Wendy Davis Laces Up Her Running (for Governor) Shoes

Does the Democratic star stand a chance in Red Texas?

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Eric Gay / AP

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis listens as the Texas Senate debate an abortion bill before the final vote, July 12, 2013, in Austin, Texas.

Is she Cinderella or Joan of Arc? It seems Wendy Davis, the Democratic Texas state senator who rose to prominence earlier this year with a filibuster that captured national attention and sent the sales of pink athletic shoes skyrocketing, is destined to inspire literary allusions. Now that she’s on the verge of announcing a run for Texas governor, everyone is wondering whether the glass slipper will fit, or will she be a martyr for her cause? In reality, the story unfolding in Texas will likely neither be fanciful nor tragic, but a very long, very expensive and very nasty political tale.

Davis has been disciplined to the point of coyness about her intentions–her campaign says she won’t announce her intentions publicly until she’s surrounded by her grassroots supporters on October 3. But big players behind the scenes have confirmed she is going to run for the state’s top spot. The slow waltz is an effort to boost fundraising, energize the grassroots and keep her name in the news as she gets ready for the official announcement, scheduled to take place in her hometown, Fort Worth, at the site of her high school graduation. In a tweet, Davis urged her supporters to “wear comfortable shoes and colors of the Texas flag.”

While her filibuster of a strict abortion bill sent her political star skyward, the chosen location of her campaign launch is evidence that Davis plans to make schools a key issue in the gubernatorial race. “I would expect education and health care to figure prominently in her campaign,” says Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “I suspect she will try to frame the abortion rights issue more in the vein of a Republican ‘war on women’ rather than focus on the more narrow issue of abortion rights where her positions are unlikely to help her expand her base of support. ” Polls show  a majority of Texans favor some limits on late-term abortion, one of the issues at stake in Davis’s famed filibuster.

(MORE: Wendy Davis, a Liberal Texas Star, Prepares Another Campaign In D.C.)

But education could also pose a problem for the Democrat. A recent Texas Tribune poll shows African-Americans and Hispanics in Texas are strong supporters of school choice, a position that is anathema to the teachers’ unions that serve as the workhorses of the Democratic Party. Davis will find herself walking a more centrist line on a number of issues as she battles the likely GOP nominee, Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Abbott starts out as the undisputed front-runner. He appears on the latest cover of Texas Monthly under the headline “The Gov*” with a footnote in very small print “*barring an unlikely occurrence.” The AG sits in his wheelchair – he was injured as a young man when a tree fell on him while jogging — clad in jeans and a khaki shirt with a shotgun resting on his shoulder. The image is an affirmation of Abbott’s conservative credentials. And the job at hand for his campaign will be to paint Davis as a liberal, out of step with Texas values. (Abbott’s campaign team is experienced at rebranding — they turned one of the state’s most popular politicians, former US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, into “Kay Bailout Hutchison” in her unsuccessful bid to unseat Gov. Rick Perry.)

Davis has shown political acumen so far, developing a shorthand biography that references her humble roots as a single mom who worked her way to Harvard  Law School. But observers expect the story to be fleshed out and “more fully told,” as one political observer says. Davis’ lucrative work as an attorney representing several public entities will likely come under fire. Voters seemed to gloss over the issue in past campaigns, but a statewide race is a different matter. While not unncommon, Jones says that kind of potential conflict is “an unseemly side of Texas politics that Abbott, given his career as a judge and attorney general, is untainted by.”

As opponents try to rebrand her, Davis will have to move quickly, according to Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Austin-based political newsletter, The Quorum Report. “The biggest question on the table is can she raise enough money fast enough to counter the re-defining process even before the official filing deadline this coming December,” Kronberg says. Davis will be able to raise money outside of Texas and will continue to get deep support from the trial lawyers who have been her major contributors in the past, says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. But whether she can match what is expected to be a $40 million Republican warchest – Abbott has $20 milion now — is doubtful. “She will be outspent,” Jillson says.

(MORE: Wendy Davis Feels the Heat)

Although the widely held conventional wisdom is that Davis will lose, it may not be as bad as other recent Democratic efforts. “My sense is she loses by eight or nine percent,” says Jillson. “She will do better because she is exciting, articulate.”

A key factor for Davis will be the rest of the ballot. All top statewide offices are up for grabs in 2014, including positions that are important to powerful interest groups like agriculture, oil and gas, law enforcement and certain regions of the state. “In Texas, fielding a full ticket is far more important than in most of the U.S., as it is one of only a dozen states that continues to provide a straight-ticket voting option,” Jones says. “Davis is forced to compete not only against Abbott, but against the entire Republican ticket from U.S. Senate down to county commissioner, in a state where the Democratic Party has tremendous difficulty in assembling credible candidates for a majority of elective offices.”

There is talk of veteran State Senator Leticia Van de Putte running for lieutenant governor on the Davis ticket. Van de Putte, a Hispanic Democrat from San Antonio, would enthuse South Texas voters. But Hispanic candidates in the recent past have not helped Democrats win. Abbott chose to announce his candidacy in San Antonio, the hometown of his wife, who is also Hispanic.

Democrats who dream of turning Texas blue hook their hopes to the growing Hispanic population. But that reality is at least a decade away. Republicans win in Texas by capturing an oversized share of the Anglo vote, Jones says, while also hanging on to a portion of the Hispanic vote. And in key Hispanic areas of the state, the crucial races for county commissioners take place in the Democratic primary, a fact that contributes to low Hispanic turnout in the fall.

“While it seems unlikely that Davis is the type of candidate who would be able to simultaneously boost Hispanic turnout and convince Hispanics who historically have voted Republican to cross-over,” Jones says, “she may have better luck attracting the vote of Anglo women who have traditionally voted for GOP candidates.” To that end, it appears the “war on women” is about to open another new front in Texas. Wear comfortable shoes. It is going to be a long haul.

MORE: Filibustering Days Over, Wendy Davis Faces a Big Decision