Correction appended: July 10, 2013
She is now simply Wendy. As the leader of a last-minute fight against a rigid antiabortion bill, the filibustering, pink-sneaker-shod, Harvard Law School–trained, hardscrabble Texas-raised state senator Wendy Davis became a nationally celebrated champion of women’s rights. And for long-suffering Texas Democrats, her sudden stardom raises hopes that she could be the one to break Republican’s 14-year choke hold on statewide offices.
But politics is more drama than musical. As Governor Rick Perry announced his plans to step down after his term — freeing him to prepare for the 2016 presidential race — the Texas legislature moved like a Greek chorus this week to approve the abortion bill, which is expected to pass. And so, with an extended session leaving no chance that a filibuster would work, Wendy climbed aboard an orange bus emblazoned with the slogan “Stand with Texas women” and headed off on a four-city tour of Texas, organized by Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, daughter of the state’s last great Democratic star, the late Governor Ann Richards.
With her signature big, sassy platinum hairdo, Ann was the last Texas Democrat on a first-name basis with voters. Ann and Wendy both built their political foundations as popular local officeholders, but the state has seen tectonic shifts since Ann first ran for state treasurer in 1982. Back then, Texas politics was split between progressives and conservative Democrats. The shorthanded Republicans, so the joke went, met in a phone booth. Which is not to say that Democrats didn’t run to the right. When Ann ran for governor in 1990, all three Democratic candidates ran right, touting their capital punishment bona fides. “You’d have thought they were all running for state executioner,” wrote satirist Molly Ivins, a fan and friend of Ann’s. “Saturday Night Live did a satirical skit on the primary in which the candidates wore black hoods and carried axes.”
Texas has grown more conservative since, and current Democratic strategists have been keen to describe Wendy as “mainstream” and “centrist,” pointing out she has brought moderate Republicans to her side. Indeed, “Wendy Davis” signs shared the front lawns of many Fort Worth homes with those for Mitt Romney in 2012. But it is abortion rights that has propelled her forward, attracting some moderate Republican women, but that “is not a good issue for Democrats” aiming to energize Hispanic voters who are vital to a Democratic takeover, says Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones. “She has revived a moribund party, given Democrats a sense of enthusiasm and optimism, but whether that can be transformed to success at the polls is another question.”
Perry’s decision insures a frantic game of political dominos, with Republicans scrambling for position and desperate Democrats eager to seize a sliver of opportunity. Cries of “Run, Wendy, run” echo through the crowds and from partisans beyond Texas, but veteran statehouse observers advise caution.
Wendy faces a crucial decision, says Sherri Greenberg, professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and former Democratic state legislator. Will she be a “sacrificial lamb” and run for governor or will she seek re-election in 2014 to her pivotal state-senate seat? Turning Texas blue will take at least a decade, Greenberg says, and depends on effective grass-roots organizing and candidate bench building, internal disruption in the GOP and the demographic march toward a Hispanic-dominated state.
The latter puts Wendy in competition with another rising Democratic star, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, widely viewed as a likely 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Should she opt to take one for her party in 2014, losing badly as recent Democratic hopefuls have, it may make it harder for Castro to raise enough money from dispirited Democratic donors in 2018, Jones says. No matter what she does, Wendy is assured of raising far more money and facing far greater scrutiny.
An earlier version of this story misstated the color of the “Stand with Texas women” bus. It is orange, not red. Also, Professor Greenberg’s first name was misspelled. It is Sherri, not Sheri.