Texas State Senator Wendy Davis filibusters an abortion bill in June. (AP/Eric Gay)
Yes, Wendy Davis is making an uphill run for governor of Texas.
She’s a progressive, pro-choice woman with a dramatic personal story, who made her name fighting the powers that be. As such, she does not fit the currently accepted image of a winning statewide candidate in a place where, as Molly Ivins noted, there has been a tendency to elect “good ol’ boy” governors.
But Davis has some history on her side.
And that history counters the narrative of those who would write her off.
If Davis gets Texas voters excited, if she gets them to engage—and re-engage—her candidacy could change the politics of the Lone Star State. A win would be transformational. A strong showing would be transitional.
The key to the calculus is the excitement factor. Can the woman who this spring excited tens of thousands of Texans enough to get them to come to the state capitol to back her filibuster of an assault on reproductive rights now excite hundreds of thousands who don’t usually cast ballots in off-year elections to come vote?
It has happened before.
Less than a quarter-century ago, a populist coalition led by a bold Democratic woman who boldly promised a new politics and a “new Texas” won the governorship. And they did so by boosting turnout, especially among the historically neglected and disenfranchised voters that formed the candidate’s base.
In the gubernatorial election of 1990, Ann Richards replaced a two-term Republican governor, Bill Clements, and beat an exceptionally well-funded and well-connected Republican nominee, Clayton Williams.
The 2014 race to replace retiring Governor Rick Perry is the first open-seat Texas gubernatorial contest since 1990.
If 2014 is a Republican wave year—like 1994, when Richards was removed from office by a Republican upstart named George Bush, or like 2010—then Davis will have a very hard time. To deny that would be foolish.
But if 2014 is a more typical election year—and especially if it is an election year that sees turnout spike among young voters, African-Americans, Latinos and women—it would be foolish to dismiss Davis.
As foolish as it was to dismiss Ann Richards.
Back in 1990, Richards was—like Davis today—an outspoken state official who had made a name by challenging Democratic insiders and Republican money interests. She faced a tough primary to get the party nod, with fellow Democrats suggesting there was just no way Texans were going to elect a woman who absolutely and unequivocally defended the rights of women—especially their reproductive rights—and who was serious about empowering communities that had traditionally been neglected.