Weighing Governor’s Bid, Wendy Davis Feels the August Heat

Conservative barbs, political maneuvering and the daunting prospect of running as a Democrat in Texas are enough to make anyone sweat in their pink Mizunos

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Wendy Davis speaking at the National Press Club on August 5, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Politics is not a summer pastime in Texas. In the dog days of August, the politically obsessed, from staffers to lobbyists, typically flee triple-digit temperatures to cooler climes. Monday’s news that the legislature was finally adjourning was met with relief. And while Wendy Davis, the pink-sneakered abortion-bill-filibustering state senator, enjoyed a star turn at the National Press Club in Washington earlier this week, some of the folks back home grumbled.

This summer, thanks, some say, to the woman many now simply call Wendy, Texas’ part-time citizen legislators have been hanging around in the Austin heat for three special sessions. Her 11-hour filibuster of a restrictive abortion bill on June 25 propelled Davis into the political stratosphere. But it also created a roadblock for a much needed transportation-infrastructure bill, the sort of nuts-and-bolts issue voters expect their legislators to deal with.

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

Davis’ critics blame her for the delay — even though the mostly conservative legislature spent more than 30 days haggling over just how much to spend on transportation. While Davis basked in the national spotlight this week, some Texas Republicans, including state representative Giovanni Capriglione of Fort Worth, called on her to pony up the approximately $2 million in costs for the second and third special sessions. “One state senator, in an effort to capture national attention, forced this special session,” Capriglione told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I am sure she has raised enough money at her Washington, D.C., fundraiser to cover the cost.”

Such is the price of political fame. Davis’ rapid rise has made her a lightning rod in Texas and beyond. Conservative blogger Erick Erickson, who has taken heat in the past for what his critics call chauvinist remarks, called Davis “Abortion Barbie” following her Washington appearance. (Erickson later said “Abortion Barbie” was a play on the “Caribou Barbie” label bestowed on former Alaska governor Sarah Palin by the acerbic New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.) The comment didn’t make much of a ripple in drought-ridden Texas, but it was picked up on some conservative and Tea Party blogs. “I hope that moniker haunts her on the campaign trail,” Erickson wrote.

Whether the name sticks or not, there is little doubt abortion will be a defining issue of her next campaign. (She has said she will decide by Labor Day if she’ll seek the governor’s mansion or merely run for re-election to the state senate.) Polls show Davis is at odds with a majority of voters who support the new 20-week cutoff for abortions. In the past, Davis has run on broad platforms of less volatile issues; job creation, education, easing family budgets, veterans’ issues and truth in budgeting were her go-to topics in her last race. But now it’s the abortion issue that she’s known for.

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

Her likeliest rival for governor will try to exploit that fact. “She is still relatively unknown in the rest of the state, and the lead consultant for likely Republican candidate Greg Abbott is a specialist in rebranding politicians,” says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, an Austin insiders’ political newsletter. Abbott’s consultant, Kronberg points out, “successfully rebranded one of Texas’ most popular figures, Kay Bailey Hutchison, as ‘Kay Bailout Hutchison’ in her primary race against Rick Perry.”

Even if Davis chooses to stay in the state senate, her high-profile abortion stance could be a hindrance. Although she’d be favored to win re-election, she would face a stiff challenge from a Republican nominee, Kronberg and other Texas political observers believe. Two Republicans, one a Tea Party favorite, the other her opponent last time around, are expected to run, and her district went for Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama last year.

While enthusiastic Democrats like former Dallas–Fort Worth area Congressman Martin Frost told Washington journalists he is urging Davis to run statewide, there are some in the party who would like her to remain in the Texas senate rather than be served up as a sacrificial lamb on the statewide stage. There are 31 senators in the Texas senate, and under customary rules, 11 can block a bill coming to the floor. “Davis is the 12th Democrat, which provides some cushion for the Democrats,” Kronberg points out, “and without her, the district will be won by a Republican. With only 11 Democrats, it becomes easier for Republicans to entice one to defect.” Indeed, one Democrat joined Republicans in supporting the abortion bill.

(MORE: Will She Run?)

Cries of “Run, Wendy, run” are still echoing among Democrats nationwide, but Texans who deal in realpolitik are more dispassionate. The popular Inside Intelligence column, written by Texas Tribune executive editor Ross Ramsey, polled its Texas “insiders” this week on what Davis should do. Almost half said she should stay put in the state senate, 22% said she should run for lieutenant governor, and 16% said she should run for governor. But bottom line, Ramsey wrote, “the overwhelming majority — 74 percent — said neither Davis nor any other Democrat can win a statewide race in Texas in 2014.”

As for Davis, she has said it is governor or state senator, no other spot. At the press club in Washington, she brushed aside a question about filling the vice-presidential slot on a Hillary Clinton ticket in 2016. In the harsh light of the Texas summer sun, such questions seem otherworldly. As one insider told Ramsey: “Strike while the iron is hot and aim higher. Aim for U.S. Senate run. Go big or go home! (Or as in the case of most Texas Democrats seeking statewide office, go big AND then go home.)”

MORE: Meet the Woman Behind the Texas Abortion Filibuster