No, Wendy Davis isn’t a top-tier challenger

Earlier this week, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, signaled the Texas race was not a top priority for his group.

"We're hopeful in Texas but we'll be candid about the fact that we all understand that Democrats haven't won Texas in a long time. We hope this will be our year," Shumlin said at a breakfast hosted by Third Way, a Democratic think tank.

Cue outrage -- from liberal circles.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, talks about Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis’s record and why it transcends her famous filibuster. (Jackie Kucinich/The Washington Post)

But Shumlin's bit of real talk shouldn't be a surprse. The contours of the Texas campaign still heavily favor Republicans. Moreover, Democrats are looking at a map ripe with pickup opportunities in other big ( and expensive) states, limiting the amount of money they can afford to invest in an uphill climb like Texas.

While Davis has revved up Democratic enthusiasm in Texas, it's important not to lose sight of just how conservative the state is, even as demographic trends have upped Democratic optimism about turning it purple and eventually blue in the future.

The last time a Democrat was elected governor of the Lone Star State? 1990. Since 1994, Democrats have won a grand total of zero statewide elections. Yes, zero.

Davis' opponent this fall is Attorney General Greg Abbott (R). Abbott is a blue chip Republican recruit beloved by the conservative base and the establishment. Think of him as a combination of John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. He's raised tons of money and has been gearing up for a run for a run for a long time.

President Obama lost Texas by 16 points in 2012. Presidential election outcomes say less about governor's races than they do about congressional contests. But Republicans will continue to try to tie Davis to the Obama administration as the campaign heats up. Overcoming that effort will be a challenge for her.

Davis could use help from the DGA, Democratic donors and third-party groups. But the 2014 map is a problem for her in that regard. Democrats are playing lots of offense this year in more competitive states where the DGA's money could make a bigger difference. Those states include Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Maine, Florida and Michigan. Even ruby red states like Georgia and South Carolina aren't out of reach for them.

Texas is home to many big, expensive media markets like Dallas, San Antonio and Houston. That means the cost of advertising there is very high. And money spent by national Democrats in Texas is money not spent in Florida, Michigan and Ohio.

Davis's campaign brushed off Shumlin's remarks as beltway chatter. "The uninformed opinions of a Washington, DC desk jockey who's never stepped foot in Texas couldn’t be less relevant to what’s actually happening on the ground," said Davis campaign manager Karin Johanson.

For Democrats, there is no doubt that Davis's decision to run for governor was good news. It will only help their longer term aspirations in Texas. That's how party strategists generally view her bid. Davis, who is campaigning hard on education, will have a real field operation and a real media presence that will help the party identify and turn out new voters.

An effort called "Battleground Texas" has been underway for more than a year to try to make Texas more of a swing state. Demographic trends driven by rapid growth in the population of Hispanics, who tend to vote for Democrats, mean the days of Texas being reliably red from day one of a presidential campaign could soon be over.

But we're not there yet. Peter Shumlin is right.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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