AUSTIN — After her easy victory in the Texas Democratic primary, Wendy Davis, one of the brightest stars of the 2014 campaign, is now embarking on her mission to win the governor’s office and revive her party’s fortunes in the heart of conservative America. Already, Texas politics has never seen anyone like her: a dynamo with a trailer park-to-Harvard Law story who makes nationwide donors swoon.
But Davis’ chances in the general election in November remain a longshot: she faces a Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, the state’s attorney general, who would be formidable even without the advantage of Texas’ solidly conservative electorate.
Abbott, who uses a wheelchair, has his own compelling against-the-odds biography, personal appeal as a campaigner and proven fundraising power. As the race restarts, he appears to have a significant edge in polls and fundraising.
Davis said she’s undeterred.
“I can see and feel, every day on the campaign trail, an energy in this state around my campaign that’s hard to describe. It’s not like anything I’ve seen in Democratic politics in the last couple of decades,” Davis said this week.
Others take a dimmer view.
“It’s not a race,” said Ford O’Connell, a Houston native and Republican strategist who was an adviser to U.S. John McCain’s presidential run in 2008. “Essentially this is more about Democrats saying they’re expanding the maps and making baby steps toward progress.”
Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth who vaulted to national Democratic stardom after lacing up pink tennis shoes for a nearly 13-hour legislative filibuster against new abortion restrictions, has attracted a whopping 91,000 individual donors since launching her campaign. She’s raised $16 million and, with constant national exposure, has the look of a contender.
But Abbott already has three times as much campaign cash, and has mostly kept pace with her more recent fundraising hauls. It’s the kind of edge Republicans have enjoyed in winning every governor’s race since 1994 as Texas politics shifted to the right.
Democrats — and Davis — are counting on the state’s booming Hispanic population and the increasingly younger electorate to help tilt the state in their favor. But that landscape is still years from significantly changing. Most Democratic strategists see 2020 as a turning point.
Even with the Hispanic population, Abbott is claiming inroads: his wife would become Texas’ first Hispanic first lady if elected.
Abbott’s well-funded campaign and polished style have helped allay any Republican concerns about the transition from Republican Rick Perry, who has served as governor since December 2000.
In his political positions, Abbott clenches a conservative fist — he boasts about his office suing the Obama administration 30 times and unapologetically campaigned with shock rocker Ted Nugent — but also connects with a likable touch.
Even a gay Texas man suing over the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, who befriended Abbott in law school, still exchanges Christmas cards with him.
“He’s a very nice and likable person. What he’s managed to overcome is commendable,” said Mark Phariss, referring to Abbott becoming paralyzed in 1984 after a tree fell on him during a jog.
Abbott, like Republicans elsewhere, intends to campaign hard against President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
Davis, once a single mother who worked two jobs and struggled financially, is making education the cornerstone of her campaign. Davis said she hopes to welcome President Barack Obama in April when he visits Texas, where he lost in 2012 by 16 points.
Asked how much she’ll talk to voters about women’s health and the divisive subject of abortion rights, Davis said she’s not shying away from the issue that propelled her to political stardom.
“That particular issue fits into a broader framework. This is about keeping family healthy,” Davis said.
Major groups supporting Davis include Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List, which have given six-figure donations. But Steve Mostyn, a Houston lawyer and one of the country’s biggest Democratic donors, who poured more than $3.5 million into the last Texas governor’s race in 2010, wouldn’t say how much he and others will be willing to commit to Davis.
“That money is there. And it will be there when we decide to go get it,” Mostyn said. “We just continue to watch other people lift the load.”
Some Texas voters are clearly intrigued by Davis.
James Walters, 67, a retiree in Houston who described himself as a fiscal conservative who would likely back Abbott, said he’ll be watching her campaign.
“It depends on what happens,” Walters said. “She might convince me.”