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What's The Matter With Wendy Davis?

Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis pauses as she speaks to supporters at her campaign headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, in March.
LM Otero

Texas Democrats are holding their convention this weekend in Dallas. Supporters are hoping it will give Wendy Davis a chance to reboot her campaign for governor and come out with some much-needed momentum.

A question posed in the San Antonio Express-News is typical of the kind of media she's been getting: "What's Wrong With Wendy?" With the Democratic candidate for governor running far behind her Republican challenger, Greg Abbott, it's not necessarily an unfair question.

But her race has always been a long shot. One year ago, the state senator from Fort Worth galvanized Texas liberals with her successful 11-hour filibuster that lasted through much of the night and blocked some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country — temporarily, that is, because Gov. Rick Perry quickly called a special session and the Republican-dominated Legislature then passed them all.

But the moment still made Davis politically famous in Washington. She dined with congressional Democrats and spoke at the National Press Club. She made for a compelling potential candidate: Davis is attractive, smart, articulate and started out life poor — a single mother who went from waiting tables to Harvard Law.

And with Battleground Texas — a Democratic effort to turn Texas blue — about to get going, a Davis candidacy for governor seemed the perfect complement. She figured to be a strong candidate, one who could give momentum to a grass-roots organizing effort that would sign up tens of thousands of new Hispanic and other Democratic voters.

But once her campaign got underway, political reality smacked it in the face — and the reality is that Texas is still very much a Republican-dominated state. It sports many of the most conservative Republican politicians in the nation. Nevertheless, during the last GOP primary here, some of the most prominent among them were defeated by Tea Party candidates because they were perceived as not conservative enough.

Where does that leave Davis? Her claim to fame is her filibuster against abortion restrictions, but in 2014 most Texas voters favor such legislation. So the candidate has mostly avoided talking about her signature issue.

From the very beginning, polls showed Davis down 8 points — a big gap for a Texas Democrat to overcome. Then her campaign got caught up defending minor discrepancies in Davis' biographical narrative involving how long she'd lived in a mobile home, and how much her second husband had helped out with the children and the finances while she was at Harvard Law.

This was not major stuff, but the campaign got on the defensive and couldn't seem to get off — which served only to keep the story alive that much longer. Then, in an effort to put it behind them once and for all, her campaign needlessly alienated Texas political reporters by barring most of them from a news-making event where Davis' daughters spoke up and defended their mother.

A respected veteran national operative, Karin Johanson, had been brought in to run the campaign, but to many political observers in the state, it seemed too much like amateur hour.

Johanson is now gone, replaced earlier this month by Chris Turner, a Democratic state representative who knows his stuff in Texas. The Davis campaign is hoping to come out of the convention this weekend in Dallas with both guns blazing.

The gap is now 10 points, and Abbott, the state's attorney general, has $30 million in his campaign coffers to Davis' $11 million. Still, the Democrats' ground game is in progress. Battleground Texas is working with the Davis campaign and has generated more than 18,000 volunteers who've knocked on 170,000 doors already. For the Democratic Party, this is where the real action lies. Even if Davis can't get there this year, rebuilding the party's base in Texas is the foundation for the future.

Democrats in Texas don't want to hear that, though. They resent the national party's habit of coming to Texas to raise millions of dollars, only to wave goodbye and put back next to nothing.

It's been nearly 25 years since Ann Richards was elected as the state's last Democratic governor. They'd like to get the next one while they're still alive.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.
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