The XX Factor

What Happened to Wendy Davis?

Wendy Davis, back when she was a hero to Texas Democrats.

Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Last year, Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis was a rising star, both in Texas politics and in the Democratic Party, after her awe-inspiring filibuster temporarily killed a draconian bill intended to shut down nearly all the abortion providers in the state. The bill later passed, but Davis was able to capitalize on her newfound national fame to launch a campaign for the governor’s seat.

On Tuesday night, Davis lost. This wasn’t a surprise, as Texas is very Republican—there hasn’t been a Democratic governor since Ann Richards was ousted by George W. Bush in 1994.* Perhaps, though, the point was never really for her to win (though that would have been nice). It was to use her celebrity to attract funding and talent for a much larger, long-term campaign called Battleground Texas, which supporters hope will turn deep-red Texas blue, or at least purple. 

The idea of turning Texas blue might seem far-fetched, but there’s actually good reason to believe it could work. The hyperconservative white voters who run the state aren’t actually representative of the population of Texas. Texas is a minority-majority state, with white people constituting less than 45 percent of the population and falling. So Battleground Texas set out to use the same campaign organizing tactics that worked so well for the Obama campaign in ’08 and ’12 to help move underrepresented groups to the polls. Davis was supposed to be the leading light, helping organize voters to win down-ticket races and hopefully create organizational structures for future Democratic wins in Texas. 

Battleground Texas’s first campaign season didn’t work out very well, as Tim Murphy of Mother Jones explains in his postmortem on the Davis campaign:

Battleground invested in a dozen state-legislature races, targeting House and Senate districts that will have to turn purple for anyone at the top of the ticket to have a chance—East Dallas, the Houston suburbs, and a South Texas seat held by a party-switching state representative. Democrats didn’t win a single one, and most of the races weren’t even close. In Harris County (Houston), where Democrats talked of tapping into the roughly 800,000 nonregistered potential voters, Davis lost by four points. (The Dem’s 2010 nominee, Bill White, won it by two.) In the final indignity, Democrats even lost Davis’ state Senate seat to a pro-life tea party Republican.

So what happened? Jay Root of the Texas Tribune, writing for the Washington Post, lays much of the blame at the feet of Davis herself. “But for more than a year, Democrats were crowing that with a well-funded turnout operation, Davis was the kind of candidate who could at least move the needle for the bedraggled party, which hadn’t won a statewide election since 1994,” he writes. “In one sense they were correct: She moved the needle, all right — backward.” He makes a persuasive case, arguing that Davis’ messaging was incoherent, that she insultingly ran away from Obama like that was going to fool anyone, and that she went so negative on her opponent Greg Abbott that it backfired. 

There were many problems with the Davis campaign, but the biggest was Davis’s fear of defining herself or taking a strong, clear stand on the issues. “Was she an Ann Richards progressive? A good ol’ gal moderate? Did she run away from Obama? Toward him?” Root asks. It seems the answer changed by the day. Even though Davis made her name literally standing up for abortion rights, at some points in the campaign she tried to minimize that. At other times, she got aggressive on the issue again. As Root chronicles, Davis had the same problem with gun control and tax incentives: Her story kept changing. Confusing voters isn’t a good way to get them to turn out for you.

Texas Republicans, Root reports, see their win  as not just a victory in 2014, but a permanent squashing of Battleground Texas. “There’s no question that in the last couple of weeks we changed our goal from winning to annihilating them,” Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri told Root. “When you obliterate the other side, there’s not much for them to say.”

But this isn’t just about organized Republicans crushing the incompetent Democrat. As Zachary Roth of MSNBC reported in the runup to the election, the new Texas voting laws passed by Republicans and upheld by the Supreme Court right before early voting started have had a dramatic impact on voting access for exactly the sorts of voters—young people and racial minorities—that Battleground Texas was hoping to organize. An estimated 600,000 registered voters in the state didn’t meet the minimum ID requirements to vote and while “a comprehensive drive to get IDs” was supposed to “come from the state,” Roth writes, the actual state outreach effort was basically non-existent. “By the end of August, it had given out just 279 IDs.” Organizing voters is an even harder uphill battle when your opposition has made it illegal for many of them to vote. 

In addition, Texas makes voter registration drives nearly impossible to run, especially on a statewide level. As the Brennan Center for Justice reported, Texas stands out as one of the four states with “the most restrictive laws.” The state requires anyone who wants to register people to vote to become a “volunteer deputy registrar,” which requires that you go through a training offered by your local county registrar, which is only required to hold one training a month. In addition, you can only register people to vote in the county where you were deputized. This functionally makes statewide voter registration drives impossible, a serious obstacle to organizations like Battleground Texas that are focused on getting new voters to the polls. Despite this, in its post-election press release, Battleground Texas highlighted the fact that they deputized 8,600 registration volunteers.

The organization highlighted other small victories in its press release, noting that voters under 30 were 14 percent of the vote this year compared to only nine percent in 2010, and nonwhite voters bumped up from 33 percent in 2010 to 34 percent in 2014. During a presidential election, Battleground Texas may be able to capitalize on their organizing efforts even more.

As for the Davis campaign, the lesson seems pretty clear: The only way to turn non-voters into voters is to give them something to actually vote for, even if that means taking bold stances that might run off moderate conservative. It’s Texas. You probably weren’t going to get them anyway. 

*Update, Nov. 6, 2014: This sentence has been updated to clarify when a Democrat was last governor of Texas.