By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times (MCT)
AUSTIN, Texas — In a corner near the bar at a popular taco restaurant, Wendy Davis was holding the floor.
One by one, a series of television reporters took turns asking the Democratic gubernatorial hopeful the same questions about her controversial TV ad featuring an empty wheelchair and portraying her handicapped opponent as a hypocrite.
One by one, Davis repeated the same response: how the spot was about the right to sue for big-money damages — as her rival did after being hit by a falling tree — and not about Republican Greg Abbott’s disability.
That unswerving verbal discipline and Davis’ marathoner stamina captivated onlookers around the world on a June night in 2013, when she seized the floor of the Texas Senate and talked nonstop for 11 hours to block tough anti-abortion legislation from passing. She became an instant celebrity.
Magazine covers. A book contract. A national speaking tour.
Capitalizing on her fame, Davis leaped into the governor’s race and raised tens of millions of dollars from supporters across the country.
There was talk — mostly outside Texas, it should be said — of a Davis-led ticket helping change the state’s political pigmentation from red to blue, all in one heady campaign.
That, however, seems improbable now, as Davis faces a steeply uphill race she seems likely to lose, along with the rest of the statewide Democratic slate. The only question, many say, is how badly Davis goes down and whether the margin will help or harm efforts to make Texas at least somewhat competitive for Democrats within the next decade or so.
Davis asserts she not only can but will win the governor’s race Nov. 4, noting she twice defied pundits and opinion polls in being elected to the state Senate from a Republican-leaning Fort Worth district. “I have overcome those kinds of odds before,” she said via cellphone between campaign stops in Houston.
But hers is a distinctly minority view. A Davis victory would be one of the great political upsets of this young century.
It was never going to be easy, notwithstanding Davis’ devout national following; winning hearts and minds on the liberal Westside of Los Angeles yields precisely zero votes in conservative West Texas.
But in many ways her celebrity outran her skills as a campaigner and the abilities of those surrounding her, leading to several early mistakes that compounded Davis’ difficulties.
Inaccuracies surfaced in her biography, stealing some of the glow from the teen-mom-goes-from-trailer-park-to-Harvard-Law-School narrative prominently featured in coverage of her filibuster. (It turned out Davis didn’t spend all that much time in a trailer park, was 21 at the time she divorced her first husband and received more financial and parenting support from her second husband than the narrative let on.)
Her message to Texas voters was a muddle, and the ineptitude of her press operation both angered reporters and kept them from covering campaign events, hampering Davis’ efforts to become known in this culturally conservative state for something beyond the abortion issue.
Many of those problems have been remedied and by most accounts Davis has improved as a campaigner. Still, she will never be mistaken for one of the characters — think of the swaggering Rick Perry, or rapier-tongued Ann Richards, to cite two colorful governors — that inhabit Texas political lore.
“She’s not animated in a way that gets larger with the stage,” said Bill Miller, a longtime lobbyist in Austin. “Put her in a hall with 500 people and that wow kind of goes away.”
But Davis is smart and substantive — even many critics grant her that, save those who demean the petite blonde with the label “Abortion Barbie.”
There are plenty of issues in the campaign and no end of disagreements between Davis and Abbott, the state attorney general — starting with abortion, which Abbott opposes in all instances, except when the life of a mother is in danger. (The abortion bill Davis temporarily blocked was eventually passed and signed into law by Perry, though portions have been held up in court.)
The two candidates differ over same-sex marriage, raising the minimum wage and whether Texas should issue driver’s permits to people in the state illegally — Davis favors all three, Abbott is opposed. They also clash over whether the state should accept federal money to expand Medicaid under the new health care law: Davis favors doing so, and Abbott backs Perry’s decision to decline the funds.
But those differences pale beside the brute reality of Texas politics. “Given the numbers, having an ‘R’ next to your name is tantamount to victory,” said Mark Jones, who teaches political science at Houston’s Rice University.
Pushing back, Davis has sought to disqualify Abbott with a harsh and relentlessly negative campaign, tying him to the cronyism that has taken root in Austin after years of one-party rule. (No Democrat has won statewide office since 1994.)
One attention-grabbing ad accused Abbott of “siding with a corporation over a rape victim,” citing his ruling as a state Supreme Court justice in a case involving damages awarded to a woman sexually assaulted by a door-to-door vacuum salesman.
That charge and others resurfaced in the wheelchair ad, which accused Abbott of denying victims of grievous bodily harm the same right to sue for damages he exercised after being left paralyzed while jogging through a Houston neighborhood in 1984.
Abbott’s campaign was quick to condemn the ad as desperate and “disgusting” and even some Democrats cringed, which led to Davis’ recent stop at Guero’s Taco Bar, where she was seated among a dozen supporters — seven in wheelchairs.
After a bit of stilted small talk for the cameras, Davis did her roundelay of media interviews. “I stand by the ad,” she told reporters. “The ad serves a single purpose and it is to call Greg Abbott out for his hypocrisy.”
The candidate’s struggles inside Texas — to defend her judgment, to spur Democrats to the polls, to convince people the governor’s race is not yet over — has dampened expectations the state will be turning blue anytime soon. But Davis continues to attract a large and adoring audience.
Cosmopolitan magazine this month offered a ringing endorsement, describing Davis as “an American icon” and “a role model for the many who work to build a big life from a difficult place.” In less than two weeks, the editorial was shared on social media 1.6 million times.
Photo: The Texas Tribune via Flickr