of abortion.

So she did her due diligence. She was counseled by those around her to heed the data (i.e. polls, focus groups and assorted conventional wisdom), just as she had done when considering whether to leave her seat on the Fort Worth city council and run against entrenched GOP state senator Kim Brimer in 2008. Davis weighed the odds. I’m going to take an educated guess and say that those numbers were not altogether encouraging. But, having assessed her chances, she then decided that the long odds weren’t going to stop her. It’s worth repeating what she told me about her first race during our initial meeting—you can all but hear the defiance in her words:

“In 2008 I was running against a sixteen-year politician who had been in the House for ten years and then in the Senate for six. And he was one of the power brokers there, you know, he was a real mover and shaker in the halls of that capital. And he was seen as absolutely invincible. I mean he just—there was no one to beat him, certainly not a Democrat, in the district. And the district had been drawn back in the Tom [Delay] redistricting for a Republican to hold. But what had happened during that redistricting process was they got a little too greedy. That’s why we saw the House get so close to being almost even. They spread their margins too thin. And Senate District 10 was certainly one of the places they did that. And we could see that the minority population was continuing to grow there in relation to the Anglo population.”

Then Davis went on to say about this emerging demographic: “I think it’s a mistake to say you have to wait till it gets to a certain tipping point demographically, like there’s some sort of magic soup and suddenly the Democrats will win. You have to be very strategic and say it’s moving to that place and at the same time there are other dynamics at play that make this opportunity available.”

What are those dynamics? An opponent with low name ID who has never faced serious opposition. Potential voter fatigue with a Republican party brand that, even in Texas, has exasperated suburban women and other key voting groups with extreme behavior. Ramped-up efforts by Battleground Texas to identify and animate underperforming Democrat-leaning groups. But the biggest “other dynamic” is Davis herself. She’s a star. People will turn out in large numbers just to get a look at the woman who stood in that chamber in her pink tennis shoes for eleven hours under conditions far more withering than those experienced by Senator Ted Cruz three months later. And, like Cruz and Obama, she’ll make the most of her underdog status. She’ll remind audiences time and again that everyone deems her race a lost cause. She’ll urge them to join the improbable crusade. And Texas voters will likely see that beneath the halo of celebrity lurks a woman with a considerable reservoir of self-belief and an appetite for beating the odds. Time and again, they’ll be reminded that nothing in her early years prefigured her soaring adult trajectory. Davis had some help along the way. So did Greg Abbott. But I suspect that Abbott—whose inspiring backstory is well told by Brian Sweany in this month’s issue—would join me in saying to Mark Jones: with all due respect, Professor, thanks for your opinion, but we’ll go ahead and hold the election anyway.

In his legendary book about the 1988 presidential campaign, the late Richard Ben Cramer produced some 800 glorious pages of prose that never ultimately answered the question implied by his title: What It Takes. Wendy Davis will have to figure it out on her own. I certainly don’t know whether she or any other Democratic candidate has got what it takes to be elected governor of Texas in 2014. What I do believe is that, for the first time in two decades, Texans may actually care enough to consider the question themselves.

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