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.
The Democratic primary and run-off in 1990 were vicious affairs, with opponents attacking Richards in the crudest and most personal ways. They didn’t just suggest that she was too liberal; one foe ran TV ads that suggested she was “soft” on capital punishment, while another accused her of having drug problems.
Richards won a brutal Democratic runoff race, but she went into the general election with a divided party and a deficit in her campaign treasury. Her Republican foe, Williams, was on the attack and, while he bumbled at several turns, he was rich enough to “own” the airwaves—outspending the Democrat two to one.
Yet, when the votes were counted, Richards won by a 100,000-vote margin, for a 49-47 finish.
What was her secret?
Ann Richards ran as Ann Richards. She was didn’t pull punches or tailor her message to fit the demands of campaign consultants.
Richards was proudly pro-choice. She promised to veto legislation that attempted to limit access to reproductive health services. Her campaign proudly circulated a letter from pro-choice activists that identified the Democrat as a champion in the struggle to defend abortion rights.
Richards defended voting rights. She advocated for low-income Texans and people of color. And she was blunt. Very blunt.
“Power is what calls the shots, and power is a white male game,” said Richards.
She made points that made sense to working women of every race and ethnicity.
“They blame the low income women for ruining the country because they are staying home with their children and not going out to work,” explained Richards. “They blame the middle income women for ruining the country because they go out to work and do not stay home to take care of their children.”
Ann Richards made so much sense, and she made it so boldly, so unapologetically, that voters who had grown frustrated with the process got engaged again. And new voters got excited.
Turnout was high on November 6, 1990—roughly 51 percent, as compared to 47 percent four years earlier. And the difference provided the margin by which Richards won.
Turnouts are nowhere near that these days. In 2010, just 38 percent of registered voters cast ballots for governor of Texas. In 2006, it was just 34 percent.
Richards got more people to the polls. And she got their votes, sweeping the communities she has spoken to, and spoken for. Sixty percent of women who came to the polls backed Richards, as did 65 percent of Hispanic voters and 90 percent of African-American voters.
“She represented all of us who have lived with and learned to handle good ol’ boys,” recalled Ivins, “and she did it with laughter.”
It is often suggested now that, at some point in the none-too-distant future, Texas will “tip” into the Democratic column as women and people of color form a new majority that beats the “good ol’ boys” at the “white male game.”
But the fact is that Texas tipped almost a quarter-century ago. And then it tipped back.
Of course, there are differences between Wendy Davis and Ann Richards.
And, yes, of course, a lot has changed since 1990. The old Democratic courthouse establishment in all those Texas counties has, in many instances, become the new Republican courthouse establishment. The population of Texas has grown dramatically, and the demographics have shifted dramatically.
Some old truths remain, however.
Politics is supposed to be exciting. It is supposed to mean something. It is supposed to present real choices—choices that matter enough to get people to the polls.
Ann Richards practiced the politics of high expectations and high turnouts.
There is good reason to believe that Wendy Davis can do the same.
Yes, of course, Davis will be attacked—crudely, viciously. And, though she has a significant fund-raising network in Texas and nationally, Davis will be outspent. Dramatically.
There is no way she will win by running a cautious or apologetic campaign.
There is no way she will win by trying to identify the mythical center of Texas politics. As Jim Hightower, who won two statewide elections in Texas in the 1980s, reminds us, “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”
The key to the 2014 election in Texas is going to be turnout. And the key to turnout is excitement, drama, a sense that something new is possible. Or, perhaps, something old.
Texas Democrats have not prevailed in a gubernatorial race since Ann Richards won an uphill contest in which many suggested she did not have a chance. But Texas Democrats have not has a candidate with the record, the determination and the popular appeal Ann Richards since then. Now, perhaps, they do.
Katha Pollitt calls Wendy Davis her “superhero” after Davis’s bold abortion-bill filibuster.