By Anna M. Tinsley, Fort Worth Star-Telegram (MCT)
FORT WORTH, Texas — She has defied long odds before.
But most analysts say her winning streak is about to end.
With early voting underway for the Nov. 4 election, state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth is in the home stretch of her all-but-impossible task: Persuading Texans to put a Democrat in the Governor’s Mansion after nearly two decades of Republican leadership.
To become the state’s 48th governor, she must best the well-known, heavily financed GOP nominee, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.
And while she has seen unlikely wins before in Tarrant County — knocking off established state Sen. Kim Brimer (R-Arlington) in her first bid for Texas Senate and winning an unlikely re-election bid over then-state Rep. Mark Shelton (R-Fort Worth) — experts and operatives in both parties agree pulling off a statewide surprise isn’t in the cards this time.
“Texas continues to be a very red state,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “Today, every Democratic statewide candidate starts off at around a 15-point disadvantage, a gap which is virtually impossible to overcome barring significant and visible unforced errors by their GOP rival.
“Wendy Davis’ odds of victory right now are at best 1-in-100, with only an almost unprecedented October surprise standing between Greg Abbott and victory,” he said. “The Davis campaign was a long shot the day she launched her candidacy and continues to be one today.”
That’s what pundits have predicted in past races Davis has run — and won, said state Rep. Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie), who is Davis’ campaign manager.
“That’s exactly what people said in 2008 and 2012, in Wendy’s two state Senate races,” he said. “She proved them wrong both times.
“People thought she couldn’t win, and she did it on the strength of having broad support.”
And he said she will do it again this time.
Republicans have long claimed Abbott is the heir apparent to Gov. Rick Perry. He has led in the polls and in fundraising, with the most recent reports showing he has $30 million to her $5.7 million in cash on hand.
When Davis entered the race, even Democrats said she faced an uphill battle in Texas, where their party last won statewide office in 1994 and hasn’t given their gubernatorial candidate more than 45 percent of the vote since Ann Richards won with 49 percent in 1990.
No matter what happens on Election Day, some local Democrats say they still believe in Davis.
“We knew that any Democrat — whether it was Wendy Davis or somebody else — who ran for governor would have an uphill battle,” said Steve Maxwell, a former Tarrant County Democratic Party chairman. “Heck, George Washington himself could come back to life, move to Texas, run as a Democrat and lose.
“I still think that it’s an uphill battle, but I’m not going to be one bit surprised that she pulls it off.”
Others have the utmost confidence in Abbott.
“He will be much better for Texas than Wendy Davis can be,” Shelton said. “I think he’s going to be a great governor.”
Other candidates on the ballot for governor are Libertarian Kathie Glass and Green Party candidate Brandon Parmer.
Davis has prevailed in races she wasn’t expected to win.
She beat a sitting Republican senator, Brimer, in 2008, in a district that had morphed into a “swing district,” meaning it could sway to either party depending on turnout.
That year, Brimer and others filed lawsuits claiming Davis wasn’t eligible to run for the Senate seat because she was still a City Council member when she filed to run. A state district court ruled she was an eligible candidate.
She won with 49.91 percent of the vote to Brimer’s 47.52 percent and Libertarian Richard A. Cross’ 2.56 percent of the vote.
“Kim Brimer did not run a strong campaign against Wendy Davis,” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “(And) a third-party candidate may have taken away some conservative votes that may have gone to Brimer.”
In 2012, she bested Shelton, a local pediatrician who was backed by Republicans across the state who wanted to reclaim Senate District 10 for their party.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was among those who campaigned for Shelton. “I would love to see a conservative that understands what we need to do” elected to that seat, Dewhurst said at the time. “I’ve got my fingers crossed that the next senator (for District 10 is) Mark Shelton.”
Davis claimed 51.12 percent of the vote to Shelton’s 48.87 percent.
Meanwhile, Abbott has won all of his statewide elections handily — first as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court and then as Texas’ attorney general.
His lowest margin of victory came in 2002, when he first ran for attorney general, and he bested Democrat Kirk Watson by claiming 56.72 percent of the vote.
His highest margin of victory came in 1996, when he was first on the ballot for the Texas Supreme Court, and he drew 84.10 percent of the vote. He was first appointed to the court by then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1995.
Some say Davis was helped in 2008 and 2012 because Barack Obama was at the top of the ticket and voters in Texas and nationwide flocked to the polls to weigh in on the historic elections.
Both years, more than 8 million Texans voted in the presidential elections, compared with the less than 5 million who generally cast ballots in the gubernatorial elections, state election records show.
“Wendy has never been on a ballot for state office when Obama was not at the top of the ballot,” Shelton said. “In 2012, I was running against Wendy. But I was also running against Obama. He was bringing out the votes.”
Turner noted that Obama did not win Senate District 10 either of those years.
“And she won anyway,” he said. “This is an election about who is going to lead Texas into the future. As much as Greg Abbott and others would like to make it about national politics, it’s about who is going to fight for our schoolchildren (and) equal pay for women, and who is going to clean up the culture of corruption in Austin.”
Obama isn’t on the ballot this year, but his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, has already recorded a radio ad encouraging voters to support Davis.
And former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — a Democrat and potential 2016 presidential contender — has sent out an email asking Democrats to support Davis and donate to her campaign.
Davis gained national attention last year from her more than 11-hour filibuster against a comprehensive abortion bill, helping propel her into the gubernatorial race.
But political observers say the massive number of people who focused on the Texas Capitol for the debate over that bill the night it died, and the night a few weeks later when it passed, may not be tuned in to politics right now.
Some say abortion — a controversial, divisive, highly emotional issue — could be the very issue that prevents some Texans from supporting her.
“Her filibuster hurt her more than she understands,” Shelton said.
For so long, Davis focused on other campaign issues — education, veterans, budget, transportation. Then, in September, she released a campaign memoir, Forgetting to Be Afraid, that noted she ended two pregnancies for medical reasons in the 1990s, bringing the issue full circle.
One was an ectopic pregnancy, where an embryo is outside the uterus, and in the other, the fetus had a severe brain abnormality.
Historically, more voters turn out for presidential than midterm elections.
Recent presidential elections drew 59 percent (2012), 63 percent (2008), 61 percent (2004) and 55 percent (2000) turnout nationwide, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy.
That’s compared with midterm elections that drew 42 percent (2010), 41 percent (2006), 41 percent (2002) and 39 percent (1998) nationwide.
Part of Davis’ strategy has long been to try to draw some of those presidential-election-only-voters out to the polls this year, Turner said.
“Turnout drops off across the board in every state in a non-presidential year,” he said. “A key part of our strategy in this campaign has been to reach out and engage Democratic voters who don’t typically vote in a non-presidential year.
“We know there are enough voters out there.”
The “margin of defeat” is always a big factor to both political parties, no matter who the victor is.
In 2010, Perry bested Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White, 55 percent to 42 percent. In 2006, he claimed 39 percent to win over Democrat Chris Bell (30 percent), independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn (18 percent) and independent Kinky Friedman (12 percent), state election records show.
And in 2002, Perry earned 58 percent over Democrat Tony Sanchez, who had 40 percent.
“The interesting aspect of this race is not whether or not Wendy Davis is going to lose,” Jones said. “There is no real doubt that she is going to lose, and really there never has been.
“If she loses by more than Bill White (12.7 percentage points) in 2010, then that will represent a serious political setback for both Davis and Texas Democrats.”
But if she reduces that margin, “then that would generate a virtuous circle of optimism, enthusiasm, expanding resources and higher candidate quality within the Texas Democratic Party, as well as place Davis (in) position for any future statewide political candidacy.”
Photo: The Texas Tribune via Flickr