Wendy Davis easily won the Democratic primary in the Texas gubernatorial race Tuesday, besting her opponent, Reynaldo Madrigal by 60 points and becoming the first female nominee since Ann Richards won the nod in 1994.
Here are some excerpts from her victory night speech that preview how she wants to frame what will be a tough general election campaign against Republican Greg Abbott, the current Texas attorney general and Ted Nugent fan:
As governor, I will fight to give our kids a 21st century education and an economy built for the jobs of tomorrow. Greg Abbott? He defends cuts … cuts that laid off teachers and took resources away from our school kids.
I will be a governor who fights for all Texans – not just one race, class or gender. Greg Abbott? He suppresses the voice of minority voters and insults every woman, man and child when he campaigns with the likes of Ted Nugent. I will be a governor who fights for all freedoms – not certain freedoms for certain people. Greg Abbott wants to dictate for all women, including victims of rape or incest, what decisions they should make. I will be a governor who fights for Texas’ future. Greg Abbott? He’s just a defender of the status quo.
The themes are clear. Education, the economy, jobs and a fresh start. And the Texans that Davis is speaking to most of all are women — of all backgrounds, but especially working class women — Latinos, and African Americans. The other audience is national progressives, who made her a star. National Democrats trumpeted the fact that two women — State Sen. Leticia van de Putte, a Latina, will be Davis’s running mate as lieutenant governor — are vying for the state’s two top jobs.
So what’s the state of the race now?
First, Davis, a state senator, has done something remarkable — she went from being a nobody, to a national somebody who has $10 million cash on hand, raised from high- and low-dollar donors. In politics, no matter what party, that’s hard to do, and she has managed to do it in a relatively short amount of time: It was in June 2013 that she catapulted to fame after staging a marathon filibuster in an unsuccessful effort to kill a restrictive abortion bill.
None of that, however, changes the math in Texas, a red state. Democrats were giddy over an October poll that showed Davis trailing Abbott by only 6 points, 40 percent to 34 percent, with 20 percent undecided. But the latest poll released last month by University of Texas/Texas Tribune shows Davis essentially standing still, with Abbott gaining 7 points in a head-to-head match-up:
Davis has had a rough few months, having to correct and clarify some details of her biography, fend off criticisms from progressives who balked at her position on open carry gun laws (she favors them) and what seemed like a reversal or softening of her stance on abortion.
More recently, she has gone negative, trying to gain some traction by painting Abbott as bosom buddies with Nugent, who made off-color remarks about President Obama.
And while her national platform has been a boon to her campaign coffers, it is not without a downside.
“She has to be very strategic with currying donors in San Francisco and New York and trying to create an image of a moderate Democrat with Texas voters because Texas voters are not going to elect a liberal, ” said Mark Jones, who heads the political science department at Rice University. “The only way she narrows the gap with Republicans is being seen as a pragmatic centrist, not a liberal icon.”
To do that, Davis would have to expand the electorate in Texas, which is a majority-minority state.
Former Obama campaign aides are crunching the numbers and targeting voters as part of Battleground Texas, an effort that is akin to rebuilding Texas’s barely there Democratic Party infrastructure, an expensive proposition.
As her election night speech suggests, she has made education the focus of her campaign, unveiling a series of policy proposals in speeches around Texas, focusing on putting more teachers in the classroom and increasing teacher’s pay.
Abbott has also focused on education in his race.
Over the next weeks, Davis aides said she plans to travel to Austin, Houston and East Texas and focus on education, the economy and jobs.
John Weaver, a Texas-based Republican strategist said that Davis needs to sharpen her message to bread and butter issues that matter to Texans.
“She is a terrific talent and she has a bright future, there is no doubt about that. But she has run a very uneven campaign,” Weaver said. “She has gotten off track with social issues and her biography…she needs to be very disciplined and talk about public education, the drought and transportation and she is not doing that.”
Jones says this campaign is less about 2014 and more about seeding the ground for races down the line.
“She could change the nature of the game by making it close enough so that 2016 and 2018 comes into play and really that’s what it’s all about — the future direction of politics in Texas,” said Jones. “She can win by losing if she runs a strong campaign so people nationally and in Texas start to believe that Texas could turn blue. The key is organization.”