Let’s start by stating the obvious: It is hard for a Democrat to win statewide office in Texas today. Recently, Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from San Antonio, pointed out that Texas has gone longer than any other state in the union without electing a Democrat to high office. Which makes Wendy Davis’ ascent in the Texas governor’s race all the more impressive.
This week, a new poll showed Sen. Davis within just seven points of her Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott. The poll shows that 42 percent of Texas voters back Davis, compared to 49 percent for Abbott. Now, put in the context of the 2002 Texas gubernatorial election—in which Republican Rick Perry won by almost 18 points over his leading Democratic rival—and the seven percent gap between Davis and Abbott is impressive. In the context of previous polls that showed Abbott widening his lead over Davis, this new poll is even more stunning. Wendy Davis has a serious shot at becoming the next governor of Texas.
And it’s still early… Davis made news this week challenging Abbott’s lack of support for equal pay laws for women in Texas. In the fiscally conservative Lone Star State, the Davis campaign has pointed out that Abbott took a 62 percent raise at the expense of taxpayers while failing to support basic access to equal pay protections for women in the state. Smart contrasts like these will catapult Davis even higher in voter support, especially given that women voters statewide are still more likely to support Abbott than Davis (46 percent to 42 percent).
That women, who historically lean Democratic, are tipping toward Abbott is also a warning sign to Davis. After all, Davis shot to widespread notoriety for her 11-hour filibuster of legislation that would severely restrict access to abortion services in the state. On abortion rights, Texas voters side with Davis—according to June 2013 polling, 79 percent of voters believe that abortion should be legal and available under certain circumstances. And among independent voters, there’s a 19-point gap between men and women—41 percent of independent women think abortion should be legal and available, compared with 22 percent of men.
Yet notably, although her fervent support of abortion rights catapulted her to prominence—even super-stardom in some circles—Davis does not include women’s rights or any mention of her filibuster on her website. One might say her campaign’s emphasis on education and jobs is appropriately broadening her appeal, but I’ve spoken with activists in Texas who feel Davis is deliberately abandoning her women’s rights-focused base. And after I wrote a piece about Wendy Davis recently voicing support for a 20-week ban on abortions, her campaign reached out to me—not to tamp down concerns that Davis was abandoning her base but to clarify that Davis had always opposed later-term abortion access. At least the recent emphasis on equal pay laws is a step in the right direction, stoking the base that helped create Davis while simultaneously emphasizing more centrist economic issues. Hopefully Davis will realize that her pro-choice activist image is not a detriment to her election but her main asset, key to closing the gap with women voters who can put her over the top.
As a side note, I think there’s an odd sense of shame on the part of many Democrats who feel that “legitimate” political victory can only come through the votes of white working-class males. The idea of cobbling together victory through the disparate (though growing) support of white women and voters of color somehow seems to them like cheating a political insecurity clearly preyed upon by conservatives who insist that President Obama only won re-election in 2012 because of “low-information” (read: poor people of color) voters.
The new poll shows that 17 percent of independent voters in Texas are still undecided. Given the historic, unchallenged dominance of Republicans in the state, that 17 percent of independents are undecided speaks to the potential of the Davis campaign and the purple future of Texas. Under conventional Texas political circumstances, this race would already be sealed up for the Republican. The large swath of undecided voters and the narrowing of polling margins generally hints at the potential not only for Davis to win but for Texas to finally, thankfully shift from deep red to bright purple on the national political landscape. The whole notion of turning Texas purple isn’t based on political centrism but demographic polarization—as Texas becomes younger and more Latino, it’s becoming more liberal. Increasingly, to win office in Texas and across America, Democrats don’t have to ape some form of ideologically bland Clinton centrism but, in fact, be extra-liberal to play to the social progressivism and economic populism of the future of the American electorate.
I’m not saying Texas is 100 percent there yet, but I am saying that it’s headed in that direction—and Davis’ path to victory appears to hinge on bridging that transition, bringing along enough of the center-left working class white male vote while maintaining strong support among women and young people and the future of Texas politics. That her candidacy is faring as well as it is already is a sign of the bright purple Texas to come.